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Roman Catholic Archbishop of Ireland Sean Brady (left) with Fr. Gerry O'Rourke

Fr. Gerry O'Rourke
Interfaith advocate
for including everyone
at the table

In celebration of the 80th birthday of Fr. Gerry O’Rourke, we offer the following article about his extraordinary ministry. It was written by Sharon Abercrombie and appeared in May 2004 in Catholic San Francisco, a publication of the San Francisco Archdiocese.

"Let the Beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground," observed Mevlana Jallaudin Rumi, a thirteenth century Islamic Sufi poet and mystic.

Today, the famous Sufi, who lived and taught in Koyna, Turkey, has a kindred spirit — an Irish-born priest, who, with his startling shock of white hair and vibrant blue eyes could pass for Spencer Tracey’s taller brother, quips Paul Chaffee, director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio of San Francisco.

He is Father Gerard O’Rourke, director emeritus of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. The priest, who will be 79 years-old May 27, has made himself open and welcoming to humankind’s diverse ways of worshipping the Divine.

Like Rumi, Father O’Rourke has a few choice words of his own that are widely quoted and heeded among his peers, noted Chaffee.

"Who is not yet at the table?" the priest frequently asks, when he sits down with religious leaders for interfaith dialogue in the San Francisco Bay area or in such far-flung places as Manresa, Spain. The question is one of his signature statements.

Besides wanting to add more chairs and faith traditions to the mix, Father Gerry – as he is fondly known by his friends – goes well beyond the perfunctory exchange of ideas during a few official meetings.

"He wants to hear people’s stories. He wants to know you as a person. Father Gerry truly believes that only then can true interfaith understanding and love take place," explains Don Frew, former owner of Shambala Books in Berkeley, one of the most prestigious interfaith book shops in the Bay Area before its recent closing.

Frew represents the Wiccan Religion at the Interfaith Center, and also serves on the board of United Religions Initiative, a San Francisco-based world-wide organization. Initiated by Episcopal Bishop William Swing, Father O’Rourke and other religious leaders in 1995, the group promotes interfaith cooperation to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the earth and all living beings.

Wicca, a nature/goddess based religion, still remains one of the least understood spiritual paths for many people. But not by Gerry O’Rourke. In 1998, Father O’Rourke told Frew, "You absolutely have to be here at the table."

Frew and Father O’Rourke have since spent many hours together serving on various committees, the most recent being a planning group for the upcoming Parliament of World Religions in Barcelona and Manresa this July. Rumi’s words will be played out at a major level in both cities — as thousands of people come together, to celebrate the "hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."

Father O’Rourke had recently returned from one of the planning meetings in Manresa, Spain, when he sat down with Catholic San Francisco for an interview over lunch. As Paul Chaffee had predicted, another of the priest’s famous phrases would soon be out there in the middle of the table.

"We live in a kairos moment," said Father O’Rourke. An Internet definition for Kairos, a Greek word, is "power that is legitimate, but limited and compassionate. For us to survive on this endangered planet today, we must eliminate despotic expressions of power, interpersonal abuse, racism, elitism, and ageism," according to the site.

Thanks to the Internet with its treasure of information, said Father O’Rourke, we truly live at a moment in time when it is possible for us all to be united. "We’ve never had this power of the moment, outside of calendar time, when we can have access to information that shows us that every religion has gifts to nourish and bless us all."

One more time, through an electronic energy field, the Sufi poet’s words come to the forefront.

But more than a thousand years before Rumi, another man lovingly expressed His openness to those of other faiths, as well. His name was Jesus, said Father O’Rourke. One of the priest’s favorite stories concerns Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. The two drank water together. They talked. "But there is no record that Jesus converted her. Rather, she became convinced that she was loved by God and went back to share this message with her people."

Nor is there any record that Jesus sent his disciples out to baptize the man whom he freed of demons, points out Father O’Rourke. "Instead he sent the man off to tell people how great God is. He appears to say, ‘Let people be.’"

