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Russell Berrie Fellows – a decade later

A decade after my arrival in Rome as part of the first internationally recruited cohort of Russell Berrie Fellows in Interreligious Studies, the program was still going, stronger than ever, in fact.

Despite the pandemic, last year’s cohort managed to make the best of their experience, and I just recently came across a blog they prepared.

Prompted me to look up some of the old blog posts I had written about the Fellowship or about our Holy Land Seminar.


Christians in the Middle East, with Dr. Habib Malik

On Monday, Nov 5, the Social Sciences Faculty of the Angelicum hosted a lecture on Christians in the Middle East, as a kickoff event for their new Al Liqa’ Project.

History Prof. Habib Charles Malik of the Lebanese American university offered his reflections and recommendations on the Christians of the Middle East focused on the events between the Arab Spring, and the release of the Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, which was delivered during Pope Benedict’s Apostolic visit to Lebanon in September.

Prof. Malik began with the state of the question. There are about 12 million Christians in the middle East he estimates, not counting Latin immigrants, which include about 8 million Copts in Egypt, another 3 million in the Levant – Melkites, Maronite, Syriac, Greeks, Armenians, Latins and Protestants – and the Assyrians and Chaldeans in Iraq, a population that has been decimated since the U.S.-lead invasion of 2003. There remain less than a million.

Emigration out of the region has been going on since the advent of the 21st century, due laregely to attacks on the communities. During the raging civil war in Syria, he describes both sides – the Alawite Shi’a administration and the Salfist Sunni insurgents (and others) – as targeting Christians and attempting to pin the attacks on the opposing forces. They have become the primary targets of opportunity.

Malik was critical of the Arab Spring as a misnomer – the so-called Facebook generation of young democracy-minded types had not held together beyond the revolutions, and instead we have what he suggested to be called a ‘Salafi Spring.’ Tunisia is one of the few places he sees a genuine road to democracy, though throughout the region, the moderate Sunni voices are too often weak and unheard – and often in just as much danger as the Christians of the region, if they speak up against extremism.

Middle Eastern Christians are caught in the middle of several conflicting and potentially destructive polarities in the region:

  • Sunni vs. Shiite: With a rough north-south border running through Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the most explosive region of volatility around this divide is in Syria, with a small Alawite (Shi’a) administration and a larger Salafi (Sunni) insurgency.
  • Arab vs. Persian: Centered around Saudi Arabia and Qatar on one side and Iran on the other, with corollary polarities between Turkish and Israeli interests.
  • Salafi and Jihadist vs. Despotic Regimes – The false sense of security under a ruthless dictator should not be preferred over the uncertain volatility of the powers emerging from the revolutions.
  • Sino-Russian vs. Euro-American interests in the region, often complicated by western neglect or ignorance of culture, religion, and society in the area couple with agendas more concerned with petroleum and other natural resources than with human rights and religious freedom.

Given this, many of the region’s Christians have trepidations about the Arab Spring, fearing that it will bring not a transition to greater democracy, but simply create an extended power vacuum that could be manipulated by militant extremists.

But not all of Prof. Malik’s talk painted such a gloomy picture. There was an enthusiastic and grateful welcome of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, which Pope Benedict delivered in Beirut six weeks ago. There is, as always, a desire to be better understood by the west in general, the Latin Church, and by the Holy See. Many see Pope Benedict has grasping many of the complexities and delicacies of Christianity in its birthplace, and see in the exhortation recognition of the historic, current and eschatological dimension of the predicament of indigenous Christians, while outlining their unique responsibilities as Christians in the midst of the world of Islam.

He did suggest a few critiques, or observations for improvement, in the exhortation:

  • The frequent use of Lebanon as a role model, he says, seems to be putting the cart before the horse. The potential is there, certainly, but there is still a long way to go.
  • The high praise of the Middle East Council of Churches ignores the record of nearly exclusive focus on Palestine and missed opportunities in other areas
  • Interreligious dialogue needs to be a dialogue of truth and charitable but honest witness, not of the common platitudes he sees throughout
  • Finally, the pleas for a healthy secularity may resonate with a Eurocentric West, but make no sense in Islam where there is no differentiation between the realms of sacred and secular authority. This kind of language might just push Christians out of the area to seek the kind of healthy secularity to be found in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“How can the Christians navigate between the depressing realities of the Arab upheavals and the hope offered to them in the Apostolic Exhortation? How can they internalize and employ the latter to overcome the anticipated negative fallout from the former?” Some thoughts and recommendations presented by Prof. Malik:

