A Meeting at Twilight: When I met Master 馬神父

by on Wednesday, 24 November 2010 Comments

“And who is that foreigner?”

Sometime around Chinese New Year 2004, I was offered an invitation to a concert. The venue was the auditorium of the World Trade Center and instead of featuring a specific artist; it enlisted the performances of different religious organizations. These two facts triggered my attention: In one go, I would be given a glimpse at the whole religious worldview of Taiwan. I hence waited for the day.

There were many memorable things that evening: speeches, dance and music performances, all executed in an orderly and solemn mood, particular to religious events. To that should be added an imposing and memorable image, namely that of two widely open arms, as if they were ready to embrace the whole world. They particularly gestured at each time a new guest march in. Those arms showed an amount of warmth, of friendship, respect which without disturbing the solemnity of the event complemented it. From their attire, it was clear that the VIP guests came from different religious backgrounds and denominations. And the gestures of those arms and the responses they received showed beyond any doubt that these were old acquaintances. Their interaction contributed to the beauty of the event. Yet, those arms belonged to a foreigner. That triggered my curiosity even more. I could not refrain from inquiring on that delighted, and well accepted foreign presence. Who was that foreigner, what was he doing, which wind has led him to where he stood? I had plenty of questions to which my informant could only say: “He is a Jesuit. His name is 馬神父(Father Ma). He works in interreligious dialogue.”

A landing concerned with the possibility of another take off

Few days after this interreligious concert, I visited 馬神父in his office at Tien Educational Center. In this encounter, the list of my questions was to be quenched at the horse mouth. But more than a curiosity, I looked forward to a wider view of the religious picture of Taiwan, to an understanding of the challenges and opportunities for a commitment in the field of interreligious dialogue. Father Albert welcomed me with cordiality. He spoke of the forty years of commitment in that field. He insisted on his conversion as led by the spirit of Vatican II, specifically as stipulated in Nostra Aetate. Because of NA, he had dealt with all students, respecting their religious convictions. Humbly acknowledging, his own limitations, he accepted to learn from different masters (Buddhist and founders of other religious movements). As executive secretary of the FABC commission for Interreligious Dialogue and member of the Pontifical Commission for Interreligious Dialogue, he not only persuaded Asian bishops on the necessity of the mission; he unceasingly knocked at doors of prominent religious leaders, inviting them to open up so they could enjoy the freedom of the mutual respect, mutual enrichment achieved through dialogue. He co-founded organizations aiming at promoting interactions and cooperation among religious groups. Using his contacts, he had acted as a bridge among religious people and offered a neutral platform fostering a respectful dialogue among their leaders. The atmosphere, I had witnessed to the previous day at the inter-religious concert was a flashback at those achievements.

In this initial sharing, Fr. Albert did not hide the concern of not finding many people sharing fully in his enthusiasm. He feared being a successful lone-ranger, with no heir of the legacy he had striven to build up in a lifetime. This was the first of a series of visits, the last being on the eve of his departure. The content and mood of this first conversation colored and impacted all the succeeding encounters and plans that Fr. Albert was projecting.

A Training à la Ma Shenfu

The dialogic training which Fr. Albert proposed consisted in an exploration, an exposure to the religion of the other. He insisted on the necessity to immerse oneself in the world of the other. The live-in experience dealt opportunities to cultivate friendship, which, Fr. Albert retained, was a basic ingredient for dialogue. Fr. Albert was convinced that where friendship blossoms, there would be room for respect, tolerance, mutual understanding, cooperation etc. For this reason, his dialogic method aimed at positing the ground where friendship could grow. For this end, he had developed techniques nurturing that value: periodic visits, calls, mails, etc. In meeting a new person, he would gather all the detailed information on the host so as he or she would feel immediately close. With regards to etiquette, he would ensure that the person is addressed with his or her real title. And for this, one needed to study the relations and the position of the host; gather all possible on the person and his/her institution. He held friendship among religious leaders in high regard, convinced that it had a trickle down impact on the followers. By despising and belittling the followers of one’s master friend, one was in fact shaming and disrespecting his/her own master.

The practical implications of these convictions made the training in Albert’s steps a continuous excursion, during which he would introduce the disciple to the circle of his friends. Dialogue occurred during these meeting around the shared food, a cup of tea, a chant, an acquaintance with the visited environment, a sharing in the activities of the people visited and so forth. What imported was transcending the separation – signified by the existence of closed door.

Knocking at your door…

A visit always leads to a door, to be knocked at with the expectation that it be opened, give way to a sharing which bridles and nurtures true friendship. One observation is that Fr. Albert loaded the concepts “knocking” and “door” with specific meanings. All doors were to be knocked at and opened: those of the temples, those of churches, the Catholic Church with its various religious congregations included. But foremost, the doors to knock at and open were those giving access to the depth of human existence. For this reason, he insisted on a form of dialogue which transcended the confines of time and space, language and grammar. He spoke of “a dialogue in depth.” Albeit the limits of explanation, dialog in depth refers to a spiritual experience in which one is projected and dwells in the other, transcending subjective limits and achieving an ineffable communicability translated in an “I in You, You in Me” awareness. This communicability no longer needs an external support such as words or language, physical presence. Fr Albert recognized though the scarcity of those instances. In fact, despite his long experience, he could only name a few as partners who had reached that level of dialogue.

The figurative meaning of this knocking reminds of the challenge of dialogue, especially if it has to lead to a dialogue in depth. Fr. Albert knocked at numerous doors, many of which have lowered their threshold as a sign of their willingness to dialogue. The question is how to transform good will into a reality given that dialogue in depth starts with the first step in or across that threshold.

Against the clock time

My encounter with Fr. Albert occurred at the twilight of a life dedicated to the cause of religious dialogue in Asia. The décor of his office – a small interreligious altar, pictures of famous masters, some in their young age, inspirational sayings, books… – reflected the fruits of the toils of those bright days. It also justified a sustained enthusiasm for a bright future. But this hope has to stand against the slog of aging with its pile of health problems. It would also be sustained by a certainty that more people would cross those open doors and, made of the threaded path, a tradition. Sometimes that hope was really put at test, especially when Fr. Albert realized that his memory was fading and that his medical visits were taking up the time and attention that used to be dedicated to temples and monasteries. Pain progressively took over and dwelt in his body, making it difficult “to keep on smiling.” Hence, during the visits in the infirmary where he was sheltered for the last three years, he would ask for prayers so “that he could keep on smiling.” – Yes, smiling and strong enough to continue knocking at doors so that dialogue could be initiated. Till the end, he would surrender everything but not the idea of the urgency of dialogue.

During one of the visits in the temporary chapel where his body was laid to rest, I was moved by the comment of one of his care takers. I had noticed her for about three years but never exchanged a word with her. She inquired on my acquaintance with Fr. Albert, how I knew him, adding that “He must have been a great and a kind person.” After answering her questions, I added that for many, he had been like a wineskin containing good wine that had brought joy, meaning and insights to their lives. We then bid goodbye. I left that place with a deep sense of gratitude and awe for Bro. Jose Diez and his team for their dedicated service and companionship. What they offer is indeed a threshold conducing to a dialogue filled with the hope of another sunrise beyond the twilight of human existence.

Photo provided by the Tien Center

Paulin Batairwa (鮑霖)

Xaverian Missionaries
Fu Jen Catholic University
Department of Religious Studies 
Ph D Candidate 
Archdiocese of Taipei – Commission of Christian Unity and 
Interreligious Dialogue

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