Last month we celebrated Migrant and Refugee Sunday, an invitation to reflect on the situation faced by millions of people around the world, and how we all can make a difference in welcoming them with open arms and open hearts.
In his message “Building the Future with Migrants and Refugees” Pope Francis reminds each of us that no one should be excluded and that the Kingdom of God is to be built together. By reminding us of the importance of being inclusive, Pope Francis acknowledges that the journey comes with a great challenge, but mainly with an immense opportunity for the cultural and spiritual growth of everyone.
“If we want to cooperate with our heavenly Father in building the future, let us do so together with our brothers and sisters who are migrants and refugees. Let us build the future today! For the future begins today and it begins with each of us.” Says Pope Francis in his message.
To respond to this challenge, Catholic Mission launched the Interfaith Encounters program in 2020, bringing senior students from diverse faith backgrounds together, to learn from each other and celebrate their differences and discover similarities. Interfaith dialogue is a key area of mission and an important way to gain a better understanding of our own values, beliefs and attitudes. More than reconciliation or the achievement of a common understanding, it rather seeks to grow respect and love across difference.
This year, the program included more than 150 students from eight secondary schools. Each school participated in workshops, shared meals, and visited different places of worship to gain a deeper understanding. Through sharing their lived experience, students went beyond textbook learning and connected with one another. For many students, this experience has been transformative in having a long-lasting impact on their vision of the world and leading to the promotion of peace and social cohesion within their communities.
“The first time students met they were shy and unsure about one another. Through the activities, games and meals we shared, they have formed friendships with one another and many students have made very close friendships,” shared Catherine Towiro, the Interfaith Encounters Program Coordinator at Catholic Mission.
The objectives of the program are to open students to a wider range of religious, spiritual and ideological worldviews, and to better understand the diversity of experience and culture. It positively encourages them to deconstruct misunderstandings and lead them further in engaging with one another.
“The Interfaith Encounters program was, for me, probably one of the most life-changing programs I ever participated in. […] It really opened up my mind,” shared a student from Gilroy Catholic College, Castle Hill.
By bringing this program to life, Catholic Mission is playing a role in fighting against racism by educating future world citizens to take the time to pause and think about others and their life experiences.
“Everyone looked further than just religion. We all discussed similarities that we share, outside of religion, on the random tables we were placed in. I’m sure many of us realised that there is more to life than just being stuck on the differences,” shared a student from the Australian Islamic College of Sydney.
This program is aligned with the message of Pope Francis, focused on inclusion and working toward building a future together.
This program was made possible thanks to the schools who have partnered with Catholic Mission and each other to develop these inter-school partnerships. The focus has been on bringing Islamic and Catholic schools together and is inclusive of students of all faiths, ideologies, and worldviews. Funding for the Interfaith Encounters Inter-school program has been provided by the NSW Government through Multicultural NSW COMPACT Program.
Minister for Multiculturalism Mark Coure said empowering and engaging young people is a key focus of programs like COMPACT, that work to build social cohesion and condemn racism and hate.
“Young people want to live in more connected, harmonious communities and it’s been valuable to see organisations work with our youth to achieve these aspirations. By giving young people the tools to speak up and be champions of social harmony, we’re helping build a society that continues to welcome and embrace everyone. We truly are stronger together,” Minister Coure said.
Catholic Mission is looking forward to expanding the program and reaching more students in the coming years.
“We are grateful to see this program taking shape and growing since its launch in 2020. Thanks to the support from Multicultural NSW and the dedication of our partners, we are looking to expand this program in the next two years to make it accessible to more students,” says Catherine.
Watch how life-changing this experience was for students, on the Catholic Mission website: www.catholicmission.org.au/interfaith
With thanks to Catholic Mission.