While captivating the world’s attention with his outspoken approach to topics such as poverty and mercy, Pope Francis --- in the first few months of his papacy --- has also called Catholics to a greater awareness of the Church’s ministry to people in all walks of life including those of other faith beliefs.

And the pope’s 2014 World Day of Peace message took center stage Jan. 4 at the World Day of Peace Ceremony held at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, where Right Reverend Alexei Smith, who heads the Ecumenical and Interreligious Office of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, read the words of Pope Francis for the first prayer offering on behalf of the several hundred people in attendance.

“In the heart of every man and woman is the desire for a full life, including that irrepressible longing for fraternity that draws us to fellowship with others and enables us to see them not as enemies or rivals but as brothers and sisters to be accepted and embraced,” Father Smith read, quoting the Holy Father.

“Fraternity is an essential human quality, for we are relational beings. A lively awareness of our relatedness helps us to look upon and to treat each person as a true sister or brother; without fraternity it is impossible to build a just society and a solid and lasting peace.”

The idea of a “just society” reflected in peace resonated as the central message of the ceremony. This was reflected in the opening processional led by the temple’s Boy Scout Troop 8888 carrying the American flag, and heard in Sheriff Baca’s remarks on issues of crime and violence as contrasting with the message of hope for peace in our community and world.

Readings and meditations spoke of religious disciplines that call people to self-control and respect for others. A youth-group speaker asked in a thoughtful yet challenging manner, “If the entire world followed these precepts, would peace and justice prevail?”

Multi-faith representation

Father Smith’s prayer followed opening remarks by politicians and dignitaries who included Rep. Ed Royce (R-Brea) and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. Other speakers included Imam Dr. Ahmad Sakr, religious director of the Islamic Education Center and five other West Coast religious leaders representing Hindu, Thai-Buddhists, Episcopal and Mormon communities. Venerable Abbot Hui Dong of the Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple was host of the event.

"The policy on prayer at the Hsi Lai Temple is similar to that of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, a House of Prayer for all Peoples, as indicated on its cornerstone,” noted Father Smith, who teaches Mount St. Mary’s College Professional Certification Course in Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations.

“When we conduct interfaith prayer services there, participants are instructed that everyone is to pray according to their respective traditions. So also at the Buddhist Temple today, Christians prayed as they always would --- in the name of Jesus." 

Expanding on this thought he added, “For us, the light inside us that Buddhists speak of is Christ.”

Students from Father Smith’s Mount St. Mary’s course were invited to attend the service and luncheon at the temple to see an interfaith prayer service in action, and came away impressed.

“I thought it was absolutely beautiful,” said Ana Cape, who participates with “Muslim and Catholic Women in Conversation” at Holy Spirit Retreat Center in Encino. “I have never seen anything like it. Inside the temple I estimated that I saw hundreds of images of Buddha (which represent shrines for the dead), and I thought of the contrast to Islam.”

Ahmet Selim Tekliaglu, a Muslim and PhD student from Boston University, explained, that “mainstream Sunni Islam” discourages the use of images in fear of idolatry.

To his students, Father Smith addressed this question: “What is the purpose for people of different religions coming together to pray?” Then he offered an answer: “To show the world that we can come together in peace.

In 1986, when Pope John Paul II invited people of other faiths to the Vatican to pray for world peace, he was widely criticized, said Father Smith. “However, we have his words to continue to guide us,” he said. “We are obliged to hold that the Holy Spirit offers everyone the possibility of sharing in the Paschal Mystery in a manner known to God.”

He quoted St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “God's plan is to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.”

“The documents of the Second Vatican Council affirm that the Holy Spirit is offered to all human beings in ways known only to God,” Father Smith said. “Interfaith endeavors are for showing respect and learning about the other from the other.”

Student Julie Heath-Elliott, Catholic co-chair of the Catholic-Jewish Women’s Conference (cosponsored by the archdiocese and the American Jewish Committee), added perspective from a course reading as stated by author James L. Fredericks. “We spend a whole lot of energy trying to locate people of other faiths on our map, rather than trying to understand them on theirs,” she said.

Reflecting afterwards on the experience with his students Father Smith noted that Abbot Hui Dong, the Buddhist host of the event, “is very interested in things interfaith. At the luncheon table he put his arm around me in front of the others and announced, “And we are coming to Father Alexei’s cathedral for the Requiem for the Unborn.” (That event, scheduled Jan. 18, 6 p.m. at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, has been attended by leaders of other faiths for several years.) 

At the end of their course, the Mount St. Mary’s students will receive a professional certificate and will be encouraged to continue ministering in ecumenical and interreligious activities, in the spirit of Pope Francis’ World Day of Peace Message, as quoted by Father Smith:

“Every activity therefore must be distinguished by an attitude of service to persons, especially those furthest away and less known. Service is the soul of that fraternity that builds up peace.”

Traditional cultural performances as “homage to peace” were presented following the prayer service musically and in dance by Annie Liao on zither, a choral group from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an er-hu performance by Ms. Xiang Qin, Thai classical dance performed by the Wat Thai Dancers of Los Angeles and the Buddha’s Light Chorus.