A man of dialogues

03 March 2021
Michael Louis Fitzgerald was one of the Vatican’s leading contacts to the Islamic world. The life path of the International Eucharistic Congress’ guest speaker could be taken as a sort of preparation for this mission already since his early childhood.

Michael L. Fitzgerald was born in August 1937 in the United Kingdom, into a Roman Catholic family of Irish descent. As from his early age he desired to become a missionary priest. He was fairly young when he was first encountered with the questions of tolerance towards each other, and the spirit of openness for interreligious dialogue. He was raised in an environment where he could make far more than just Irish or Catholic friendships.

A childhood dream has become true

He started his studies at the age of 12 in the community of the Missionaries of Africa, also known as “The White Fathers”, so to get closer and closer to realising his dream. Upon his ordination to priesthood he studied in the Netherlands, later on in Tunisia, where he has learned Arabic. He was relatively young, 35 years old only, when he was enabled to present his viewpoints on Interreligious Dialogue, already in his capacity as a consultor in the Vatican.

Mission for religious harmony

Michael L. Fitzgerald served many years as a professor of the Department of Religious Studies at the University in Kampala, Uganda. Upon his return to Rome, given his extensive experiences gained along the long mission period he spent in Africa, he became the Vatican’s leading expert on Islam and the Qur’an. In 1978 he moved again to Africa, where he was carrying out pastoral work, as a parish priest in Sudan. In 1992 he received episcopal ordination, then in 2002 was appointed Archbishop of Nepte, Tunisia.

Career path with capricious switches

His role also covered the position of Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, then was promoted to the President that of. In 2006 Pope Benedict XVI appointed him as Apostolic Nuncio of Cairo, Egypt and Delegate to the League of Arab States. In light of the Pontiff’s tightened concept in relation to the Islam, this papal decision has caused a stir within the Church itself, tipping whether this appointment was the demotion, or the recognition of the Archbishop’s committed and hard work. Anyway, following the Pontiff’s famous Regensburg speech in the fall of 2006, which had sparked widespread international outrage, Michael L. Fitzgerald had a significant role to play in achieving that Pope Benedict XVI could temper the thereby developed tense situation with the leaders of the Muslim-majority countries. As for the context “faith and reason”, the Holy Father’s famous Regensburg lecture quoted Manuel II, Byzantine emperor’s speech that had contained a harsh criticism of the Islamic faith. The lecture generated a hail of disapproval and provoked a great outcry. Shortly thereafter, Pope Benedict XVI held a meeting with Muslim Envoys from 22 Muslim - majority states, as well as with the Leaders of the Muslim communities in Italy. The assembled envoys thanked with applause and expressed their satisfaction over the Pontiff’s intention for the dialogue, which had been clearly addressed along the meeting.

The home returning

Until his retirement, Michael L. Fitzgerald had settled in a missionary community in Jerusalem, then returned to his native England. Currently he lives and serves in Liverpool, in the very city where the oldest mosque of England is located, and where the first Chinatown of Europe has been formed. According to him it is of high importance for the Church to let himself and his teachings be shown to all those being unaware of it.

“The Church is always outward-looking. Jesus has created the Church as a sign of God’s love for all people.”

Having been elevated to the rank of Cardinal was a great surprise for the Wallsall born priest. When Pope Francis announced his name amongst the newly appointed cardinals, Michael Fitzgerald happened to preach in an Anglican church, at a service commemorating the merchant seamen who died in World War II. The great news on his creation as Cardinal reached him only on his return to the White Father’s community centre, where his confreres welcomed him with a celebration. “The Fathers themselves had got a call on the good news from a neighbouring parish priest, who had heard the Angelus, and the afterwards announcement of Pope Francis.” –recalled the day Father Fitzgerald. As to him it was of particular significance that in 2019 the red hats were given to prelates serving in Muslim-majority cities.

As he worded: “Many signs are demonstrating Pope Francis’ views on taking the interreligious relations as a key important issue. I would hereby mention the Pontiff’s prayer at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, where he was also accompanied by Rabbi Skorka and Imam Abboud. As an outcome of the good relations between Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University and Mosque, a joint declaration, known as ‘Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together’, has been signed in Abu-Dzabi,” a real milestone in the Christian-Muslim interconnections.

Bridge building and care taking

Archbishop Emeritus of Nepte, Tunisia – turning 84 this year – is looking positively to his new role and the work that comes with, and hopes he can actively fulfil his duties in Liverpool.

“I expect numerous invitations and I do hope that being a Cardinal won’t stop the good old people who already know me for a while. I do not want to make a fuss. I would like to remain the same simple person, and I do think Pope Francis is a perfect model that of.”

Michael Fitzgerald emphasized that his mission is not all about setting up new relations, but also to preserve and care for the already existing bonds. “We have already built bridges, but its structure needs everlasting care to keep them strong. We can never consider a relationship as all ready. We can never stop working on a relationship, since people are changing, one walks away and newcomers step in, thereby forcing us to start everything all over again.”

Last October was marked by a memorable event in the Mindszenty Hall of the Hungarian House in London (also known as St. Steven’s House), where the new British Cardinal celebrated a thanksgiving Holy Mass. Prominent Church dignitaries have made hand-written notes on their visit in the guest book of the St. Steven’s House, London, and closed the Holy Mass with a joint prayer for the beatification of Cardinal József Mindszenty.

Source: romereports, repository, cbcew, thetablet, cruxnow, magyarkurír

Photo: National Catholic Register