The olive tree wheeled into the sanctuary of Our Lady of Prompt Succor Church in Westwego was a powerful symbol of unity as locals of various faith traditions gathered for the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ “Interfaith Service for the Year of Mercy.”
“We come together as one people, united in faith, to praise our God,” said Archbishop Gregory Aymond, welcoming the diverse congregation of about 250 to the Nov. 2 event entitled “Mercy is a Bridge” in honor of Pope Francis’ Jubilee Year metaphor for human beings’ solid link to divine forgiveness.
Filling the pews were members of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Baha’i faith communities.
“Mercy is the bridge that leads us to God. Mercy is the bridge that leads us to one another,” Archbishop Aymond said, adding, “Mercy is the bridge that allows us to pray together.”
Mercy a two-way bridge
Dominican Father David Caron, the archdiocese’s vicar of evangelization, delivered the evening’s main reflection, observing that the world’s predominant faiths share the belief in a God who, despite man’s repeated sinfulness, remains “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, with abounding and steadfast love and faithfulness.”
The priest also reminded congregants that no one is ever the sole purveyor of mercy; each of us can only share mercy because we ourselves have been previous recipients of it.
“A bridge often has traffic going in more than one direction – and isn’t that the same thing with God’s mercy? God has mercy on us first, even when we don’t deserve it,” Father Caron said. “As both receiver and then (hopefully a) sharer of mercy, we need to be poor in spirit, realizing that meekness is not weakness. Acknowledging our hunger and our thirst for God and intentionally deciding to be peacemakers – that’s what we’re going to find on the bridge!”
Be a proactive mercy-giver
The “bridges of mercy” metaphor also is apt because bridges sometimes are places of daunting “in-betweeness” – those moments in which we need God’s and our neighbors’ mercy the most, Father Caron said.
“Bridges can remind us that sometimes in our lives, we are neither ‘here’ nor ‘there.’ We are neither ‘this’ nor ‘that,’” he said. “(They are) places where we are unsure if we belong, uncertain, untrusting, maybe even fearful at times.”
When we are in those “in-between” places of grief, isolation, loneliness, confusion and despair, it can be difficult or even impossible to move from one side of the bridge to the other, said Father Caron, asking congregants who might know a neighbor experiencing such paralysis: “Are you willing to walk with them like God?”
“No matter where we find ourselves – on the on-ramp, or the off-ramp, or smack dab in the middle of the bridge – we are not alone. God, the merciful one is with us; God is there before us and God will be there after us,” Father Caron said.
“And maybe, just maybe, we will imitate and share that mercy that God shows us, and God can use us to walk into the lives of others in their places of in-betweeness – when they’re fearful or angry or hurt or experiencing xenophobia.”
Peeks into other faiths
The service, featuring excerpts from the Torah and Qur’an, included the reading of the Sermon on the Mount (“Beatitudes”) Gospel from St. Matthew in English, Vietnamese, Spanish and French. In addition, “Our Family Prayer,” prayed by Catholics across the archdiocese at all weekend Masses, was modified for recitation by an interfaith congregation.
The night’s music also drew from the various faith traditions. Selections included a liturgical dance performed by young Vietnamese-American Catholics, Spanish-language hymns sung by musicians from the Hispanic Apostolate, a traditional hymn from the Sikh community and an Arabic chant. A New Orleans-flavored rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching in” sent participants to the concluding reception in the gym.
Before dismissal, Father Buddy Noel, pastor of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, Westwego, and the archdiocese’s ecumenical and interfaith director, issued invitations to the following local interfaith events:
• The “Faiths of Our Neighbors” program, organized by the East Jefferson Interfaith Clergy Association, is presenting a monthly faith overview on first Thursdays at a different local church, synagogue or mosque now through June 2017. The next talk, focusing on the Moslem faith, will take place Dec. 1 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Abu Bakr Mosque, 4425 David Drive, Metairie.
• At the upcoming Interfaith Prayer Service for New Orleans Homeless, Archbishop Aymond and other interfaith leaders will pray for those without shelter and who died on our streets in 2016. That service is set for Dec. 7 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at St. Joseph Church in New Orleans, 1802 Tulane Ave. A simple reception will follow.
The Interfaith Service for the Year of Mercy was co-sponsored by the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, the Atlas Foundation and Loyola University.
Beth Donze can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.