It was from a rōshi, a highly venerated senior teacher in Zen Buddhism, that retired Archbishop Michael Louis Fitzgerald learned that we can’t expect to have answers to all of our questions in life.
In fact, it is the questions which help direct our life’s quest and at the end of the day “you have to be able to live with your questions” even if they remain unanswered. This basically shaped Fitzgerald’s life, most of which was spent as a bridge-builder between Catholics and Muslims throughout the world. It became especially significant when he served for about 20 years in the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), first as its secretary and then president.
Fitzgerald was recounting these influences upon being bestowed the highest honor of Australian Catholic University, Doctor of the University (honoris causa), on May 5. This was “in recognition of his exemplary leadership, outstanding contribution, and profound impact on the Catholic Church’s commitment to interreligious relations and dialogue.”
Archbishop Christopher Prowse of Canberra, the Chair of the Australian Bishops' Commission for Ecumenism and Interreligious Relations, spoke on how the Vatican document Nostra Aetate had changed the attitudes of Catholics towards other religions. He then pointed to Fitzgerald as “being a significant player in the game-changing decades” following the Second Vatican Council. Remarking that the former PCID president is at once “deeply rooted to the Catholic tradition” and at the same time “very open to other religions,” Prowse added that “there was no hint of any of the –isms,” referring to syncretism and relativism, the two major pitfalls of those engaged in the ministry of interreligious dialogue.
Born in England, Fitzgerald joined the Missionaries of Africa, better known as the White Fathers, at a very young age. It was in Tunisia, when completing his training, that he became fascinated with the Muslim world and with Arabic culture and language.
Upon completing a doctorate in theology at the Gregorian University in the early 1960s, where his teachers included luminaries such as René Latourelle and Bernard Lonergan, Fitzgerald went on to study Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. During that period, he used to visit the Regents Park mosque. He felt so welcome and fully at home, that one day, the imam, an Islamic leader, turned to the congregation and said “Now, Father Michael will explain to us the Trinity in five minutes!” Fitzgerald politely declined and took that as a lesson that interreligious dialogue can never be about formulae or explanations but “must involve actual interaction and taking the time to truly appreciate the other’s beliefs and practices.” So he dedicated many years of his life to studying Tafsīr or Qur’anic exegesis and then teaching both Christian and Islamic theology to students in Uganda and other African countries.
Fitzgerald was assigned to Rome in 1971, where he served as the director of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies. In 1978 he returned to Africa to carry out pastoral work in Sudan. It was Pope John Paul II who appointed him to the PCID in 1987. He speaks of John Paul II as a “wonderful inspiration in interreligious dialogue,” a man who was “one hundred and ten percent Catholic and yet saw true values in the other religions.”
In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Fitzgerald Apostolic Nuncio to the Arab Republic of Egypt and representative to the Cairo-based Arab League. He retired from the Holy See’s diplomatic service in October 2012 and now lives and works at the White Fathers’ institution in Jerusalem.
Fitzgerald has an amazing capacity for grasping the vast and diversified panorama of religious situations in the world. Dominican Sr. Trish Madigan reflected that when Fitzgerald visited Australia he “impressed many of our Muslim dialogue partners with his knowledge of Islam” but most of all for the “unassuming, simple, and humble person” that he is. Fitzgerald believes that "Dieu rêve d'unité" ("God dreams of unity," the title of an interview he did with a French journalist). In the written words of Archbishop Felix Machado, his long-time undersecretary at the PCID, Fitzgerald is "always, a man of the Church; always, man for the world; always, a man deeply rooted in the faith he received at his baptism."
Professor Emeritus Tony Johns reminisced that Fitzgerald once told him “of a homily he gave on the Assumption. He reflected on life and thoughts of Mary, between the time of the Resurrection and the dormitio, knowing all that she had to do, she had done. The record is silent about it. We are left with the silence. And in the silence is mystery, the mystery of faith. Yet in the mystery there is hope. There are many silences and mysteries in life that shroud human hope. Archbishop Michael’s life and work leads to an uncovering of that hope. And so we honor him!”
[Edmund Chia is co-director of the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue and Senior Lecturer at the School of Theology at Australian Catholic University.]