For three days this week, the Angelicum, the Lay Centre, and the Russell Berrie Fellows hosted the board of trustees of the Russell Berrie Foundation, which grants the funding and direction for our Fellowship. It was the first time the full board had come to Rome to see first-hand how the program was progressing.
In addition to the 20 Fellows (Ten each year for two years) funded, the Foundation also provides for the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue at the Angelicum, supplies visiting faculty for six intensive courses this year, and the annual lecture in Interfaith Dialogue featuring a world-renowned speaker.
The six trustees were friends, family, and colleagues of Russ Berrie, the successful New Jersey entrepreneur with interests ranging from Catholic-Jewish relations, to business leadership development, medical diabetes research, and fostering a Jewish renaissance. Angelica Berrie, his widow, is chair of the board.
Three of the trustees had come to Rome in early 2005 to meet with John Paul II, and at that time met with some of Rabbi Jack Bemporad’s students. This encounter sparked the idea that became the Russell Berrie Fellowship in Interreligious Studies. Over lunch, one of the trustees told me that, as the son of two Holocaust survivors, he was completely surprised by his welcome in Rome on that visit and the attitude of these post-Vatican II Catholics. Not what he expected or had experienced in the past; he became a convert to the cause of dialogue.
I had shared with him and then with the entire group that, being raised not only post-Vatican II but by parents formed mostly after the Council themselves, nothing could be more antithetical to Catholicism than anti-Semitism. It was in fact fairly late, in college, that I first encountered a history of the Church with the Jews that was anything other than the very positive relations we now largely enjoy, and it was a shock. For the man with whom I was speaking, his surprise had been at discovering my generation’s positive disposition.
Several events gave the Fellows and the trustees time to meet and mingle, along with officers of the Angelicum and then at the Lay Centre. A more formal presentation was offered by four of us representing the two cohorts of current Fellows: Myself, Paola Bernardini (Italy), John Bakeni (Nigeria), and Taras Dzyubanskyy (Ukraine).
My remarks focused on three sections: 1) Who am I and what is my background in interreligious dialogue, 2) Why Rome and the Angelicum, instead of somewhere like Boston College or Notre Dame – places with stronger academic reputations and established Jewish-Catholic studies and resources for dialogue? And 3) Where is the future of our dialogue, and my role in it as a Fellow?
Most people have heard my vocation story, or at least the early part of it. I distinctly remember where I was when, at the age of 7, I discovered that not all Christians shared the same Church. I was scandalized, even then, and vowed to spend my life working to heal the divisions. At about the same time I discovered that not everyone was Christian, but this delighted me and I determined to learn as much as I could about the world’s religions.
But the question in the minds of several people is, Why Rome? Why Angelicum? There is the historical opportunity in the form of the personal connections between Russ Berrie, Rabbi Bemporad (who has been visiting professor at the Angelicum for over a decade) and Fr. Fred Bliss (former chair of the ecumenical section). It is not the only place where a Rabbi teaches on a Catholic theology faculty, nor the first. But it is where Karol Wojtyla got his doctorate in philosophy and where, for example, Cardinal-designate Archbishop Wuerl of Washington and Archbishop Dolan of New York did their studies while in Rome.
The Angelicum is the second oldest of the pontifical universities, after the Gregorian, and the only one which offers the specialization in ecumenism or an entire programme in English – making it more accessible to several of the countries where the growth of the church is strongest, in Africa, India, and southeast Asia. The program here offers exposure to a broader cross-section of the church and future episcopate than would be the case at even the best U.S. or northern European university. Just being part of such a diverse fellowship, often being one of only two or three North Americans or native Anglophones in a class offers insight to the dialogue within the church as well as dialogues ecumenical and interreligious. As I noted in my remarks, the Fellows represent the demographics of the Church better than the College of Cardinals does, though we need more from Latin and South America.
One of the most interesting comments for me came from our sole Latina, Claudia, from Chile. Leadership was a theme repeated by the trustees and staff of the Foundation during our orientation and meetings. As a lay person, she says, she had never considered what leadership in the Church would mean, for her. Obviously, she will not be bishop or a religious superior, and this is true of most of us. Even after having studied theology for several years, and having been invited to Trent for an international symposium in her field, she had never been asked by anyone within the Church to think about her leadership role. Remarkable.