Westminster Interfaith: Promoting Dialogue Between People of Faith

The agency of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster for Interreligious Dialogue

People in the WIF Story

Brother Daniel Faivre

Retirement 1997

by Fr Michael Barnes SJ :   >  >  >

See also:

Brother Daniel Faivre SG

8th April 1929 - 10th September 2007

Tireless worker for understanding between religious communities

Daniel Faivre, or Brother Daniel as he was always known, was one of the most influential advocates of inter-faith understanding within the Roman Catholic Church. For the last thirty years of his life he lived in a small terraced house in the middle of Southall, the multi-cultural heart of west London. A self-confessed 'bombastic Frenchman', he cut a wonderfully eccentric figure with his full grey beard and booming voice. But underneath the unconventional exterior lay a fierce intelligence and a gift for friendship which reached out beyond the boundaries of race and religion.

Daniel was born on April 8th 1929 in Puymaufrais, a small village near Luçon in the Vendée region of western France. In 1948 he joined the Brothers of St Gabriel, a Catholic teaching order and, soon after his noviciate, came to London to study chemistry in an English-speaking environment. In 1953 he was sent to Thailand, to work in a large secondary school in Bangkok. After a period as head teacher he returned to England and in 1969 began teaching religious education at schools in Welwyn Garden City. These were the heady days which followed the revolution of the Second Vatican Council. It was a time tailor-made for such an enthusiastic teacher and energetic organiser.

After some theological studies at Heythrop College in the University of London, and an MA at SOAS, Daniel moved to Southall to work as a catechist in the Catholic parish of St Anselm's. The year was 1979. Southall had recently experienced serious riots between white skinheads and the growing immigrant population. Bishop Gerald Mahon, auxiliary to Cardinal Hume with responsibility for the western part of the diocese of Westminster, saw the mission of the local church as responding to the needs of a complex and politically sensitive multi-faith area. Daniel began by getting to know Southall, quietly gathering groups of like-minded folk, knocking on doors, talking to people in the streets and introducing them to each other. Soon his work spread to other parts of the diocese. In 1982 he founded Westminster Interfaith, the first Catholic agency in the UK specifically dedicated to working for inter-faith understanding and co-operation.

For nearly twenty years his direction of Westminster Interfaith inspired practical initiatives which brought the different faith communities together. Perhaps his most lasting achievement was the annual London Peace Pilgrimage. He had the idea of linking visits to places of worship together through a long walk round one part of the city. The first one in 1986 started from Southall and took two days, ending up in front of the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park. Later pilgrimages were less ambitious but always stimulating. One he called a 'rally' - a convoy of cars traversing the byways of Hertfordshire in search of Hindu temples and Buddhist viharas. Another was accompanied by two film crews, the resulting record being used for talks in parishes and schools as an illustration of how a common purpose, walking together, can open up conversations and friendship. The Peace Pilgrimage is now an established tradition which has been adopted by various inter-faith groups and organisations.

The time and energy Daniel put into organising such events was considerable. When he was not pacing out the distance from one place to another or writing endless letters to imams and priests and temple trustees, he was organising conferences and seminars and celebrations on every topic, from meditation and prayer to the family and the future of religious life. Every other year he organised an 'inter-faith get-together' - more often than not addressed by Cardinal Hume who always offered him unstinting support.

In March 1991, in the wake of the first Gulf War, Cardinal Hume asked him to think about how the Catholic community might respond to the damage which the war had done to inter-faith relations. Daniel immediately suggested a gathering of all the major religious communities in the Cathedral. His model was the meeting of faith leaders called by Pope John Paul II at Assisi in 1986. At first the Cardinal was sceptical. But Daniel knew how to make it work. The simplest of formats was devised, with a member of each faith introducing a prayerful reading from their sacred scriptures while everyone else listened in silence. As Daniel explained it to the Cardinal, this was not a matter of different accounts of faith being somehow melded into one, but people of faith supporting each other with a respectful attention to what was being read. At the end of the gathering more than two thousand people stood for personal prayer, each holding an olive branch brought from trees in Assisi. No one who was present that day will ever forget the power of that silence.

When he retired from this work in 1997 he carried on his research and writing, his door ever open to his neighbours - whether they were Christian, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. He would sit in his front room, surrounded by an array of religious artefacts and the plants he lovingly tended, listening to new ideas and sharing some gem he had just found in some obscure tome. Over the years he edited several collections of prayers and texts from different faiths - for use in school assemblies or hospital chaplaincies or just for devotional reading.

It is his contribution to the development of a practical approach to inter-faith relations for which he will most be remembered. He had a genius for spotting how a few words and a potent symbol - a flower, a light, a stone -could unite people, enabling them to bury their differences for a shared moment of precious silence. In this work he was inspired by the vision of a devout and fully orthodox Catholic Christian. He was proud to be a British citizen, and was an ardent cricket fan, yet to his dying day he remained French to his fingertips, never happier than when sipping a glass of good burgundy or preparing a simple well-herbed dish for his friends. Multi-faith Southall suited his particular brand of thoughtful eccentricity. He will be much missed in the churches, gurdwaras, temples and mosques of the town which he loved.

Michael Barnes SJ

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