  • The Church and the world press need to continue to put pressure by shining light on even the smallest abuses. Even dictators don’t like bad press.
  • The international community must insist that new states’ constitutions include religious liberty and hold them accountable.
  • The litmus test of the Arab Spring is and will be the treatment of religious minorities. Need to consider a ‘federalism’ option.
  • People of the region must actively promote rights and ’universal liberal values’
  • They need the encouragement and support of the Christian World
  • Inspiration from the Year of Faith and the carefully selected opening mass reading of Mark 8-27-35, with its focus on ecumenism as a witness of unity in the face of interreligious dialogue and as a prerequisite for survival and evangelization.
  • Let Maronites take a lead, from their relative stability, but open more to the Anglo-Saxon world, as they have been to the Francophone
  • Unhindered pilgrimage access to the Holy Places is still not guaranteed for the Christians of the middle east, as it is for those from anywhere else. This ought to change



Lectio Coram or bust

Friends, my lectio coram – my comprehensive exams – have been scheduled for this Friday at 16.50 Rome time.

The thesis was submitted two weeks ago and is being evaluated, though as soon as i got the printed version back i even noticed a spelling error on the front page. The first word, no less. Still, after this weekend, i hope to have my License in hand and be on the final stage of the doctorate: all research and writing, all the time.

The thesis title was “The Diaconate in Ecumenical Context” and my major presentation for the lectio coram is on “Ecumenical Development on the theme of Apostolicity” followed by questions covering the whole range of my studies here. Prayers are appreciated!

Then, i hope, i will be back to my normal volume of posts: this is going to be an exciting year!

John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue


In the midst of last week’s events surrounding the Fifth Annual John Paul II Lecture on Interreligious Understanding, delivered at the Angelicum by Cardinal Kurt Koch, i was asked to stay on another year as the graduate assistant at the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue at the Angelicum. So, another year in Rome, at least!

Coincident with the big event – that being the lecture not my assistantship renewal – the Center rolled out a new website, that will continue to expand its content:

While my academic focus has remained ecumenical, the interreligious piece, especially with the Abrahamic faiths, has grown ever entwined in every aspect of my life. It is hard to believe how much time has passed in Rome already, but there is always more to see and do. Please check out the website, and also the Center’s Facebook page.

Building on Nostra Aetate: 50 Years of Christian-Jewish Dialogue, with Cardinal Koch

ImageThe John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue hosted its fifth annual John Paul II Lecture on Interreligious Understanding, featuring Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the pontifical council for promoting Christian Unity and the commission for religious relations with the Jews. His topic was “Building on Nostra Aetate: 50 Years of Christian-Jewish Dialogue.” (full text)

The lecture was the highlight of a busy week for the Center, with a series of meetings and receptions around the Russell Berrie Fellowship and the relationship of the Angelicum University and the Russell Berrie Foundation, which is made manifest in the John Paul II Center. About 150 people attended, including the president emeritus of Ireland, Mary MacAleese, ambassadors to the Holy See from several countries, the U.S. Special Envoy for combating anti-Semitism, the new rector of the Angelicum Fr. Miroslav Adam, and Cardinal Walter Kasper.

His Eminence addressed the topic in seven sections. Nostra Aetate itself, he summed up with “YES to our Jewish roots, NO to anti-Semitism”, and as the ‘magna charta’ of Jewish-Catholic dialogue. That Nostra Aetate took up this question and set an unambiguous position that “in the Catholic Church, [Jews] have a reliable ally in the struggle against anti-Semitism.” It affirms, as Pope John Paul II said during his 1986 visit to the Roman synagogue, that

“The Jewish religion is not something ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion. With Judaism we therefore have a relationship we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and in a certain way it could be said, our elder brothers.”

With regard to the reception history of Vatican II, he says that “one can without doubt dare to assert that Nostra Aetate is to be reckoned among those Council texts which have in a convincing manner been able to effect a fundamental reorientation of the Catholic Church following the Council”. This statement, incidentally, points to a hermeneutic that clearly holds that the purpose of the Council was a reorientation of the Catholic Church.

He outlined the historical and theological reasons for including the dialogue with Jews in the Council for Christian Unity rather than the one for Interreligious Dialogue:

“The separation of Church and Synagogue can be considered the first schism in the history of the church, or as the Catholic theologian Erich Przywara has called it, the ‘primal rift’, from which he derives later progressive loss of wholeness in the Catholica.”

