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Building a Foundation for Interfaith Understanding

Issue XIX
June 2014
Building a Foundation For Interfaith Understanding
with Children in the 3-6 and 6-9 Atriums of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is unswervingly and faithfully Christocentric. However, the context of this catechesis is increasingly a world in which we encounter people of other faiths throughout our lives. Preparation for this reality lies in a careful and loving presentation of our Christian tradition that does not preclude God’s love and respect for people of other traditions. Anita Vincent, who grew up in India, invites catechists for children ages 3-9 to consider the interfaith implications of the presentations of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in Level I and Level II.

Anita Vincent has been involved in CGS for 9 years and has experience in working with children from ages 3-9. Currently, she works in a multi-denominational Christian as well as a multi-religious setting, as the director of the CGS program at Grace Montessori School, Allentown, PA. She is an adjunct faculty at Aquinas Institute of Theology, St. Louis, MO. 

The Need for Interfaith Understanding 

We live in the midst of widespread violence, with the world’s religions used to fan the flames of prejudice and war. But there is hope. These religious traditions also emphasize harmony and peaceful co-existence, calling for a departure from revenge, war and violence and promoting a commitment to peace from its faithful.  If we, the followers of these different religions, can together find the strengths in each of our traditions, and the common ground on which we all stand, then we could forge the way to peace more effectively. We can acknowledge, and be open, to the truth that is present in every religious tradition. However, this task can end in an impasse (not to mention bitterness) as a result of misunderstanding others, due to an ignorance of their perspective. It is easy to see how this could happen from the following excerpt from Nerburn’s book Neither Wolf nor Dog (an Indian elder bares his heart to a white man; p. 47-49): 

These new people started asking us for the land….They wanted to give us money for the land….Then something happened that we didn’t understand. The people who came said that we didn’t belong here anymore. That there was a chief in Washington...they said the land was his, and he had said they could live here and we could not…here is what was really happening. They were talking about property. We were talking about the land…They came here to get their own property. We didn’t know this. We didn’t even know what it meant. We just belonged to the land. They wanted to own it…Your people did not know about the land being sacred. We did not know about the land being property. We could not talk to each other because we did not understand each other.  

It is clear that the channels for dialogue have to be open, and it becomes a responsibility for anyone who engages in such a dialogue that they make an attempt to understand the other’s perspective. As with any formation of the human heart, this dialogue would be most effective when initiated at a young age. Thus, raising children with an openness to and tolerance towards “the other”, while being strong and grounded in one’s own religious tradition is essential to the future of this work for peace.  

In the Level I Atrium of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd 

In the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the catechist is a guide in forming the heart and mind of the child starting at the age of three. Just as moral formation is imparted from this age in an indirect manner, openness to other religions and ways of living could also be indirectly fostered in the very young child. There are several presentations in Level I that could serve this purpose. The catechist need not explore the interfaith potential of these presentations in Level I atrium, but she can avoid narrow or exclusive interpretations to that this potential may be realized when the children are older. 

The Parable of the Good Shepherd  

In this parable the image of Jesus embracing all of humanity in the same way that the shepherd watches over and takes care of each of his sheep is most touching. When asked who this Good Shepherd is, most children reply, “God”, and not Jesus, even though we begin the presentation with, “Jesus said, ‘I am the Good Shepherd…’”This indicates that the child’s understanding may be more expansive and insightful, even if unconsciously so. The children also explore who the sheep are. This question is not answered in the parable itself. At first, the sheep are just sheep. Later the children may begin to connect them to their family or friends. By age five or so, most children answer as expansively as possible: it’s everyone, even people who have died. No national or religious requirement need be met to be a sheep of the Good Shepherd. The image is universal for most children. The catechist, in refraining from any interpretive narrative, and in letting the child meditate on and interpret the Scriptures, can leave open the possibility for the child to identify all peoples of the world as the sheep, even as they identify themselves as a sheep.  

This parable presents the potential for future cosmic and interreligious education and dialogue in v.16: I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd. The Judeo-Christian tradition is both unique and universal. As we revisit this parable with the older children, we could reconsider the image, asking, “Does God belong to Jews alone? Does God not belong to Gentiles, too? Yes, also to Gentiles, for God is one” (Rom. 3:29-30).

Gesture of Peace

This is perhaps the most explicit of the Level I presentations that points towards inclusiveness and peace. While it is presented as being part of the Liturgy, it is a form of a universal sign, used in many different religions and cultures, especially in the context of friendship and forgiveness.  

The Kingdom of God Parables

Using creation signs available to all people, Jesus points towards the Kingdom of God. The mustard seed, the leaven and the grain reveal the power and ability of God in all of life to grow and to transform. The Precious Pearl and Hidden Treasure point to the beauty and value of the Kingdom of God. These parables could open the door to the identification of God’s power and beauty present in all peoples and religions. Just as God has revealed a facet of Godself to all peoples according to their ability to see and understand, the child will in time, come to recognize God’s all-embracing nature. As catechists, it is up to us not to erase that potential by saying anything exclusionary at this stage.  

