A Life of Double-Belonging: Some Religious Leaders Practice Two Faiths

In a dimly lit Roman Catholic church on a recent Monday night in Manhattan, around a dozen congregants sit in the pews watching the Rev. Michael Holleran as he leads them in what is known as contemplative prayer. During this kind of prayer, one word of the congregant’s choosing is silently repeated over and over again. There is some singing, and some prayers said aloud throughout the hour-and-a-half-long worship. Every so often Holleran rings a bell three times, which is meant to awaken worshipers from “sleep and into a consciousness of God’s presence.” This form of prayer is often compared to meditation due to the silent repetition of one word and the focus required. Peace, love, truth; these are just a few of the word choices worshipers might repeat. If their mind wanders, they are instructed to return to the word.

Contemplative prayer was adopted by some Catholics in the 1970s and takes inspiration from faiths like Buddhism, so it’s no wonder that in addition to being a Catholic Priest, Michael Holleran is also a Buddhist Sensei.

Michael Holleran serves as the priest at the Church of Notre Dame, a Catholic church in Morningside Heights, but once a week he leads a Buddhist Zen Meditation session over Zoom. He practices double-belonging, a term coined in 2009 by Paul Knitter who wrote a book titled “Without Buddha, I Could Not Be a Christian.” Knitter is a major influence on many Catholics who subscribe to Buddhist ideology. He insists the two faiths do not conflict with one another. The teachings in his book have spread to some, including professors of religion like Chad Thralls of Seton Hall University and Catholic priests like Robert Kennedy, based in New Jersey. They too have followed a life of double-belonging as outlined in Knitter’s book.

Buddhism and Catholicism have been compared to one another in the past. In 1870, The Atlantic, an American magazine that was first published in 1857, reported on the similarities between the two faiths. “The Tibetan lama listened respectfully to the Jesuit priest and replied, ‘Your religion is the same as ours,’” reported Lydia Maria Child.

Buddhism originated around 1,500 years ago. Founded by Siddhartha Gautama the faith spread from India to the rest of Asia and eventually the world. In the tradition life is seen as a cycle, entailing suffering and rebirth. Finally, one can achieve enlightenment and break the cycle. Catholicism traces its roots to Palestine in 30 CE following the teachings of Jesus Christ. Catholics believe that if you confess your sins and base your life around the 10 Commandments you’ll go to Heaven after you die. Some Catholic theologians insist that the two faiths do not conflict, but in fact, build on one another.

As Holleran has explored his religious identity, he says he has found a “vibrant synthesis” between Buddhism and Catholicism.

“I don’t see any conflict among any of these traditions,” he said. “If you’re actually going deep enough into what they’re really all about, that is to say, finding union with God, making the world a better place, transformation of your own consciousness, etc.”

For Holleran, this approach is specific to Catholicism and Buddhism and doesn’t necessarily extend to other faiths like Judaism and Christianity. A joint practice of those faiths might be harder to fit into the double-belonging theme.

Raised as a Roman Catholic, Holleran, 72, joined the Jesuits at Fordham University, where he took a course in various religions and learned about Buddhism. Holleran eventually became a Carthusian Monk in France, a contemplative order. Today, as the priest at the Church of Notre Dame, he keeps his two faiths separate, that is until he leads the Dragon’s Eye Zendo Wednesdays on Zoom. During Zen meditations, Holleran mentions Catholic scripture or figures but doesn’t mention Buddhism during Catholic services. Some people attend both the contemplative prayer and the Zen meditation each week like Chad Thralls.

Professor Thralls, who teaches at Seton Hall University, a Catholic institution, says that many of his students are excited to learn about faiths other than Catholicism. Therefore, whenever he involves Buddhism in his coursework, students are engaged. Holleran and Thralls cite theologian Paul Knitter as a source of inspiration in their journeys with double-belonging.

Read more at https://coveringreligion.org/2022/05/03/a-life-of-double-belonging-some-religious-leaders-practice-two-faiths/

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