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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: http://bridgebuilders.wikispaces.com/]
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!
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.
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.
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”.
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!”