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Ministry of listening: Brendan Dowd

Bernardin Scholar, Student at CTU

April 5, 2013


After graduating from Loyola University in Chicago in 2007 and moving to Anchorage, Alaska to participate in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Brendan Dowd unexpectedly found himself in a “ministry of listening,” as he called it. His post was a long-term care hospital where he visited with patients and their families, coordinated art classes and outings, distributed Communion, helped patients write letters to loved ones, but most importantly, lent an ear to their thoughts and feelings.

“I felt like I wasn’t doing anything, and I didn’t know if I was doing a good job,” Brendan said. “But the residents started thanking me for having those conversations, for making them smile, and for changing their attitude. Their gratitude was such an amazing gift.” During that year, he started contemplating his future, and felt he was called to be a peacemaker in some way.

In Anchorage, Brendan became involved with a community that practiced traditional Lakota spirituality. Around a fire, their interfaith conversations and prayer experiences supplied Brendan with a sense of unity. “We came together as people of different walks of life, traditions, and socioeconomic statuses,” he said. “But we could feel the love of God together. I felt so comfortable in that diverse space. And my Catholic identity was affirmed, not diminished.”

These interfaith conversations continued for four years while Brendan stayed in Anchorage, using his B.F.A. in graphic design to work at an advertising agency. At the time, mainstream media – covering the War on Terror – often suggested that religion’s role in the world helped to perpetuate violence. “But my experience didn’t support that,” he said. “I felt called to lift up the voices that say spirituality, no matter where you come from, is ultimately rooted in love.”

In fall 2011, Brendan enrolled at CTU, where he is pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology, concentrating on Muslim – Catholic interreligious dialogue. Building on his interest in peacemaking, he recently participated in CTU’s Abraham’s Children study tour to Israel and the West Bank, which combined academic lectures with experiential visits to holy sites.

“I got to see the political and social crisis happening there, but through a lens of faith,” he said. “I went in seeing it as a complex issue, and I walked away seeing it as an even more complex issue. It was frustrating, but stimulating at the same time.”

Brendan was struck by the many contradictions co-existing in such a small geographic area. Towns that were supposed to be mixed -- half Arabic, half Jewish -- had signs written solely in Hebrew. And less than an hour’s drive from thriving Tel Aviv was a decrepit tent village filled with Palestinian Muslims. “There was a lot of tension,” Brendan said. “But I could also see people on both sides working for peace.”

In his online journal, Brendan wrote: “Even amidst the horror there was hope… Such realizations may prove helpful to our journey as children of Abraham. Humanity is balagan, or a ‘holy mess.’ Amid our struggles to find commonality… our encounters will be messy. But that mess is exactly where we need to be.”

Brendan is a Bernardin Scholar at CTU and said he has learned from Cardinal Bernardin’s example how to create a space for honest dialogue. “To understand the Catholic faith today, we need to engage with other faiths,” he said. “Cardinal Bernardin was comfortable in talking about differences, and addressing them with respect.”

Brendan is putting his studies to use as an intern at the Niagara Foundation, which empowers local faith leaders to host interfaith discussions - not to push an agenda, but to facilitate relationship building. He is excited to explore other outlets for interfaith dialogue once he graduates.

Admittedly, Brendan doesn’t need a big, fancy job. He just wants to be with people. If money were no object, his ideal future would include lots of time spent sitting in a cabin in the winter woods, drinking coffee next to a wood-fed stove, and sharing in conversation about life and faith with any person who wished to come through.

If he could start the conversation with three people, past or present, Brendan chose the Christian contemplative Thomas Merton, the revered female Muslim mystic from the 8th century, Rabia, and the American novelist John Steinbeck. “Now that would be a dialogue,” he said.

After the completion of this Portrait, Brendan Dowd was hired at the Niagara Foundation, which promotes global fellowship and interreligious dialogue, as the Director of their Center for Cultural Exchange & Interfaith Collaboration. Read Brendan's latest blog here.

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