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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!”

Theologian of the Papal Household

His study has a view of a small courtyard where the papal guillotine once stood, and where a pillar likely used for the flogging of heretics and criminals can still be seen. The corridor leading from his office is lined with Roman tombstones, and the Swiss Guard are omnipresent with full regalia and halberds. Once known as the Master of the Sacred Palace, the Theologian of the Papal Household has four large paintings in his room each depicting miniature portraits of his nearly 100 predecessors (all Dominicans), starting with St. Dominic himself.

Fr. Wojciech Giertych, OP, Theologian of the Papal Household

Fr. Wojciech Giertych, OP was appointed in December of 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI, and is just beginning his fifth of a five-year term of office. A Polish Dominican born and raised in London, he describes himself as a true “prisoner of the Vatican”, albeit in a gilded cage. Outspoken, jovial, and unafraid to tell it how it is, Fr. Giertych shared with the lay centre residents his thoughts on Thomas, on theology and philosophy, the vocation of the laity, the challenge of contemporary religious life, contemporary challenges arising from the “crisis of 1968” (not Vatican II, note) including relativism, and the practical life of a Vatican officer.

One might be inclined to ask, “Why does the pope need a theologian?” especially a pope like Benedict, the first theologian to be elected pope in a couple centuries. Traditionally, there were three duties ascribed to the office: Offering theological instruction to the papal court (back when most of the court were not monsignori with doctorates in theology, philosophy, or canon law), reviewing any theological books published in Rome, and vetting the papal addresses (especially important at a time when most popes were politicians, warriors, or, worse, nobility).

Now, this means reviewing the drafts of papal allocutions drafted by the staff of Vatican speech writers, though he is neither the first nor the last word on the matter. And, Fr. Wojtech points out, his role is to examine theological content and look for phrases that could be misunderstood, especially by mass media – not to judge the prudence of an address (questions around Regensburg were raised). The most interesting papal addresses are the ones he does not see – those that the pope prepares personally: in Benedict’s case, his encyclicals, major homilies, and annual advent address to the Roman Curia. Given how much is written for the pope, it is like having a graduate seminar with Professor Ratzinger almost every day – even if the personal meetings are less often.

Occasionally the various dicasteries in the curia ask him for theological input on a document, and he serves as consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In one of the oldest continuously operating bureaucracies on the planet, he’s one man serving in an office consisting of only himself. It can be hard to tell what effect his work is having without the constant interaction of peers. This touches on one of the challenges for a friar used to life in community, used to working and living in constant contact and consultation with other people, now working in a more solitary position.

He did get invited to lunch with the pope, once. It is fairly common knowledge that Pope Benedict normally prefers to eat alone or with the sisters who prepare his meals – understandable for an introvert in an intensely public office! However, when a film crew came in to film a “day in the life of the pope”  for international TV consumption, it happened that the Holy Father would be seen having a ‘working lunch’ with three members of the papal family, including, as it happens, Fr. Giertych. (“A great, open conversation. We three had wine, while the pope had juice”) As it was viewed around the world, some cardinals expressed how lucky our Friar Preacher was – even they had never had lunch with the pope!

“Never mix theology and philosophy, because philosophy always wins.” Despite the irony of such a statement from a Thomist, or perhaps because of it, this comment alone sparked a conversation that continued with some of us well after Fr. Wojciech left for the evening. While philosophy – in the broad sense of all the ‘sciences’ and other disciplines – can serve the church and our study of theology, they should never be confused as if they are theology, or as if the revelation of the Word should be judged according to the criterion of philosophy, politics, or social sciences. When this happens you end up getting the problems that, for him, have stemmed especially from 1968, and include the identification of the faith with one political party (‘as a good Catholic you must vote for candidate X or party Y’), the revision of the life of faith to fit in with what people expect from other fields, and end up with relativism (‘there may be a Truth, but we can’t know the Truth, so you have your truth and I have my truth’).

The conversation got really interesting as we delved into the vocation, identity, and relationships of the laity, clergy, and religious. Religious should be visible in the world, and laity should be “discreet” (leaven in the world, to use another phrase) – and we have had trouble with religious being more like laity and laity being more like religious. Specifcally, he noted some religious orders without habits of any kind (“it doesn’t matter what kind: a modern habit or a medieval habit or a 19th century habit”) living in apartments where you can hardly find them, or some of the lay movements whose first order of business seems to be deciding what kind of habit to design – and the more medieval the better!

When I asked about lay people serving in ministry positions, his response was about people wanting to be the lector all the time, or spend all their time helping at the church because something is amiss in their real life or they do not understand that the primary lay ministry is in the world, not collecting money at mass or something, “don’t spend your life holding on to the sacristy door”. But what about lay people serving the church in a paid, full time manner? Even the Roman curia has lay ministers in its employ?

“Well, of course the church will always need administrative personnel, computer technicians, finance experts, people to manage the facilities – especially in places where the church is burdened with such institutions as schools and hospitals”. Pastors should not be “running the plant”, but should be engaged in sacramental and pastoral ministry. But even this was more about ‘secular’ jobs that one could do for the church or for another entity, not so much ecclesial vocations; we tried a different track: We are here in Rome, studying at pontifical universities, to get ecclesiastical degrees – what would he expect for us to do with them?

“We have a saying in Poland: man cannot live on theology alone!” As a lay person you should be thinking of making a living, to support a family, you cannot do this with a theology degree. You cannot come from a degree and demand a job from the bishop – he may not have the money. [Can you imagine anyone demanding a job from a bishop???] We need the people (mentioned above) to be theologically trained, but it should be a secondary to your primary education. He shared his experience fromPoland, where a degree is a civil, legal contract – maybe in that system there is a “demand” to be employed in the field. But he wondered most people studying in Poland for theology degrees should have instead been studying harder subjects like medicine or law, but admitted that each country is different: “We have 100 friars living at the monastery in Krakow, 14 masses a day, confessions with two-hour waiting lines” and no experience of a non-ordained person devoting their life to the church outside of a religious community.

 “I’d rather see thirty ‘normal’ people give one hour a week, than to pay one person for thirty hours a week, if that person does not have the best formation…” But, he admits he may be wrong as he quoted the Dominican Cardinal Yves Congar, who wrote after being dragged to Rome to be questioned in the 1950’s, wrote in his journals “I may be getting the answers wrong, but these are real questions – and that’s what enervates these people here in Rome!” He was asking questions about the laity and ministry and looking to scripture and the patristic sources for answers. We have to keep asking these real questions, even if it takes time to get the right answers; that is better than ignoring the problems!

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