Controversy in Italy over Muslim participation in Masses said for murdered French priest

Noted theologian Monsignor Nicola Bux strongly criticizes decision to allow readings from the Quran and participation by Muslim imams in liturgies held in several Italian cities.

Rome, Italy, Aug 9, 2016 | Among the thousands of people in Rouen cathedral on Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016, for the funeral of Father Jacques Hamel, the French priest who was stabbed to death in his church by an Islamist terrorist, were also Muslims and Jews, in a show of solidarity similar to that of interfaith services that took place Sunday, August 31st, in France and Italy.

The presence of Muslim delegations at Sunday’s masses in Italy was mainly a result of Italy’s Islamic Religious Community (COREIS) heeding the call of the French Institute for Advanced Islamic Studies (IHEI), which works closely with the French interior ministry and which also sent delegates to French churches on Sunday. Thus COREIS delegates were at Sunday Mass in churches and parishes in cities including Agrigento, Bari, Brescia, Brindisi, Fermo, Genoa, Milan, Novara, Piacenza, Rome, Siena, Sondrio, Verona, Vicenza and Ventimiglia, “to bear witness to spiritual brotherhood”.

“We feel it is essential at this time,” COREIS said in another statement, “with this greeting from the Muslims of Italy to give a concrete signal of profound respect for the sacredness of the rites, the ministers and the places of worship of the Christian faith.”

“This enormous gesture puts offside those who would divide, those who want a strategy of terror,” Italian bishops conference (CEI) spokesperson, Father Ivan Maffeis, told new agency ANSA in a July 29th report.

But this gesture appears to be causing the very divisions it was meant to avert, as a wave of criticism has come in not only from Muslim quarters but most notably, reported La Stampa on August 2nd, “also from a large part of the Catholic realm” that “did not show to appreciate the idea that the Quran may be sung on the altar of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere (in Rome) or that there have been a symbolic offer of pieces of bread to Muslims as was the case in Ventimiglia…”

Among senior members of the Catholic hierarchy caught by surprise by these negative reactions was Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the head of CEI. Cardinal Bagnasco said that he “was baffled at criticism from some Catholics about Muslims attending Mass at churches in France and Italy on Sunday following last week’s murder of a French priest by Islamist extremists,” ANSA reported:

“I really don’t understand the reason (for the criticism),” Bagnasco told Vatican radio. “The presence (of Muslims at Mass) aimed to be a condemnation, a clear, absolute signal of distance by all those who do not accept any form of violence for any reason, never mind religious. “Immediately after the violent killing of that priest in Normandy, the Italian bishops asked for help from the moderate Islamic world, because we believe that the best reaction is that of a united condemnation without hesitation. This is what happened yesterday in many parts of Italy and we are very happy about it”.

Several reasons for these criticisms were subsequently offered by Monsigor Nicola Bux in an open response to Cardinal Bagnasco on August 4th, 2016, which appeared in the Scuola Ecclesia Mater blog. Vatican liturgical consultor Msgr. Bux is a professor of sacramental theology and author of several books on the liturgy, including 2016’s Con i sacramenti non si scherza (The Sacraments Are Not a Joke), which was launched last April in the ancient Vatican Palazzo della Rovere (now the Hotel Columbus) before a guest list including many top prelates.

In reference to media allegations by CEI president, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, regarding the participation of Muslim representatives in Masses last Sunday, July 31—such as “immense gesture”, “crucial support” to isolate terrorists and “incomprehensible” criticism by Catholics of the presence of imams in Catholic churches—Msgr. Bux stated, “I respectfully would like to point out that this is an infringement of communicatio in sacris (cf. can. 844 cic, Latin acronym for codex iuris canonici)”. Contrary to the figure of 23,000 reported in major mainstream media such as Corriere della Sera and la Repubblica, it actually appears that very few of these Muslim representatives showed up to join Sunday’s liturgies in churches around the country. This perception has been reinforced in the comments posted by many faithful in attendance, who also noted that these Muslim representatives were unfailingly followed by TV and radio crews.

The fact remains that communicatio in sacris, Msgr. Bux went on, is permitted to Catholics, under certain conditions and with great precautions, only with Orthodox Christians and Evangelicals, according to the provisions of the Ecumenical Directory of 1993 (cf. Nos. 122-128 about the sacramental life sharing with members of the various Eastern Churches; Nos. 129-136 about the sacramental life sharing with Christians of other Churches and ecclesial Communities). But under no circumstances is it permitted with non-Christians.