Mystery of Life and Death 

To the young child, this is presented to help them explore what happens to the body upon death, in the context of the Christian belief in risen life. The older child can take this meditation further, after being given information (in small increments) about how other religions have wrestled with this mystery. For example, the Katha Upanishad (Part 1(1):v.18) says: 

The Soul is eternal and immutable.

When the body dies, the Soul does not die. 

If the slayer believes that he can kill,  

Or the slain believes that he can be killed 

Neither knows the truth. The eternal Soul 

Slays not, nor is ever slain. 

The beliefs about resurrection and eternal life vary among the different sects of Muslims and Jews. The child’s awareness could be raised to the fact that everyone has been trying to understand this great mystery, and then invited to reflect on how the view of Christianity is unique (or not).  

Preparation of the Chalice 

To the young child, this mystery of humanity sharing in Christ’s divinity as Christ shared in our humanity brings great joy. They perceive that the water represents not only Christians, but all of humanity. 

The older child could be led into the discussion of how other religions, such as Hinduism and Islam proclaim a similar union of humanity with God, even though for them God does not necessarily share in our humanity. The child could be guided to explore the similarities and differences in the various traditions. 

Genuflection 

This gesture of worship and reverence is unique to some Christian traditions. However, a sign or gesture of obeisance to God is universal. It could be a bow, a bringing together of the palms of the hands, prostration, etc. While the younger child is not ready for this information, the older child could be introduced to the fact that all peoples, from all religions, make a particular gesture of reverence during their worship, and invited to reflect on the common humility of all of humankind before the Holy One. 

Gesture of Epiclesis/Offering 

The gestures that accompany the prayers calling down the Holy Spirit upon the gifts at the altar, and the offering of those gifts along with ourselves can be quite engaging to the young child. These concepts, if not the particular gestures and prayers, are almost universal. Most religions in the world offer God a gift of something meaningful, and invoke divine intervention in order to render their offering blessed and sacred. This conceptual unity that is shared by many religious traditions can be new information for an older child, making her able to see through the layers of ritual to the actual intention.  

Liturgical colors

The young child is introduced to the colors used in the Liturgy during the liturgical year and the significance of each color is briefly explained. This helps the child participate with more engagement in the Liturgy.  

As the colors in the church and atrium follow the liturgical year, a change in color could be used as an opportunity to deepen the child’s knowledge of the significance of these colors in Christianity, and at the same time, to expand the child’s awareness of the significance of   colors in the practices of other religions.  

In Judaism: Blue is the color that is used on the threads of their prayer shawl (tallit) as commanded by God in Numbers 15:38-41. This blue thread helps them to think about the blue sky, and thus, God. In some rabbinical interpretations, blue is the color of divine revelation, and therefore, a very important color. Purple is considered to be a symbol of power and glory, hence used for royalty. Purification from sin was also denoted by purple. Red or crimson is the color of blood, and symbolized both sin (Is. 1:18) and covenant (Ex. 24:8), and also virtuousness (Proverbs 31:21) and wine (Proverbs 23:31). The color white symbolizes purity and life.  

In Hinduism: Blue is an important color in Hinduism too. It is the color of creation, and hence of Divinity. It also symbolizes courage, character and serenity. White represents sanctity and purity. It is also the color of peace and wisdom. But it can be used for mourning, and as a sign of renunciation of the world. Red is a most auspicious color, and is much used in the sacred rituals. It is symbolic of power, courage and love of humanity. The most important color in Hinduism is saffron, symbolizing holiness. Saffron, being the color of fire, is considered to be purgative, representing abstinence and piety. Green signifies prosperity, joy and steadfastness. Yellow is the color of knowledge and competence.  

In Islam: Green is believed to be the color of God’s creation, and hence represents life. The Qur’an also mentions that those in heaven will be dressed in green. White   symbolizes purity and light, like the other traditions above.  

In the Level II Atrium of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd 

When the child enters the Level II atrium, his hunger for knowledge about the world around him is great, and he wants to know his role in this world that he seeks. As we present this child with God’s plan for all time in the Fettuccia and a guide for his own role in the moral parables and the Maxims, there is a great potential for the gradual introduction of the ways other religious traditions have thought about these same questions about God and morality. In Level II the children’s focus remains primarily on Jesus and Christianity, but the interfaith possibilities of these lessons can be developed after age eight, if narrow interpretations have been avoided. 

True Vine 

The image of the universality of the vine can help the child embrace everyone regardless of religious adherence or ethnic origin. Also, we talk about the interconnectedness of all the branches, and that can help the child understand that the impact of our thoughts and actions are much more far reaching than immediate family and friends, especially when we re-visit this at a later time. Another aspect of this presentation that holds potential for acceptance of all, is the fact that we are all weak and do things to “block the sap”, but with prayer and reconciliation that sap will flow again. While we mean the Sacrament of Reconciliation here, it could also mean reconciliation in the very broad sense of being reconciled with all of our brothers and sisters, of every possible way. 

