I was born to devout Catholic parents and attended a Catholic school taught by devout priests and nuns. We learned thoroughly our religious knowledge by means of the question and answer method called “catechism”. It consisted of 499 questions to which we memorized the 499 well-thought-out answers, word for word. Our catechism dealt with all aspects of faith, morality and prayer.
We attended Mass every Sunday and on seven other special yearly holidays. Every day at home we prayed the Rosary, a meditation on the 15 most important events in the life of Jesus and his mother, Mary. We dearly loved our parents, our teachers, and our religion. We had a happy childhood.
When I was a teenager, there was a meeting of all the Catholic bishops of the world, about 2500 of them, in Rome. After the meeting, they published a book which said, among other things,
The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, his virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead.
Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.
After reading what the bishops had written, I decided to learn more about Muslims and Islam.
I wrote to a mosque in our provincial capital. The imam sent me a copy of Yusuf Ali’s translation of the Qur’an and a little book called Primer of Islam. I loved the little book, its simplicity, and its message: When you surrender to God’s will, you find peace.
Thomas Aquinas, a great Catholic theologian, when asked how to become learned, wrote, “Read one book. Whatever you read or hear, take care to understand it well. Attain certainty in what is doubtful.” I applied this advice to the Qur’an. I carefully read through Yusuf Ali’s Qur’an translation twice, and studied his many footnotes.
A while later, our city’s university hosted a three-day symposium on Islam, which I attended. The principal speaker was very intelligent, well-spoken, and gentle. Everything the bishops had written about the Muslims seemed to agree with what I was reading and hearing.
I began to attend weekly Arabic and Islamic lessons offered by local Muslims. The head teacher was very intelligent, a university professor of electrical engineering. I asked him many questions and he answered every one with great insight, patience, and clarity. Under his instruction, I soon learned the five pillars of Islam and how to recite some short surahs of the Qur’an, and within a few months, I attended my first Friday Prayers.
I attended Friday Prayers regularly at the university and made new friends from many countries. I took part in learning circles and made progress in my Qur’an recitation. I prayed the five daily prayers and found great joy in the new routines of my life.
Ramadan arrived, and I enjoyed fasting and attending Tarawih Prayers. When I saw the beautiful crescent moon and the planet shining in the sky on `Eid, my heart leaped with joy and I thanked God for such a favor as He had bestowed upon me.
Though surprised at my conversion to Islam, none of my Catholic family spoke against the published opinions of the world’s Catholic bishops. They wished me well in my new faith.
But there was a separation in family activity. I no longer prayed with them at home or in the church, and they never considered praying with me, nor did they ever visit a mosque.
I moved to another city not far from home in order to teach at an Islamic school. I was able to visit home on weekends. Then I moved to another city in a nearby country to attend university. I was able to visit home only twice a year. I moved once again, this time to a city across the sea to attend another university. I was able to visit home once in two years.
Years have passed and I teach now at a school on the distant edge of my country, far from old friends and family. Nature is raw here. The sun, moon, and stars rise and set and the seasons come and go in due order. In summer the days are long; in winter, the nights. In summer, the days are never too hot; in winter, they are always cold. The sea-tides come in and go out exactly as God planned.
Wide open wilderness surrounds our town in all directions except to the east: There lies the ocean, wild and blue in summer, frozen solid in the bleak winter. Is not God great? To have created all this strong and wild beauty so that man may find peace in it, and out of this boundless peace chant the Qur’an in slow measured tones! One cannot thank Him enough for the blessings He has given me. Praise be to my Lord the Most High!
By Michael Byrne