This was followed by a survey of post-conciliar documents building on Nostra Aetate, the most recent from the Commission being the 1998 We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, and then a similar treatment of global international dialogues and their development, the result of which is that,

“Confrontation has turned into successful collaboration, the previous conflict potential has become positive conflict management, and the coexistence of the past has been replaced by a load-bearing friendship.”

While he acknowledges that the real papal impetus for dialogue began with Paul VI, he points out that this engagement by the leadership of the universal Catholic Church was only really apprehended by the wider public in the form of Pope John Paul II, who “had a refined sense for grand gestures and strong images” as compared to, for example, Pope Benedict XVI, who “relies above all on the power of the word and humble encounter.”

Of Ratzinger, Koch highlighted the theologian Ratzinger’s understanding of the bible as one single book, with the old testament inseparable from the new. He likewise highlights the German Shepherd’s book, Jesus of Nazareth, in which he clearly reiterates Church teaching that  the biblical report of the trial of Jesus cannot serve as the basis for any assertion of collective Jewish guilt: “Jesus’ blood raises no call for retaliation, but calls all to reconciliation. It has become as the letter ot the Hebrews shows, itself the permanent Day of Atonement of God.”

He concludes by engaging open theological questions and prospects. The question of the role of Christ in the salvation of the Jews, given the enduring covenant of God: What is the mission to the Jews, if there is one? How do we reconcile these two truths without offering a parallel path of extra-Christological salvation?

Cardinal Koch sees anti-semitism, anti-Judaism, and Marcionism as still-present challenges which the Catholic Church must and does denounce as a betrayal of Christian faith. An expression of this question is found in the recently revised Good Friday prayers for use in the ‘extraordinary form’ of the Latin liturgy, which itself raises questions about “lex orandi, lex credendi”, when we have seen four versions in forty years. Liturgically, he also critiqued both preachers who omit the old testament readings from their reflections, and presiders who “change the mass” omit the original Hebrew meanings of the prayers.


Cardinal Koch with Berrie Fellows

Overheard at the Angelicum…

Something i should have started when i arrived was a list of funny things overheard at the Angelicum, and in Rome generally. Here are a few I’ve managed to remember, or pass on from others:

“The Italian concept of diverse ethnic food is that this restaurant Umbrian, the one next to it is Tuscan, and the one across the street serves Roman cuisine.” – visiting professor at the Gregorian

“New Evangelization? How does that work? Is it a 12-step program?”

“Why do we need to study Augustine when we have St. Thomas?” – seminarian in philosophy class

“Lord, I am not worthy to receive your roof… table… whatever…” – At an English-language mass this spring

“I just got out of my ecumenism exam. Why did I have to study this? All the texts say. the. same. thing!” – priest student amply demonstrating why the need for ecumenical reception

“Who is Kant? How do you spell that?” – another seminarian in philosophy

“A.J., your life is like a Jackson Pollock painting.” – (apparently envious) fellow student

“You have to be a little suspect of people who study theology. You wonder why they aren’t smart enough to study something like medicine or law and make money to support a family.” – a highly-placed Catholic theologian

“The state of Catholicism in Italy? It’s basically paganism…” – an Italian cardinal

“You’re coming to Rome? Now, you must have gelato while you are here: You can see the pope, or not see the pope, but gelato is not negotiable.” – theology student giving advice to visitors

“There’s a GIRL in the library!” – shouted by seminarian in shock upon entering the library at his collegio

“I thought ecumenism and dialogue was about getting paid to go to meetings in exotic places and enjoy nice meals” – dogma professor

“The most interesting thing was that I got to witness a consecrated virgin catfight!” – male student at a reception

Exchange in a post office, translated:
“Can I have a stamp?”
“No, you need an envelope.”
“You won’t sell me a stamp if I don’t have an envelope?”
“That’s right.”
“Well, can I have an envelope, then?”
“No, we don’t sell envelopes to people without stamps.”

