By Celine Klosterman
For the Catholic Messenger
BURLINGTON — Devotion to the Blessed Mother offers a bridge between Catholics and Muslims, Tony Kanaan told about 100 people during a Catholic Adult Fellowship Evening at Notre Dame Schools. With the Holy Spirit’s help, Catholics can witness not only to Muslims, but to all people, the member of Ss. John & Paul Parish said.
During a 50-minute presentation earlier this spring, Kanaan, who was born in Lebanon, discussed Islamic teachings on Mary and encouraged Catholics to evangelize.
While Kanaan was working in Egypt for three years in the early 1990s, God gave him the courage to start talking to Muslims about Christ, the speaker said. “What I found out was, number one, they’re misled about Christianity. And number two, they were very curious to know more about it.”
The experience deepened Kanaan’s interest in evangelizing. Knowing what the Quran, the Muslim holy book, teaches about the Blessed Mother and her Son can help Christians witness to Muslims, he said.
The Quran includes an account of the angel Gabriel telling Mary, a virgin, that she would give birth to Jesus (whom Muslims consider a solely human messenger of God). After he was born, the infant Jesus miraculously spoke and announced that he was the Lord’s servant and prophet. The Quran also teaches that Jesus would heal the blind and lepers and raise the dead. According to the book, he escaped crucifixion, was raised to heaven and will come again at the time of judgment.
His mother is the only woman whose name appears in the Muslim holy book, and Mary is mentioned there more often than in the New Testament, Kanaan said. She is also one of only eight people to have a chapter named after them in the Quran — which has 114 chapters. “She is one of the most righteous women in Islamic tradition” — someone whose obedience to God makes her an example for Muslim women, he said. The Mosque Maryam in Chicago is named after her, and the walls of some mosques bear Quranic verses mentioning her.
In 2010, the Lebanese government declared the Solemnity of the Annunciation, which both Christians and Muslims celebrate, a national holiday.
But relations between Lebanese citizens of different faiths have suffered since the country’s 1975-90 civil war. In recent years, Maronite priest Father Elias Maroun Gharios has endured beatings and been kidnapped after baptizing Muslims and reopening a Christian church in an area dominated by Muslim fundamentalists, Kanaan said. The priest risked his life because “he believes in this one sentence: ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,’” the speaker said, quoting Matthew 28:19. “God tells each of us to do that. It’s our duty as Catholics to follow his demand.”
Kanaan listed four steps people can follow to witness to Christ:
Pray for the Holy Spirit to give strength and courage.
Strive to reflect Christ. “When people look at you, they need to see that you are a disciple of Jesus.”
Plant the seed. “Somebody asked me, ‘How many people did you bring to Christ’ (in Egypt)? I don’t know, but I planted a lot of seeds. I leave it to the Holy Spirit to make them grow.”
Ask the Holy Spirit to open people’s eyes to the need for Christ.
Kanaan’s presentation highlighted the need to find commonalities before beginning conversations with people of other faiths, said Ruth Skeens, director of evangelization and renewal for Des Moines County parishes. “Then move to areas of differences to seek ‘understanding,’ not necessarily ‘agreement.’ It is not about being right. It is about being kind and present to others when in dialogue. The Holy Spirit will open their eyes and ears, not us.”
You don’t need to have all the answers or be a theologian to witness, said Skeens, who coordinates the Catholic Adult Fellowship Evenings. “I believe Jesus purposefully called people to his discipleship who were not educated to show that it is not about the intellect, it is about the heart. The heart will change the mind.”