Baltimore's Archbishop Lori, other faith leaders come to Rome with message of building bridges

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Several leaders of various faith communities working to heal civil unrest in Baltimore came to Rome this week in a pilgrimage to meet Pope Francis and seek his blessing in their efforts to work together in the Maryland city.

After meeting the pontiff together Wednesday morning, the members of the delegation said that they, like him, want to build bridges instead of walls.

The city's Catholic archbishop, William Lori, led the delegation to Rome alongside Muslim, Jewish and other Christian leaders.

Asked about how their efforts at inter-faith and inter-racial dialogue fit into the backdrop of the sometimes offensive and racially charged rhetoric of the U.S. presidential campaign, Lori said their work as religious leaders "involves professing our faith in such a way that we bring people together."

"It is distressing when you see a growing lack of civility, a growing tendency to play on people's fears, whether that comes from the right or the left," said the archbishop.

"It would be a beautiful thing if the political discourse could shift away from fear and division and move toward hope, and move toward healing, and move toward working for the common good," he said.

Lori was speaking in a brief NCR interview Wednesday afternoon alongside several of the other Baltimore faith leaders, who had come to Rome in what they described as "a sign of prayer-filled solidarity and in hopes of deepening their bonds of faith."

The archbishop was responding to a question about how he and the other leaders respond particularly to the rhetoric of Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.

Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden, who also made the trip to Rome, said that when Francis questioned Trump's Christianity during a press conference last month the language the pontiff used made him think of the situation in their Maryland city.

In a press conference aboard the papal flight to Rome following his six-day trip to Mexico in February, the pope criticized the Republican's plan to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, saying: "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges is not Christian."

Madden said that language made him think of communities in Baltimore that are only minutes apart, but experience a massive divide in standards of living.

"To me, that is the kind of bridges we should be interested in talking about," said the auxiliary bishop.

"To me, the most upsetting thing is that that situation exists in our city," he said. "And you talk about building bridges -- those communities should interact, should be together. One's not better than the other. That's what struck me."

Rev. Frank Reid III, pastor of Baltimore's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, said Francis had echoed the New Testament in criticizing Trump.

"The pope is staying on message," said Reid. "In Ephesians, Paul said that Jesus came to tear down the barriers that separated us. And so, the pope is staying on message, not attacking Trump but Trump's message, [which] is always a message of attack, of anger, of division."

The protestant minister also said that their pilgrimage to Rome together "means that one Lord, one faith, one baptism is becoming a reality in our time."

"To have Lutherans, Methodists, the Jewish community, the Islamic community all coming together and being asked to pray for [the pope] and with him as he does the work is another example of staying on message," said Reid. "And that message is to tear down walls that separate."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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