“The Roman idea of ecumenism is that Jesuits can take classes at the Dominican university and vice versa. It’s a big accomplishment, after 400 years.” – Angelicum professor

‎”We had an Anglican bishop speak to us at the NAC last night. It was outrageous. He even wore a clerical colar. Doesn’t he know that we have the copyright on clergy shirts?” – North American seminarian

“My bishop sent me to Rome for five years, and all I got was an STD” – my proposal for a new line of T-shirts…

Bishop-elect Charles Morereod, OP

The first priest I knew to be made a bishop was my look-alike Daniel Jenky, CSC from Notre Dame (now Bishop Daniel of Peoria). My first professor to become a bishop was Bishop Donald Bolen of Saskatoon. But this is the first time a Facebook friend has been named a bishop.

Fr. Charles Morerod was instructor of a course I took in my first year on the “Philosophical Elements in the Catholic-Protestant Dialogue”, and has been Rector Magnificus  of the Angelicum University for a little over two years. He has doctorates in both philosophy and theology, and serves as the secretary general of the International Theological Commission, as well as teaching at three universities.

News of his appointment leaked via Swiss news radio on 2 November, though the official VIS announcement was made the following day on 3 November.

Though it has since been retracted, it is interesting to note that on the same day, the Society of St. Pius X seemed to indicate its rejection of the doctrinal preamble offered by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as a requisite for the restoration of full communion of the schismatic sect with the Catholic Church.

Interesting to note, I say, because Bishop-elect Charles was one of three theologians appointed by the CDF two years ago to engage the SSPX in dialogue in an effort to close the only formal schism that resulted from Vatican II, along with Archbishop Luis Ladaria, Secretary of the CDF and Msgr. Fernando Ocariz, vicar general of Opus Dei. Moreover, his new diocese is the home of the SPPX seminary and the place of its short-lived status as a legitimate Catholic organization (SSPX was a diocesan ‘pius union’, what would now be called an ‘association of the faithful’, from 1970-1975).

But back to the good bishop-to-be. I keep running into him these days at the Angelicum, and he leaves this weekend for his home diocese, where he will be ordained and installed on 11 December. The following seems to portray his humility rather well:

Cari [fratelli e sorelle],

…Io pensavo d’essere nella nostra cara Università fino alla pensione (o alla morte). La lascio con grande tristezza, e timore per quel che trovo davanti a me. Ma non ho pensato di poter dire di no, perché non avevo motivi gravi d’andare contro una richiesta diretta del Santo Padre. “Quando il Papa ha visto i nomi, ha detto che doveva essere Lei. Perché la conosce.”

… Cosa rispondere, lo prendo come ho sempre preso la mia vocazione: umanamente ho paura, ma mi fido della volontà divina che non delude. E vedo bene qualche urgenza pastorale in Svizzera: da questo punto di vista sono felice di poter aiutare un po’.

Sono davvero triste di dover rinunciare al nostro lavoro comune… Cercherò di trovare qualche modo d’aiutare l’Angelicum a distanza. Preghiamo gli uni per gli altri.

fr. Charles

My translation, with some help from Google:

Dear brothers and sisters

… I thought to be in our beloved University until retirement (or death). I leave with great sadness, and fear of what I find before me. But I did not think I could say ‘no’, because I had no serious reasons to go against a direct request of the Holy Father. “When the Pope saw the names, he said it had to be you. Because he knows.”

… With that answer, I take it as I have always taken my vocation: As a human, I am afraid, but I trust God will not disappoint. And I can see some pastoral urgency in Switzerland: From this point of view I am happy to help a little. ‘

I am really sad to have to give up our joint work … I will try to find some way of helping the Angelicum from a distance. Let us pray for one another.

Fr. Charles has been a guest at the Lay Centre each year, and one of the main supporters of the the new John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue at the Angelicum in the past year, and of the Russell Berrie Fellowship. He will certainly be missed!

The Angelicum community bids Bishop-elect Charles a fond farewell on Friday, 11 November, with a reception at 12:15.


The official bio:

The P. Charles Morerod, OP, was born in Riaz (diocese of Lausanne, Genève et Fribourg) October 28, 1961. He studied philosophy and theology at the Faculty of Theology, University of Fribourg, concluding with a degree in Theology. In 1983 he entered the novitiate of the Order of Friars Preachers Swiss province and has made his vows in 1987.

He was ordained April 30, 1988 in Geneva.

From 1987 to 1989 he served in pastoral ministry, first as a deacon and then as viassociate pastor of the parish of St. Paul in Geneva. From 1989 to 1992 he was Assistant  at the Faculty of Theology, University of Fribourg from 1991 to 1994 and chaplain of the University of Fribourg. In 1993 he received his doctorate in theology and a licentiate in philosophy in 1996.

