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The second full day of our orientation began with a celebration of the Eucharist at the Vatican Basilica, in the Chapel of the Patrons of Europe just a few yards from the heart of the basilica, underneath the high altar. It was dedicated by Pope John Paul II in 1981 to the three first-millennium co-patrons of Europe: St. Benedict of Norcia and Sts. Cyril and Methodius of Thessaloniki. (The three second-millennium co-patrons, all women, were named in 1999.) The presider of our liturgy was Father Jess Rodriguez of the Jesuit curia, newly arrived in Rome to serve the English Secretariat of the Church’s largest religious order.
Noted art historian Elizabeth Lev joined us after the liturgy to give us a brief, but informative, insider’s tour of the basilica of St. Peter. Even for those who have been in Rome for years, something new was gleaned from her rich presentation. For me, it was the answer to one of the Eternal City’s eternal questions: “Hey Bernini, what’s with the twisted columns on the baldacchino???”
A short walk down Via della Conciliazione brought us to the offices of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which for largely historical reasons, also houses the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and a presentation from German Salesian Norbert Hofmann on the “Official Catholic Dialogue with Judaism”.
An afternoon of technical details broke for two more presentations: “Analysis of Nostra Aetate: Doctrine and History” by Thomas Casey, SJ and “The Official Dialogue of the Catholic Church with Islam” with German Jesuit Felix Körner of the Gregorian University’s ISIRC. The final discussion of the evening was a dinner dialogue with U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, theologian Miguel Diaz, his wife and fellow theologian Marian Diaz, and the Canadian Ambassador to the Holy See, Anne Leahy. Their topic, understandingly, was “Diplomacy and Interreligious Dialogue”. We were joined by Drs. Armando and Adalberta Bernardini, president and vice-president of the International Foundation for Interreligious and Intercultural Education – and Fellow Paola’s parents.
The Drs. Diaz and family were back at the Lay Centre this evening. This time, the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, his wife (and fellow theologian) Marian, and two of their boys brought over a Cajun-themed dinner to help celebrate a culture night focusing on Lousiana. Apparently, culture and movie nights were a fairly common activity at Villa Richardson under Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon, and the Diaz family is looking to continue the custom at least occasionally in partnership with the Lay Centre (which Ambassador Diaz called the family’s second home in Rome this evening!).
The public affairs officer in the Embassy is J. Nathan Bland, a Lousiana native who shared a presentation about the people, faith, culture and cuisine of his home state. We were doubly honored by the presence of Nathan’s mother who was visiting Rome for the first time! Nathan shared his experience growing up as an African-American Catholic, a double minority in northern Louisiana, and his journey of discovery of black Catholic history and experience. The Ambassador then shared thoughts on his experience working with Latino and African-American Catholic theology.
The evening was capped with a viewing of Disney’s Princess and the Frog, notable as the first Disney feature film whose protagonist is an African-American, and is set in New Orleans.
I do not know the last time I have seen a room of 40 grown adults watching a Disney movie, but it was a sight to see! The food was good, too!
The story of the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah in Gen 18 has inspired countless icons, including the Trinitarian icon that appears on the front page of our prayer programs and on the altar tonight. Of course, the most famous of these Trinitarian icons is Andrei Rublev’s fifteenth century icon of the Trinity. I was first introduced to this icon back when I was a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame by one of my mentors and now deceased Roman Catholic theologian, Catherine M. LaCugna. After making the transatlantic trip all the way from Minnesota, a 4’ by 5’ copy of this icon, which has been hanging in of our family’s dining room for over ten years, now hangs at Villa Richardson. Throughout my life journey, I have drawn much personal inspiration from this icon. In several of my scholarly publications, I have underscored the icon’s ability to suggest the values of familial and communal living, the affirmation of human differences, creaturely interdependence, the sharing of resources, and above all, the practice of hospitality.
How fitting it is to have this icon remind us of these values as we gather here today to celebrate the official opening of the Lay Centre at its new home on the Caelian Hill! In a world plagued by violence, prejudice, and religious intolerance, this Lay Centre offers an oasis for persons of faith to come together, set aside divisions, and engage in mutual and transformative actions. In giving to and receiving from each other, especially with respect to the exchange of theological ideas that will occur in this centre, human lives will be changed. This is a place where minds will be challenged to advance human understanding and hearts opened to serve one’s neighbor. As persons from very diverse backgrounds come together, cultural and intellectual resources will be shared. And as is often the case in educational settings, this sharing will birth again and again, a vibrant community of learners.
President Obama has invited the human family to build bridges and turn dialogue into interfaith service for the sake of the common good. In this place, interfaith dialogue will lead to and flow from interfaith service, as students who live in community and come here from various religious backgrounds accompany one another, learn from one another, and help each other translate and integrate what they have learned into a life of service.
In its Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council invites women and men of faith to understand the aspirations, the yearnings, and the often dramatic features of the world in which we live” (GS, 4). May this Lay Centre, situated at the heart of the eternal city of Rome, cultivate minds and hearts willing to turn to others and to the world that surrounds us in order to better read and respond to the signs of our time. May this international community yield much fruit relative to new ideas embraced and actions undertaken for the sake of the common good. And may the practice of hospitality in this centre turn hosts into guests and strangers into friends. Perhaps, somewhere in this learning and living community, in simple acts of sharing material and spiritual resources, the words in the letter to the Hebrews will become palpable: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb 13:2).