Last week, I was on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral with Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis, who has become a good friend this last year. The Rabbi and I were among other religious leaders in support of legislation proposed by Senator Jeff Klein to tighten the laws punishing those who would vandalize or deface a church, synagogue, or mosque.
Rabbi Potasnik related the story of the arrival of his Jewish grandparents decades ago. The neighbors who welcomed them most warmly, he recalled, were the sisters at the local Catholic parish. Without the warm embrace of those nuns, Rabbi Potasnik concluded, his grandparents would have felt excluded, isolated, and unwelcome in their new neighborhood.
Doesn’t surprise me at all. The Catholic Church in America has a well-deserved reputation of hospitality to outsiders. That is readily understandable, since we ourselves were (and sometimes still are) considered aliens and foreigners. In the 1850’s, for instance, prominent American leaders such as Lyman Beecher and Samuel F. B. Morse warned society about hordes of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Germany, the Italian Peninsula, and Poland. These foreigners, Beecher, Morse, and company warned, were un-American, from a strange religion led by a fanatic in Rome, who wanted to impose their tyrannical beliefs on the United States, and even destroy American democracy, by violence, if necessary.
We laugh at that caricature now, but it certainly made Catholics, at their best, embracing of newly-arrived immigrants and religious groups in our country and neighborhoods.
We Catholics are welcoming to the outsider, not only because of our own experience of sometimes being scorned in the past, but also because our faith teaches it. As Pope John Paul II remarked during his visit to a mosque in Syria, “We are all members of the one human family, and, as believers, we have obligations to the common good, to justice, and to human solidarity.” He and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, even went-to-bat for the Islamic community in Rome in their yearnings to build the first mosque in Rome.
And we Catholics are hospitable to newcomers, not just because we faced hostility and closed-doors in the past, not only because our Church teaches this value, but because we are loyal Americans. Our beloved country is predicated on religious freedom, toleration, and the innate dignity of every human person, regardless of race, ethnic background, or religion. And we New Yorkers have been a sterling example of making genuine the words of hope held out by the Statue of Liberty.
This is hardly “pie-in-the-sky,” but very timely. We now have controversy surrounding the hopes of our newly-arrived Islamic community to build a mosque downtown, and to purchase an empty convent on Staten Island as a center for study and community life.
Legitimate and understandable concerns about these two endeavors have arisen, and it is good these are being aired and discussed. Please God, such airing and discussion will be done with charity and civility, and reach a peaceful resolution.
Yes, it is acceptable to ask questions about security, safety, the background and history of the groups hoping to build and buy.
What is not acceptable is to prejudge any group, or to let fear and bias trump the towering American (and for us Catholics, the religious) virtues of hospitality, welcome, and religious freedom.