In today’s world, Jesus’ attitude is a realistic one, believes the priest. "We express our own faith, but we have respect for the way others are." Respecting people of other faiths, and getting to know them as friends, can eliminate the roots of fear and violence. As evidenced by the thousands of religious wars through the centuries still going on today, people kill what they do not understand, said Father O’Rourke.

"Somehow, we’ve got to find forums in which we can live together." Especially, today, when we encounter people on busses, who are of different backgrounds and ethnic groups. Father O’Rourke said the truth of growing diversity at close distances really hit home, when he returned for a family visit to Ireland. His brother, also a priest, has a rural parish "and it’s right across the street from a mosque."

At the opposite end of the spectrum, living in isolation and anger produces tragedies like 9/11, he underscored. Most of the perpetrators involved in the destruction of the World Trade Towers were educated people, "but somewhere along the way, they were not accepted as human beings, were not understood, or listened to, or loved."

Rita Semel, one of Father O’Rourke’s Jewish colleagues at URI, and a longtime friend, seconds his comments. "When people don’t have a relationship with one another, they are threatened by one another. Gerry never lets us forget this. When you establish a relationship, the rest of the issues might be difficult, but we have a basis for working them out."

Father O’Rourke insists that the practice of deep listening to another, without putting up defenses, filters or preconceived notions, is the most important act of peace people can practice today. Jesus did it, he repeats.

A large influence on the priest was his experience of studying with Werner Erhard, who he met in 1973. Father Gerry says this relationship was important because of Erhard’s insights and analysis of language, both in listening and speaking. The priest saw that communication is one of the essentials for peace making, and love is a function of communication. That’s one of Erhard’s most important lessons, he said. "Erhard empowered me to see things in a more contextual and inclusive way."

Inspired by Erhard, Father O’Rourke founded the Mastery Foundation with a group of people interested in empowering people working in religious ministry. Several times a year, the priest quietly gets on a plane and travels, at his own expense, to places like Clarksdale, Mississippi, Belfast and Derry in Northern Ireland, to help deliver programs to empower people on both sides of longstanding conflicts in ways to develop friendships with one another.

O’Rourke’s life journey began in Rosscommon, Ireland where he was born and raised. He went on to study at the National Catholic Seminary in Maynooth and was ordained in 1950 when Ireland’s religious vocations were at their peak. There weren’t enough Irish parishes to go around then, so newly ordained clergy went abroad.

The new priest was invited to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where he served five years. His second assignment, for four years, was at St. Emydius parish in Los Angeles. He then returned to Ireland to a rural parish. He also spent a few years in Brazil and the United States working with the St. Patrick Fathers, a missionary community.

The priest had frequently visited San Francisco during his early years in America and loved the city. "There is such a sense and power of place here. People talk about a mountain, a hill, a valley that holds power for them. Jesus was aware of it. And I’m Celtic. I walk into a place and sense it." The priest applied to the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1978 and was accepted in 1979.

His first assignment was at Mill Valley, in the shadow of Mt. Tamalpais. He did pastoral work at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and then served as director of RENEW for a time, before moving to the Interfaith office. After serving nearly a dozen years as director of Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, O’Rourke has turned over the post to Father Stephen Meriwether.

However, as director emeritus, he will continue to lend a hand with relationships whenever he is needed. His many friends in the interfaith movement in Northern California are glad that he will still be involved.

Ms. Nahid Anga, director of the International Forum on Sufism in San Rafael said she treasures Father O’Rourke as a friend who is dedicated, compassionate towards human rights and people of other faiths. Everyone loves him."

Rick Murray, a member of St. Dominic parish in San Francisco, is director of resource development for URI and has known Father O’Rourke since 1977. "He’s my vision of the ideal priest," said Murray, who called him "a heroic pioneer and a master at breaking down walls. He gets people to transcend dogma and relationships with one another."

Murray remembers one occasion in particular, where there was a gathering of representatives from Sufism Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Gerry O’Rourke turned out to be the point person who "listened to each person, and then cut a path through their differences, so everyone could coalesce around him."

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