From 1994 to 1999 he was adjunct professor of Fundamental Theology at the University of Fribourg and since 1996 professor at the Pontifical University of St.Thomas Aquinas. Since 1997 he is editor of the edition in French of Nova et Vetera Magazine.

In 1999 he became full-time professor at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. From 1999 to 2002 he also taught at the Faculty of Theology of Lugano. He was Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Theology from 2003 to 2009 and Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. In 2004 he obtained his doctorate in philosophy at the Catholic Institute of Toulouse. Since 2008 he is also Director of the Roman Catholic Studies Program at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, Minn.).

In April 2009 he was appointed Secretary General of the International Theological Commission and Consultant of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and in September 2009, also Rector of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Return to Rome

Time Flies. Two years on the Russell Berrie Fellowship in Interreligious Studies have come and gone. For those who know me well, it is unsurprising that my two major goals here – learn Italian and write my thesis – are still works in progress, despite a number of other accomplishments.

I am returning for a third year to the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas, Rome’s pre-eminent collegio for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free lay students. Which is, basically, anyone who cannot play on a pontifical university football (soccer) team for the annual Clericus Cup – but I digress.

Only two of us, aside from director Donna Orsuto and assistant Robert White, are back for a third consecutive year: the other being my newly-wed friend and next-door neighbor from Morelia, Mexico, David. Others who were here last year, or at least part of the year, include Muhamed (Bosnia), Marija (Croatia), and Julia (Hong Kong).

In total, we have citizens of 16 countries this year:

Belarus, Bosnia, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Georgia, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, Romania, Serbia, and the U.S.A.

Religiously we are:

  • 1 Secular Jew
  • 3 Muslims (2 Sunni, 1 Shi’a)
  • 4 Orthodox Christians (Belarusian, Georgian, Romanian, and Serbian Churches)
  • 13 Catholic Christians (12 Latin, 1 Syro-Malabar)

This year I also start a new role continuing the relationship with the Russell Berrie Foundation, through the Institute for International Education, in the form of a graduate assistantship at the new John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue, housed at the Angelicum.

The first month back in Italy consisted of jet lag, a severe cold, orientation week for new Lay Centre residents, and then orientation week for new Russell Berrie Fellows. The tesina awaits. There are a few highlights I will be, ah, highlighting shortly.

American Justice and Divine Mercy

With guests in town since Holy Thursday, we had done the liturgical marathon of the papal Triduum, including the Eucharistic adoration pilgrimage, and on Easter Monday set out for Florence. We stayed there a couple of nights, then to Assisi for a couple nights, and returned to Rome on Friday along with growing crowds of pilgrims and tourists: Little time to prepare for the next spiritual marathon, with the events surrounding the beatification of Pope John Paul II.

To give a sense of it, I left the Lay Centre at 11:00am Saturday morning, and returned for only an hour-long nap and a shower before really returning at 11:30pm Sunday night. I then had to be at the Angelicum by 9:00am Monday. My voice disappeared last night and is yet to be seen or heard. I made up for all this with a four-hour nap this afternoon.  (I am collecting stories from other students in the Lay Centre and around Rome, and am typing up my own for a post soon to come. )

This morning, while showing Professor Israel Knohl around the University, we passed a classroom where we heard applause – I assumed a seminar presentation had just finished. The only words I heard come out through the window were, “President Obama…”

“That’s funny,” I chuckled (sotto voce) to Professor Knohl, “You do not expect to hear the U.S. president’s name in a Roman university classroom – that is a first for me!”

“Ah, because of Osama.” Then, in response to my questioning look, “They got him last night. They killed him.”

And that is how I found out about American justice being served on the Sunday called Divine Mercy by the pope who was being beatified on that very day.

I had not had time to check news or mail much in the last dozen days, and none at all in the last 48 hours.

My first reaction was that the timing is interesting. As I said above, American justice served out on Divine Mercy Sunday; The coincidence of three news events, each treated in order of growing importance – the royal wedding, beatification, and killing of bin Laden all on one weekend; the fact that the day before, my guests (whose time in rome seems to have coincided exactly with the final stages of presidential preparation to go into the compound) and I having just had a conversation about how we have heard nothing from or about Osama bin Laden in months. Also interesting given that JPII and the Catholic Church were so clearly opposed to the second Iraq War, a point made during the Vigil on Saturday night.