Furthermore, he also reminded the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum of 2004 and especially Nos. 78 and 79, which could not have been more “prophetic” under the present circumstances:

[78.] It is not permissible to link the celebration of Mass to political or social events or circumstances that are not fully consistent with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. You should also avoid altogether to celebrate Mass for a pure desire of show, or to celebrate it in the fashion of other ceremonies, so much more if profane ones, not to deprive the Eucharist of its true meaning.

[79.] Finally, it should be considered in the most severe way the abuse to introduce into the celebration of Holy Mass elements that are contrary to the prescriptions of the liturgical books and taken from the rites of other religions.

“I would again remind, always in a respectful manner, to the CEI President what was instructed in the ad-hoc note for the Pastoral Guidelines of the Episcopal Commission for Migration and Tourism of the CEI October 4, 1993”, he continued. Article 34 of this document about “the encounter with Islam” rules: “Christian communities, to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and dangerous confusion, must not made available churches, chapels and premises reserved for Catholic worship, as well as rooms used for parish activities, to religious meetings of non-Christian faiths”.

“As far as is known”, Msgr. Bux noted, “these guidelines have not been scrapped by the CEI!”

In December 2004, almost identical terms were spoken by the then-President of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, Card. Stephen Fumio, in his introduction to the XVI Plenary Assembly of the Vatican dicastery:

To avoid misunderstandings and confusion, given the diversity that we mutually recognize out of respect for one’s own holy sites and also to the other’s religion, we do not consider appropriate that those Christian ones – churches, chapels, places of worship, rooms reserved for specific activities of evangelization and pastoral care – are made available to members of non-Christian religions, nor so much less for them to be used to obtain recognition of demands made to the public authorities.

Msgr. Bux also recalled what former CEI Secretary, Msgr. Giuseppe Betori—now Cardinal Archbishop of Florence—said about an event that took place in 2008: “When a priest lends the premises of his parish [he] must be aware that in that moment he alienates such space from the Catholic religion and entrusts it forever to Islam, … the mosques are not a place of worship, but places for prayer and training…”

Regarding the proclamation of verses of other books, considered sacred by the followers of other religions, but not by the Catholic Church, Msgr. Bux stated that “this means going against the function of the Christian Temple, which, as is known, is dedicated with a solemn rite. This constitutes a real profanation! To show one’s solidarity, one is not to use the House of God, but a square or other non-Catholic locations, or anyhow with no worship purposes”.

One ought to know also that Muslims are convinced that their religion is the true religion, Msgr. further explained, and do not waste any opportunity to “correct” those they describe as “belonging to the religions of the Book” (i.e. Jews and Christians), who stand accused of having deviated from authentic faith—that is, Islam. It’s not by chance that the Bari imam Sharif Lorenzini, in Bari Cathedral, recited the first sura of the Quran, known as Al-Fatiha, the Opener, in which he condemns, in fact, Jews and Christians, guilty of being, to the eyes of Muslims, unbelievers. “By the way, as far as I know, it is the same sura recited when Christians are killed by slitting their throats: this was the case, if I am not mistaken, on the occasion of the throat-slitting by ISIS of 21 Coptic martyrs”, Msgr. Bux claimed. The Bari imam is the very imam who, in the monsignor’s words, a few days ago, stated during a live television talk show: “Italy is my home. I’m here to re-educate and purify Italians”.

In Msgr. Bux’s opinion, therefore, this initiative of Muslims participation in Catholic masses on Sunday, July 31, bears an ambiguous and doubtful significance, especially in Italy and in France, since in both cases, as also reported in Il Giornale (July 31, 2016), apparently less than 2% of Muslims in these countries were present. On top of this, Msgr. Bux continues, one should also consider the level of hypocrisy produced by such initiatives. Suffice to think at what happened in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, where after proclaiming Quran verses from the pulpit, the imams turned their backs during the reading of the Gospel. Therefore, and rightly so in Msgr. Bux’s opinion, “the imam of Lecce spoke of a sensationalist, hypocritical and syncretistic gesture. Respect is not won by losing one’s identity, much less so one’s faith.”

Finally, Msgr. Bux expressed his hope that His Eminence Bagnasco will clarify once and for all a crucial point, namely that we become children of God in the sacrament of baptism, and not with the biological birth. “Therefore, we cannot say, as proclaimed by certain quarters, that all men, and therefore also the Muslims, are children of God, because it would be tantamount to declare the uselessness of baptism.”

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About Alberto Carosa 42 Articles
Alberto Carosa is a Catholic journalist who writes from Rome, especially for US Catholic newspapers and periodicals.