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Official Catholic Dialogue with Judaism and Islam

Russell Berrie Fellows at Chapel of the Patrons of Europe, Vatican Basilica

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”.

Bernini's Baldacchino

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.

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Commitment of the Catholic Church to Dialogue

Monday brought us to the Angelicum with a welcome from Irish Dominican Michael Carragher, Vice-Rector and Canon Law Professor, and a brief tour from the new dean of the Theology faculty, Maltese Dominican Joseph Aguis. I learned more about the University in these 20 minutes than my time spent in its classrooms the last year. The university itself is the third oldest in rome, after Sapienza and the Gregorian, but its original location was next to the Pantheon in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. The building that currently houses the university was originally a convent, repurchased from the government sometime after both sites had been taken in 1870. In what had been the chapter room, and serves now as the Sala de Senato, the full-body relic of an unnamed saint rests in the armor of an imperial roman soldier under the altar, unbeknownst to even some of the faculty who had joined us on our tour.

Fr. James Puglisi, SA, who serves as director of the ecumenical section and the Centro Pro Unione lead our first academic discussion on the “Commitment of the Catholic Church to Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue”. Like many of the presentations throughout the week, the content was review, but would certainly be helpful for those arriving without previous background in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. We lunched at the Gregorian university bar, which is substantially larger than its Angelicum counterpart.

Thomas Casey, SJ pictured with NYU Professor Lawrence Schiffman

Following lunch, we ran into former Lay Centre resident Dimitrios Keramidas in his new role as secretary of the Missiology faculty at the Gregorian. He gave us an impromptu tour of his office and that of the Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion and Culture, as well as the Cardinal Bea Centre for Judaic Studies. We were joined there by Irish Jesuit Father Thomas Casey, director of the Bea centre, who introduced us to the research and work of the center, which includes 6000 volumes on Judaism in the Gregorian university library. This was followed by a 90-moinute introduction to the library there, which is the largest in Rome. At this point I calculated that if all the pontifical universities in Rome combined their libraries into a single collection, or at least a single system to which all pontifical students had access, it would be almost as large as the Hesburgh Memorial Library at Notre Dame.

Gerard O'Connell, Rome Correspondent for UCANews

We returned to the Lay Centre for celebration of the Eucharist with the Theologian of the Papal Household, Polish Dominican Wojciech Giertych. This was followed by a dual-presentation and discussion over dinner with Fr. Giertych and Gerard O’Connell, Rome correspondent for the Union of Catholic Asia News service and author of God’s Invisible Hand, a biography of Cardinal Francis Arinze. The topic of their presentations was, “Issues that Matter to the Holy See: Seeing Interreligious Dialogue in its Broader Context”.

Wojciech Giertych, OP

The views were decidedly different, but not necessarily in opposition. Clearly a journalist and a theologian have different constituencies, frames of reference, and sensitivities when observing the Holy See; both men have had several years of doing so. Fr. Giertych raised a few hackles among some fellows with comments that grace comes through Christ and not through Buddha or Muhammad, but others countered that this is simply classical Christocentricism, inclusivist though it may be and in contrast to a more pluralistic view that is popularly construed as the most popular approach. (Whether it is or not is another discussion). At the least, it is helpful to be reminded that even in the administration of a papacy that is clearly pro-dialogue, there exist different methodologies and approaches to dialogue.

One of the burning questions of the evening revolved around whether Jews and Muslisms, at least, worship the same God as Christians. The Catholic Church has authoritatively taught that they do, and this has been cited from Gregory VII in the eleventh century to Nostra Aetate in the twentieth. Still, the thesis is challenged even within the church, and this fact lead to some pretty interesting conversation the rest of the evening. That, and another debate which started with one of the European fellows noting, “There is nothing new in Nostra Aetate. It is fifty years old, and it shows. We should be much further along than this!”

Back home in Rome

What a week! I returned to Rome on Sunday, 26 September with time enough for lunch and a nap before beginning an intensive orientation week for the Russell Berrie Fellowship. Though I started the program last year, the orientation and several other aspects are new this year, and we welcome the third cohort, as the first has finished their course of study (I am in the second).

The new Fellows include priests from Poland, Ruanda, Nigeria and India and lay scholars from Chile, Ukraine, Gambia, India and the U.S. (including one seminarian, one religious sister, and one Muslim). In addition to the Latin Church (“Roman Catholic”), three of the Catholics are Eastern: the Ukrainian Greek, Syro-Malabar, and Syro-Malankara Catholic Churches are represented. More had studied in Rome previously than with my class, and I was reminded how little my Italian has advanced in the last year.

The Lay Centre served as the ‘base camp’ for our orientation, and there is something about sharing my home in Rome with friends and fellow Fellows that gives a special joy. This truly is a place of hospitality and dialogue, of retreat and study, and it is only a pity that more of the Fellows are not also residents the rest of the year! Insha’Allah

It was an impressive schedule.  Our first evening’s introductory remarks were from Dr. Donna Orsuto (Lay Centre Director, Pontifical University Gregoriana) and Dr. Adam Afterman (Shalom Hartman Institute, Tel Aviv University).

Owing to the schedule, I am back-filling some of my notes, but dating them as though they were real time. I hope it makes sense!

Nice to be back on the terrace

Judaism and Christianity in Islamic Perspective

The Russell Berrie Foundation supports an enormous amount of activity in a wide variety of fields. The John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue and the Russell Berrie Fellowships at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome are just the most recent, though positioned to have profound impact on the life of the church.