While some friends and classmates began to celebrate (there was applause in the Angelicum remember, and I know of a priest who publicly stated it was good to celebrate Osama’s death), I kept thinking that our CIA and SEALs did exactly what they are trained to do – and what they are deservedly respected for – executing with extreme prejudice. They served justice, but there was no room for mercy, whether that was the intended result or not (and until we hear otherwise, I assume that it was the intent to capture if possible – but the worry that it was not remains).

I am glad it is over, but do not rejoice in the killing of a man, no matter how heinous his actions or warped his view of the world and of his own faith. He was no more a Muslim than Hitler was a Christian, because he did not submit to God. On that i am certain, though i claim no great expertise in Islam. I wonder what divine mercy is like for one such as he? (What is divine mercy like for one such as me?)

Incidentally, as far as I am aware, the preference for Muslims is to buried in the ground, but burial at sea is allowed for various reasons, including fear of desecration of the body – which would seem to be a reasonable fear in this instance – so the choice made was respectful of Islamic practice (even if bin Laden himself was certainly not!)

This afternoon, Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., released the following declaration on the news regarding the death of Osama Bin Laden:

  “Osama Bin Laden, as is known, claimed responsibility for grave acts that spread division and hate among the peoples, manipulating religion to that end. A Christian never takes pleasure from the fact of a man’s death, but sees it as an opportunity to reflect on each person’s responsibility, before God and humanity, and to hope and commit oneself to seeing that no event become another occasion to disseminate hate but rather to foster peace”.

Syro-Malankara Catholic bishops at the Angelicum

The bishops of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church were in Rome this week for their ad limina visit “to the threshold” of the shrines of Peter and Paul, and to meet with their successor, Benedict XVI. There are a total of 13 of them, including the Major Archbishop-Catholicos, symbolically representative of Christ and the Twelve. (Also symbolizing Christ and the Twelve are the distinctive headcovering with thirteen stitched crosses, one large and twelve small.)

The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church has about 500,000 members, predominately in Kerala state, India. It follows the west-Syrian Rite and the liturgy of St. James of Jerusalem, and forms part of the Thomas Christians who trace their initial evangelization to the Apostle Thomas in about the year 52 AD. From at least the 8th century, the Metropolitan of the autonomous Thomas Christian Church was a hierarch in the Assyrian Church of the East, their closest ecclesiastical neighbors. The Thomas Christians held that communion was maintained, if communication lost, with the Catholic/Orthodox world until the arrival of Tridentine-era Portuguese missionaries at the end of the 15th century, who began a program of Latinization. Resistance to the imposition of western culture and ecclesiology culminated in 1653, the symbolic date for the breaking of communion and the eventual breaking of the once-unified Christian Church in India into its current situation, divided among those in communion with the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church (Anglican), the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. The latter traces its origin to the corporate reunion of some Malankara Orthodox Syrian bishops and faithful starting in 1930.

The bishops met with Pope Benedict XVI this morning, and this afternoon were gathered at the Angelicum for a lecture offered by one of their number, Bishop Thomas Mar Anthonios, entitled, “New Evangelization: The Mission and Role of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church”. The text is basically a synopsis of the lineamenta prepared for the first-ever Major Archiepiscopal Assembly scheduled for later this year. Thiers will be the first episcopal conference or church sui iuris to address the theme of the New Evangelization in plenary.

Before the beginning of the lecture, His Beatitude Major Archbishop Moran Mor Baselios Cleemis greeted the assembled students and guests, and made a special point to recognize his dissertation director, Fr. Fred Bliss, SM, from his days as an Angelicum student. As I sat surrounded almost entirely by Indian Catholics, the chanted prayer that began the seminar was one of the more moving spiritual moments I’ve experienced in recent weeks (I am not even sure if it was Hindi or one of the other languages, such as Tamil or Malayalam, I should ask).

Questions and challenges to be addressed in the new evangelization noted by Bishop Thomas included the relationship of evangelization and interreligious dialogue, individualism and secular culture (referred to as a “darkness”), the success of genuine inculturation, the necessity of Christian unity for effective evangelization, and the obstacles to freedom placed before the church both by the Indian state and the Roman curia (an issue which we were assured Pope Benedict had promised this morning to take under serious consideration). Pastoral lethargy was also noted as a challenge, “Communities should be shaken from their present slumber of maintenance to a renewed consciousness of mission.”

[The text of the Holy Father’s address to the bishops can be found at Vatican Radio here]

Chanted Prayer with Syro-Malankara bishops

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