IT’S the Muslims’ sacred month of Ramadan and it can be a busy time for Brisbane Catholic nun Sr Lorraine Victorsen.
“Next week I’ve been invited to attend two Iftar dinners” she said.
Iftar is the evening meal with which, at sunset, Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast.
Later in the month Sr Lorraine, a Sister of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St Benedict, will, with other members of the Forum for Jews, Christians and Muslims, attend the Eid Festival, which marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, self-denial, restraint and renewal.
She attends not just because many of her friends are Muslims but because she’s committed to fostering good interfaith relations.
It’s been her practice for several years since she was appointed as the Catholic representative on the Forum for Jews, Christians and Muslims within Queensland Churches Together.
It could be that interfaith relations are in her DNA.
Sister Lorraine who grew up in Townsville, was raised a Catholic, attended boarding school at the Good Samaritans’ Lourdes Hill College in Brisbane, and entered the order a couple of years after finishing high school, was always aware of the fact that her father was from a Jewish family.
“While my father wasn’t a Catholic he was very supportive and accepting of Catholicism – we were all baptised, brought up as Catholics, educated in the Catholic school system . . . and we always had people from different faith traditions in our lives,” she said.
As her grandfather, Edwin, died before her father was born, her father, Arnold, was not brought up in the Jewish tradition.
“However, as Dad’s father, teenage brother and grandparents are all buried in the Jewish section of the Toowong cemetery, it is clear that they were recognised members of the Jewish community,” Sr Lorraine said.
“My father became a Catholic just months before I entered the convent, and he became a very observant, devout and faithful Catholic.”
There is also Jewish heritage on Sr Lorraine’s mother’s side, but that connection goes back several generations.
With that background, it’s probably not surprising then that when Sr Lorraine had the opportunity to study at the Australian Catholic University, the topic she chose for the Master of Philosophy degree was “Catholic-Jewish Dialogue in Australia”.
In the interfaith field in recent years Sr Lorraine has also represented the Good Samaritan Sisters and other Australian Benedictines at three Monastic-Muslim Dialogue Conferences – in Qom/Mashad, Iran (2016), in Nairobi, Kenya (2017) and more recently in England and Tehran/Qom, Iran (2019).
This dialogue is an international initiative of the Benedictines.
“I am really pleased and proud that twenty years ago the then Benedictine Abbot Primate, Notker Wolf OSB, had the vision to embark on this journey and to say, ‘Let us (Benedictines) do something about inter-religious dialogue with Muslims’,” Sr Lorraine said.
Inter-religious dialogue, she acknowledged, was “extremely sensitive and extremely important in this day and age in Australia”.
The Forum for Jews, Christians and Muslims is a practical sign of that.
“When tragedies occur – like the recent Christchurch terror attack, and similar tragedies in America and Sri Lanka – we all come together, Christians, Jews, Muslims – and other faiths too – but we form this kind of little core, a heart, a beating heart,” Sr Lorraine said.
“We support one another’s efforts – such as the Baha’i interfaith celebrations in January, visits to different mosques and synagogues for memorial services and celebrations and on other relevant occasions.
“I understand that some members of the Brisbane Jewish community attended the Mass at the cathedral (St Stephen’s in Brisbane) on Sunday a week ago for the victims of the Sri Lankan tragedy, and there were some Muslims there too.
“So we support one another in good times and in not so good times.”
Sr Lorraine said the forum was about building solidarity and understanding, and supporting one another.
And it was also about respecting one another’s beliefs and traditions.
“Good inter-religious dialogue, according to the scholars, strengthens each person’s faith, in his or her own tradition,” Sr Lorraine said.
“And I can see it around that table when we meet. We respect one another and we support one another, but we grow stronger in our own tradition.
“That’s a key element. It’s good dialogue … It’s not about converting one another, but it is about learning from one another, and we have such a lot to learn from each another.”
And Sr Lorraine is keen to spread the word that the Church encourages this dialogue.
She said many Catholics may be unaware of the Church’s official teaching on interfaith relations.
“But it’s there in ‘Nostra aetate’ (the 1965 Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, from the Second Vatican Council),” Sr Lorraine said.
Paragraph 3 of that document states that “Upon Muslims, too, the Church looks with esteem” and then it goes on to explain why the Church holds them in esteem.
Her hope is that more people would “listen and take notice of the example of Pope Francis and ‘Nostra aetate’, and learn more about how we can relate to one another faithfully, without being disloyal to our own faith or being discourteous or judgemental of the other’s faith”.
“I just hope we would all accept that there are different faith traditions but there’s only one God,” she said.
“And that’s what the forum is about.”
When a Muslim scholar was asked by another Muslim why he meets with monastics “who believe in three gods (the Trinity)” he responded: “I have to explain to them that, for me, the Trinity is not three gods, but three manifestations of the one God.”
Sr Lorraine said: “So my hope is that we would be able to respect one another’s differences, unite in whatever ways we can unite – and there are so many ways we can.”
She knows how that kind of understanding can bear fruit in the everyday.
“I saw a Muslim lady in the supermarket one day, not long after the Christchurch attack, … she had her young daughter with her,” she said.
“She went through the checkout before me. And as she was waiting, I just touched her on the hand and I asked, ‘Where do you worship?’
“She said, ‘Holland Park (mosque)’.
“I said, ‘Well, let everybody at the mosque know that they’re being thought of and prayed for, as are the people in New Zealand’.
“She replied ‘Thank you’.
“She paid, and as the young man (at the checkout) was putting my items through, she came back and said, ‘Thank you very much for that. That has really made a big difference to me’.”