As a 12-year-old Catholic boy growing up in England, Michael Fitzgerald decided he wanted to be a missionary in Africa. Eight years later, he was studying theology and learning Arabic in Tunisia.
He went on to devote his priestly ministry to the promotion of interfaith understanding between Muslims and Christians, and became one of the top Roman Catholic experts on Islam. He has served as the archbishop of Tunisia, the papal nuncio — effectively a Vatican ambassador — in Cairo, and the Vatican’s delegate to the Arab League.
For years, Fitzgerald has been urging his fellow Christians to acquaint themselves with Islam and its holy book, the Quran. It has been a challenging mission at a time when many non-Muslims associate Islam with violence and when many Muslims think the West has declared war on their faith.
As a priest serving in Africa, Fitzgerald often was responsible for representing the interests of Christians in majority-Muslim states, but at the same time he demonstrated enough knowledge and appreciation of Islam that Muslims occasionally turned to him for insights into their own faith. “The more you understand a religion, the better it is,” Fitzgerald says, “whether it’s Christians studying Islam or Christians studying Christianity or Muslims studying Christianity. I think this helps in your relations.”
As a university professor in Uganda, his classes on Islam included some Muslim students.
“I said to the students ‘I’m not here to teach you anything — I’m here to help you to learn, and to understand your own religion better,’” Fitzgerald says. “‘I said ‘You don’t have to agree with me, but if you contest what I’m saying to you, then you have to have good arguments, not just, “Oh, our parents have always said this” — that’s not enough.’”
Now retired, the archbishop has turned his attention to writing and lecturing; this spring, he is a guest instructor at John Carroll University, a Jesuit institution in Cleveland, where he is teaching a course on the Quran to a small group of undergraduate and graduate students.
In his class he often highlights differences between Christianity and Islam, though in such a way as to encourage respect for distinctive Muslim approaches.
“In our ceremonies we read the scripture — the Gospel is read,” he said in a recent classroom session. “In Islamic prayer, it is not read, it is recited. The imam has to know the Quran. So it’s very good to become a ...,” and then Fitzgerald wrote the word hafiz on the blackboard, explaining that it means someone who has memorized the Quran from start to finish.