Champion of inter-faith dialogue is new Cardinal in our midst

Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald in conversation

‘Christians and Muslims together make up about half of the world's population. If we can live in peace and harmony together, then this will be a great gift for the world.’

Listen to the interview in full

For Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, Sunday 1 September began with a visit to the Anglican parish of Our Lady and St Nicholas, just a stone’s throw from the Pier Head, to preach at a service for Merchant Navy Day. It was only on his return to St Vincent de Paul’s, the Liverpool parish he now calls home, that the news reached him that he had been made a Cardinal by Pope Francis.

‘I came home and was welcomed by two members of my community,’ he recalls. ‘They embraced me, and I didn't know why. They then gave me the news which they themselves had heard from a neighbouring parish priest.’
For the Walsall-born 82-year-old, his elevation to the College of Cardinals – to be sealed in Rome on 5 October – marks the culmination of a rich life in the Church and reward for his significant role as a leading expert on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations.

‘I retired in 2012, and so I really thought the time had passed,’ he admits of an appointment that had seemed rather more likely when the then Pope, St John Paul II, made him president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) in 2002. ‘It was expected that I would be made a Cardinal, but I was not among the 21 Cardinals created by the Pope in October 2003, and this was the last consistory of his pontificate. In 2006 Pope Benedict appointed me nuncio in Egypt, and normally nuncios are not Cardinals.’

Instead, it has happened now. Archbishop Michael’s age means he is not eligible to vote in a papal conclave and he says, humbly: ‘I really don't know what impact my being a Cardinal will have. I hope it will be a help and not a hindrance. We just have to wait and see, but by that I mean to continue to work in the same way, with confidence, patience and perseverance.’

Missionary of Africa
These qualities have served him well on the long road travelled since his dream of becoming a ‘priest and a missionary’ led him to join the Missionaries of Africa, or White Fathers as they are otherwise known.

‘I had the privilege of being sent to Carthage, in Tunisia, for the study of theology prior to ordination,’ he explains of the catalyst for his interest in Islam. ‘Having lived in a majority Muslim country for four years, I volunteered for the apostolate among Muslims, mentioning Nigeria first and Tunisia second. I was in fact sent to Rome for further studies in theology, but eventually I was asked to join the staff of the institute our society had founded for training people for work among Muslims – what is now the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies.’

Father Michael would serve as rector there from 1972–78, following spells lecturing in Rome and Kampala. He remembers: ‘Pope Paul VI, who guided the Second Vatican Council to its conclusion, in his first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, had insisted that the Church must be in dialogue with all people. He set up the Secretariat for Non Christians in 1964 even before the declaration on the relations of the Church with the followers of other religions, Nostra Aetate, had been promulgated. He welcomed the Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies when it was transferred from Tunis to Rome. So there was great official backing for our work. Yet there was still much to do to convince Catholics that dialogue with people of other religions is in accordance with our faith in Jesus Christ.’

His CV underlines his place at the forefront of those efforts: he served on the General Council of the Missionaries of Africa from 1980–86 and then was appointed secretary of the Secretariat for Non Christians – later to become the PCID. In 1992, he was ordained as titular Bishop of Nepte in Tunisia while retaining his position as secretary. Ten years later came his appointment as PCID president with the consequent raise of rank to Archbishop.

Of his work at the Council, he says: ‘Our role at the PCID was to stimulate good relations at local level. Sometimes we had good responses from local hierarchies but not always, so one challenge was to keep going in our efforts to persuade people in authority, bishops and others, to engage in interreligious relations. To do this we had to give an example by organising meetings. Pope Saint John Paul II gave a great lead through the Meeting of Prayer for Peace, held in Assisi in October 1986.

‘A challenge for us is that the other religions are not organised in the same way as the Catholic Church, so there is not in each religion a hierarchy to which we can relate. There is rather a multiplicity of religious leaders. This meant multiplying the contacts, and with a limited staff this was quite a strain for the council. Another challenge, of course, is prejudice, particularly against Muslims. We were always striving to overcome these prejudices.’

The timing of his posting to Cairo as Papal Nuncio in 2006 brought other challenges. ‘I must admit that Pope Benedict's speech in Regensburg in September 2006, and his discourse to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See in January 2007 – a discourse which, I must add, was misinterpreted – aroused tensions in the relations with Muslims, and for a long time I was practically a persona non grata to the government authorities in Egypt. Yet the work continued, and I did my best.’

And he continues to do his best for what he considers a vital cause. ‘Christians and Muslims together make up about half of the world's population,’ he says. ‘If we can live in peace and harmony together, then this will be a great gift for the world.

‘There is also the fact that with today's mobility, there is hardly any region of the world where Christians and Muslims do not come into contact. It is important that we know one another, and respect one another, and that we work together to face up to the problems that exist in our world today. I am thinking of the attitude towards migration, the safeguarding of creation, the questions posed to us by advances in biotechnology, and so many other great matters of concern.’

And for Archbishop Michael, Pope Francis – whom he will meet in Rome at the consistory – provides an example to us all. ‘There is an extraordinarily positive attitude towards Pope Francis among religious leaders of the world, and indeed also among people who have little or no religious feeling,’ he affirms. ‘Pope Francis is leading us and giving us courage to follow him along the path of dialogue.’

His own example, of course, as a decades-long advocate for dialogue is worth heeding too. And since arriving in Liverpool last year, he has carried it on. ‘I was happy to take part in the big Iftar at the waterfront during Ramadan,’ he says, ‘and look forward to many more contacts with the Muslim communities and with people of other religions.’ He also regards Liverpool as a place which ‘makes the stranger, or the newcomer, more at ease’, and in this sense it seems fair to say this new Cardinal and his new(ish) city are rather well suited.