One aspect of the Foundation’s work in Rome is the sponsorship of an annual John Paul II Lecture in Interreligious Understanding, featuring a prominent scholar or religious leader. The inaugural lecture was delivered in 2008 by Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. and the second was offered in 2009 by the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich. After two years of leading pastors, this year’s lecture was delivered by a world-class scholar, Dr. Mona Siddiqui of the University of Glasgow.

Professor Mona Siddiqui

The original date for the lecture was to take place the day before our Mosque visit, but was delayed to volcanic activity! It turned out to be a good way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, however!

The Berrie Fellows had the privilege to lunch with Dr. Siddiqui, Ms. Angelica Berrie, and the members of the Foundation and the IIE who were in town for the event yesterday after the seminar on Mary in Islam. In an unexpected re-enactment of the wisdom from Luke 14.1-11, I had situated myself at the end of the table to allow others near the honored guest, and after some shuffling I suddenly found myself placed between Dr. Siddiqui and Ms. Berrie – two fascinating women! And both so very approachable, a gift I appreciate more and more the longer I am in service to the Church.

During today’s featured lecture, Dr. Siddiqui addressed the history of interaction between Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Islamic perspective, and focusing on the religious rather than the political realities of our day. The importance of dialogue is something she underlined, not for the sake of conversion, but for the sake of compassion.

“Furthermore, many in the West are aware that despite media frenzy at times, dialogue is not a necessity, it is an option even a privilege. Inter religious work can be a symbol of unity across civilisations and it can also reverberate amongst the followers of the faith. But it works best when there is both text and context. There are many Muslims and Christians who remain convinced that dialogue is fundamentally flawed, not just theologically but also in practical terms. How can Muslims and Christians talk about the same God when they hold such different understandings of the same God? If dialogue is not directed at conversion to Christ or to the event of the Qur’an, what is its real purpose?  …

Inter religious work has never been about implicit or explicit conversion. As a Muslim who has lived most of her life in the West, I have learnt that faith speaks to faith in many ways. Dialogue has been a process of learning and accepting, of questioning and appreciating, of self-doubt and humility. Most importantly it has been to understand that talking about a common humanity demands much generosity in the face of practical difference.”

 The full transcript is available here, and a video of the lecture here.

Mary in Islam

Dr. Mona Siddiqui presaged tomorrow’s Annual John Paul II Lecture on Interreligious Dialogue with a visit to the seminar Fr. Fred Bliss has been conducting on Mary in Ecumenical Dialogue (which incidentally, uses the Seattle Statement as its primary text). This is my summary of her presentation, with a little reflection.

One of the few things most (western) Christians would know about Islam is that Jesus is respected as a prophet and messenger of God – though not as God himself. Less well known is that Mary is also mentioned from the Qur’an, and considered by some also as a prophet (though not a Messenger). She is, in fact, referenced more frequently in the pages of the Qur’an than in the New Testament. Instead of Mary, Mother of God, the reference is almost always to ‘Isâ, son of Miryam. Mary’s elevation to a place of respect is owing to her being mother of one of the great prophets. There are 114 suras (chapters) in the Muslim holy book, eight of which are devoted to, or named for, a person. One of these is Mary of Nazareth, to whom the 19th sura is dedicated.

Islam does not hold a view of original sin and the need for salvation from sin that dominates Augustinian-influenced Christianity. Adam’s first act of sin was also his first act of the will, and was apparently a part of the divine plan from the beginning that he would populate the Earth (which is part of the result of his choice). We are not born into a state of sin so much as we are inclined to commit particular sins. Nevertheless there is a sort of myth that sometime before birth, we are each of us ‘pricked’ by the devil, which has a similar effect. Mary and Jesus were spared this pricking for much the same reason that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was developed, to recognize Mary’s holiness and purity as a worthy mother of a great prophet and Messenger.

ARCIC II Seattle Statement: Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ

The virgin birth of Jesus is affirmed, though the Qur’an and its commentators never focus as much on the physicality of all this, as in some of the extreme Christian views. For Islam, Mary’s purity was ethical and spiritual rather than physical. And nothing about a perpetual virginity.

She is a popular person of devotion, especially for Muslim women. Her role is perhaps not as prominent as Fatima, the daughter of the prophet, who is especially revered among Shi’ah Muslims as the mother of successors to the Prophet Mohammad.

There’s a new doc’ in town

My fellow Russell Berrie Fellow Matthew John Paul Tan was celebrated for two significant milestones at Rome’s most famous Austrian restaurant today. My Singaporean-Aussie classmate was officially awarded his Ph.D. in theology from the Australian Catholic University on Friday, just two days before his 30th birthday today.

Though he put in several years of effort toward the first achievement, credit is largely due elsewhere for the second. Nevertheless we threw him a party for both.

Actually, he invited us. So it is not so much that we threw a party for him as that we showed up for his party. But we brought gifts!

Well, a gift, anyway. Moving on…

Cantina Tirolese is famous, at least among Vatican-watching theology nerds, as the favorite haunt of the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger, whose presence was frequent enough that he had a perpetually reserved booth. I do not know if he has been back since his election five years ago, though. Maybe they deliver?

Congrats again to Matthew!  

Dr. Matthew John Paul Tan

Angelicum Leads the Way in Rome for Eucharistic Adoration

Rome Reports is an English-language news program based in Rome, and broadcasting to several countries. They recently did a feature of the Angelicum, apparently the only Pontifical Univeristy in Rome with daily Eucharistic Adoration, including interviews with familiar faces: Benedict Croell, OP; Matthew John Paul Tan, PhD (another Russell Berrie Fellow); and Jill Alexy, M.Div. (fellow Notre Dame alumn).

You can watch the clip here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8Wh3YqLOoU

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