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).