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Interfaith workshops in UCD creating unity in diversity

With religion playing a divisive role in many conflicts around the world, Nathan Young examines a bridge-building Interfaith initiative in UCD

UCD Interfaith is an initiative of the UCD Chaplaincy started by Fr. Leon Ó Giolláin, one of UCD’s three full time chaplains, about 7 years ago. Speaking to The University Observer, Fr. Leon explained “I personally started it because during International Week, I noticed there was nothing around faith for and I thought that was very strange…it’s so integral to [many students’] culture and I thought that should be noted, that should be marked, and that should be celebrated.” The idea is a simple one: that students of any faith, or, as Fr Leon was keen to note, of no faith, could meet to express their beliefs for the others to hear.

About twice a semester, usually on a Thursday afternoon, the St. Stephen’s Chaplaincy, nestled between the Sutherland building and the Confucius Institute, opens its doors for the interfaith gathering. Participants sit in a circle, each being given the chance to volunteer the beliefs of their faith on the pre-chosen subject. Past topics have included prayer, hope, and fear. Then participants are given a chance to respond to each other. Finally, tea and food is shared, and participants can share their thoughts in a less formal chat with each other.

On the subject of the purpose of the interfaith, one participant told The University Observer “the main concept being that ignorance breeds prejudice, and prejudice breeds hatred, the point of Interfaith is to dispel hatred by dispelling the root cause, which is ignorance”, which echos Fr. Leon’s assertion that “this is modelled on pluralism, on unity and diversity. It models that. And not only does it model that but it promotes it.” Whether the people who participate in Interfaith are then the ones who needed to benefit from such a project, the participant told us that there can be a knock on effect. “Maybe I’ll go away and have a conversation with someone who is very sectarian and I’ll say ‘you know, I don’t think what you’re saying is correct because I was at interfaith and I heard XYZ.’”

From this description it may seem like the Interfaith is UCD’s modern day Areopagus, where the enlightened can come to debate and those who wish to spread their own gospel can preach, but this is not so. Fr. Leon puts down the absence of conflict to good and fair-minded management of the discussion. “We set the parameters very clearly in the beginning and the rules of the interaction which is we share very simply a personal conviction. You can’t argue with that, you just accept that.” When questioned if the more sectarian minded have ever tried to dominate the conversation, Fr. Leon explains how he has dealt with that situation before: “there have been external groups that come in uninvited, but we quickly showed them the door…there was a group that came in from outside and their purpose was to impose the Christian message on the people there…I said you’re very welcome to be here under these conditions. They came, but then after we had a session they started regressive stuff, and I asked them to leave…we don’t allow any aggressive proselytising or anything, that’s just not what we’re about.”

The efficacy of the Interfaith as a way of combating prejudice then relies on having the greatest number of faith communities represented. Recognising this problem, Fr. Leon constantly approaches people he recognises as religious on campus to invite them to attend “in the beginning, I went around looking for students of different faiths. One time in the student coffee shop I saw a sikh, you know he was wearing a turban so it was very obvious and I approached him and I told him about this…and he immediately responded positively and he used to come along and he shared very well because he understood his faith as a Sikh.” Despite Fr. Leon’s best efforts to find a pluralist cast of attendees, some participants feel that there is something of a lack of diversity. One told The University Observer that there were Catholics, Baha’is, and the occasional Protestant, Muslim, or atheist. As the Interfaith is a chaplaincy initiative, the participation of religious student societies can be temperamental, with each year’s new committee deciding if this kind of event is something they wish to promote.

“If you’re looking at beautiful stained glass windows from the outside you see something very dull and dark, but if you’re inside you see it’s splendor, and you sense it and you taste it and you rejoice in it, that’s what it’s like from the inside”

The biggest issue for the Interfaith, however, is one that is true of the chaplaincy as a whole. Organised religion is less popular than ever, with just 15% attending some form of weekly religious service, a number which would have been inconceivably low for any previous generation. When asked about this, Fr Leon explained “[religious institutions] have a big PR problem, and that will take years to overcome because we’ve had a very bad recent history in terms of PR, in terms of image. And also, it has to be said, in terms of a very clear agenda who are just anti-religion and anti-Catholic, so they paint it in a very negative light.” He likened being in a religious community to a stained glass window, saying “If you’re looking at beautiful stained glass windows from the outside you see something very dull and dark, but if you’re inside you see it’s splendor, and you sense it and you taste it and you rejoice in it, that’s what it’s like from the inside.”

With the religious makeup of Irish society constantly changing, and the number of people practising non-Christian religions rising steadily over the past several censuses, the space for an interfaith approach is there, and while the religions with active student societies may be over represented presently, students of smaller, less recognised faiths may find a place in the Interfaith.