Prophecy of the Peaceable Kingdom (Is.11:6-9) 

The vision of animals with great differences in size, diet, temperaments co-existing in peace is a powerful foundation for peace in the human family, where those with different opinions, different religious beliefs, and different ethnicities can co-exist in peace.  

The Unity of the Kingdom of God 

This long ribbon representing sacred history seems to resonate with children of all faith traditions, especially those from the monotheistic traditions. Even though we talk about Jesus in the time of Redemption, the time of Creation and Parousia mention only “God” and there is an openness (or should I say wideness) to the concepts presented there that could comfortably encompass the stories of all religious traditions, of their beginnings and their hopes for the end of time. God’s love for the human family is lifted up in the way God prepared all of Creation for us. The child sees the love of God as given to everyone, without restraint or exclusion. 

History of the Gifts 

This material reveals both the gifts of God in all of creation and the gifts of humankind in their transformation of these gifts into our food, shelter, clothing, etc. We talk about the gift of the human family during this presentation that so beautifully lifts up the abundance of God’s giving. In this human family are those that hold to different religious beliefs than our own, but they ARE a gift nevertheless. So we treasure all people and do not treat them with indifference, or worse, treat them with disrespect and violence.  

Also, in all of God’s abundance, God is revealed in many different ways to different parts of the human family, and each culture receives and worships the Holy One according to that revelation. In the perception and the worship of God as the Creator of all, we become brothers and sisters. And as Nerburn says in Neither Wolf nor Dog (p. xii): “Brothers and sisters don’t have to understand each other; they don’t even have to like each other. But they have to trust each other and stand by each other.” And so we may not understand another religion, especially the cultural nuances that it holds, and we may not like what they say, or think, or just simply dislike them, but in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to a greater commitment to community, to social justice and world peace. 

The Maxims

The great commandment, to love God with all our hearts and minds and to love our neighbor, forms the heart of the maxims, and is universal to all the religions, whether expressed explicitly, or followed as an implicit law or way of life. The Bhagavad Gita says:  

Who does my work and sets me above all 
And worships me without desire 
And has no hate for any being 
He comes to me. (11.55) 

And the Golden rule (Matthew 7:12) is found in Islam as: 

Anas narrated that the Prophet said: “None of you will have faith till he  
wishes for his brother what he likes for himself.”  
(Al-Bukhari, Volume 1, Hadith #12) 

Many of these moral maxims are rooted in the Jewish tradition and the Old Testament. There   are many parallels to the maxims, especially in the Wisdom literature.  

After the initial presentations of the maxims as moral guides for the child, the work can later be expanded to introduce the older child to the ways that other religions urge one towards greater virtue and holiness. There is a great potential in these to tie together the moral teachings of other religious traditions and to find similarities and common ground.  

Liturgical calendar

As the child progresses from Level I to Level II, the presentation of the liturgical calendar imparts more information that leads the child to a better understanding of the process by which the dates for Easter and Pentecost are determined. It also gives the child a sense of the cyclical nature of the liturgical year that matches the cyclical character of Nature. Gradually, the child can be made aware of how many other religions use cues from Nature, such as the movements of the moon and the sun, and the seasons, to determine their own feasts and holy days. These then form the core around which their “liturgical” calendars are structured. Again, this helps the child recognize a basic commonality with other religions, as well as the uniqueness of our own tradition.  

Conclusion 

These are some of the presentations that hold potential for a deeper and broader education of children, as future prophets for peace in our torn world. Beyond these, however, our very lives, in everything that we do and say, educate our children. In contemplating these possibilities with the children, we too can personally commit ourselves to this mission of peace and non-violence.

As St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, God is not limited to being the God of any one nation or people (Rom. 3:29-30). The God we believe in wants all peoples of this earth to be united to God and to that end, God has revealed Godself in the ways people are able to receive God most clearly. The commonness that we perceive in the religions of the world is because God is One and God’s truth is the same. Each culture has seen the aspect of God revealed to them and worshipped God in their own ways. Nobody can possess God; rather, everyone is still searching for God and as Donovan, a missionary to the Masai, says to an African tribal elder who questions him about whether he (as a representative of Western Christianity) has found God: No, we have not found the High God...For us, too, he is the unknown God. But we are searching for him…Let us search for Him together. Maybe, together, we will find Him.” 

References

Donovan, Vincent J., Christianity Rediscovered. 2003. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, U.S.A.

Occassional Papers is a publication of the Center for Children and Theology

Editors:

Catherine Maresca
Kristi Medley

Production Editor:

Kristi Medley

This paper is copyrighted and may  not be reproduced in whole or in part without the publisher's writter permission.