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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

Spring Studies

For those still keeping track, here are my courses for the coming semester, along with thesis writing and preparing for the lectio coram – comprehensive oral exams.

  • Catholicism in the Church: Anglican and Roman Catholic Perspectives
  • Does Doctrine Still Divide? (with Geoffrey Wainright)
  • Ecumenical Methodology II
  • Ecumenism and Canonical Structures
  • First-Century Judaism
  • From the Chalcedonian Formula of Faith to the Christological Agreements between the Catholic Church and the Pre-Chalcedonian Churches
  • The Messianic Idea in the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls
  • Shi’ite Islam and Roman Catholicism
  • Seminar: Readings in Schillebeeckx’s Christology

Robert DeNiro and Monica Bellucci filming on campus

Monica Bellucci and Robert DeNiro in Rome

So, I ran into Robert DeNiro today. Not literally, mind you, what with the security and stage hands and boom operators and thirty other people that go into shooting a short scene, it would have taken a deliberate effort and probably not have been received well to do so literally. Nevertheless, he and Monica Bellucci were at the Angelicum today shooting for their new movie, Manuale d’amore 3.

Unlike my late spring encounter with the hordes of Italian teens outside Castel Sant’Angelo for the stars of the latest Twighlight movie, I might have actually made an effort to get DeNiro’s signature, if it were not so apparent that he was working and that I was supposed to be getting to class. It would have been, as they say, simply brutto. Ah well. Next time!

Building Bridges of Hope: Success Stories and Strategies for Interfaith Action

Past the Ambassador and Dr. Diaz, in the white...

On October 12, 2010, the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and the Pontifical Gregorian University sponsored a conference entitled “Building Bridges of Hope: Success Stories and Strategies for Interfaith Action.” The purpose of the conference was to discuss how people of different faiths could work together to address global problems. Nine panelists from different faiths spoke on the topics of environmental protection, equitable development, and conflict resolution, sharing their religion’s perspective on their panel theme plus concrete examples of interreligious cooperation in that field. The White House sent a keynote speaker, Dr. Joshua DuBois, to the event to emphasize the U.S. Government’s senior-level support for the initiative.

[Taken from the conferences wikisite, which includes full transcripts of presentations:]

Foclare Representative; Melkite Archbishop Elias Chacour; Dr. Hillel Levine

The Environment, Ethical Development, and Conflict Prevention were the three panel themes of the conference, each addressed by three panellists from each of the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Not all were academics. Business and NGO leaders, clergy and politicians were among the presenters, providing for an even greater variety of approaches to the questions of interfaith dialogue and action.

Take a few minutes to peruse the conference on the link above!

Dr. Joshua DuBois, Director, White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships

Russell Berrie Foundation Board of Trustees

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.

Russell Berrie Fellows with Angelica Berrie, Rome Islamic Leadership and Angelicum staff

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).

Russell Berrie Foundation Trustees

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.

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!”

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