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Networking Meeting on Catholic Higher Education in Rome

Also of interest in Rome:

Dinner with Ambassador Ken Hackett


Ambassador Ken Hackett with his wife, Joan

This talk lately reminds me i forgot to post about my first meeting with Ambassador Ken Hackett, back in early October:

On Thursday night [Oct.3], my past and present Rome worlds met one another when the entire Rome program of the Catholic University of America and Loyola University Maryland descended upon the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas to welcome U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Ken Hackett and his wife, Joan, on their twelfth day in Rome.

His predecessor, Prof. Miguel Diaz, was a theologian serving as the link between the U.S. government and the theologian-pope Ratzinger. Now we have the recently retired head of caritas in the U.S. representing the government to the very service-oriented successor of Peter.

Whatever else one can say about President Obama, his picks for US Ambassador to the Holy See have been more spot-on as genuinely Catholic picks than any president in our history – judged on pastoral and theological, rather than political, qualifications. If that were the only criterion (it is not, to be sure) he would be the most Catholic president we have ever had. Reflect on that for a moment…!

If I were to sum up the Ambassador’s approach, it is that he intends to have fun the next three years. Not, “fun”, as in he’s going to spend his entire assignment on a yacht in the Mediterranean or something.  But, fun, as in, here is someone who has lived the “poor church for the poor” after 40 years in Catholic Relief Services, and is coming to Rome just as we have a bishop imbued deeply in the spirit of the poverello of Assisi.


An interesting historical note: Ambassador Hackett is recipient of the 2012 Laetare Medal, the same honor which the shortest-serving US Ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor, refused in 2009 so that she would not have to share the platform with President Obama, who was receiving an honorary doctorate that year – as have all U.S. presidents since Eisenhower. Brutta figura or principled stand? A bit of each, I think.

Summer 2013

In the last few months, while the world has witnessed the first resignation of the bishop of Rome in six centuries, the election of one with the hopes of the world on his shoulders, renewed violence in Egypt and ongoing horror in Syria, the change in my own life is both far more modest, and more pleasant to share. Of the others, no doubt more will be said.

In May I was informed that my hours at the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue will be reduced. The Russell Berrie Foundation and the Angelicum– co-operators in the direction of the Center – have been very generous in keeping me on as the Graduate Assistant (and de facto only regular staff person) for the last two years since my fellowship was concluded.  I will continue for the coming academic year in the same capacity, and await anxiously news of the next stage of the Center and the Russell Berrie Fellowship in Interreligious Studies at the Angelicum, and whether I may continue to be a part of it.

The reduction in hours, including two summer months without any work, meant three things:

  • I would have to find additional work to pay for my studies and living expenses (no doctoral stipends in Rome!);
  • I would have to leave the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas, my home in Rome the last four years;
  • I would have an entirely free summer – and even fewer resources with which to enjoy it.

As with my original move to Rome, however, providence provides.

Within a week, three work opportunities presented themselves, which all eventually came to fruition. One even had the advantage of ‘killing two birds with one stone’ and taking care of the accommodation question as well.

  1. In mid-August, I take on the role of Resident Manager (Domers, read ‘rector’) for The Catholic University of America’s flagship study abroad program, happily joining the staff of my first graduate school, in the city of my latest.
    It comes with a spacious corner apartment at the Prati campus – furnished in the colors of Halloween. (I kid you not: Pumpkin-colored couch, dining room chairs, tableware, salad bowl, etc… St. Mary Magdalen folks, Fr. Marquart would have absolutely loved it…).

    The 70's would be proud

    The 70’s would be proud

  2. In mid-September, I begin teaching my first university level course as an Adjunct Assistant Professor for Assumption College (Worcester, MA) for their new Rome program. My course is part of the core curriculum, titled “Contemporary Catholicism”. And I get to teach it, in Rome, in the semester that Popes John XXXIII and John Paul II are being canonized. How about them apples, fellow theologians? Preparing the syllabus took the first part of my summer vacation, but has been a great deal of fun.
  1. In February, I start teaching my first specialized course in Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue at the university level, this time at one of the Roman colleges (seminaries), the Pontifical Beda College, where second-career Anglophone seminarians usually find themselves. The course is offered during the fourth year, so all of my students will be transitional deacons – which should make for some fun conversations given my research area!

As for the free summer? Staying in Rome is an expensive proposition… but so is returning home to Seattle.

Suddenly, a little casual research into the interplay of Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam in central and southeastern Europe seemed appealing. It is amazing how far you can get there on a limited budget, a ecumenical network, and whatever else providence can provide…

Lay Centre on EWTN

In other news… The Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas appears on the 4 February, EWTN “Vaticano” feature. The Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas is  Rome’s premier collegio for lay students at the pontifical universities, institutes, and athenae.

The whole clip is only 27.00 long, and the section on the Lay Centre begins at 21.00

[embedding is not functioning at the moment, but you can go to the link here:]

Cantaur comes to the Lay Centre

The voicemail was indistinct there almost too much distortion to hear the speaker at the other end. Only after a third attempt could I recognize the familiar Australian accent of Dr. Margie Richardson, wife of Canon David Richardson of the Anglican Centre in Rome.

So I resorted to checking my personal email at work to see if there was news:

“The Archbishop of Canterbury may want to stop by tomorrow morning to see the garden and say hello. A.J., would you please welcome him and show him around?”

Even in Rome, that does not happen every day! How could I say no?

His Grace started this morning at San Gregorio Magno, the point from which Gregory the Great sent Augustine to Canterbury to evangelize more of the British Isles, and where the Archbishop and the Pope Benedict celebrated a solemn vespers together earlier this year to mark the 1000th anniversary of the Camaldoli community there.

Then, with the Richardsons, Msgr. Mark Langham of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Canon Jonathan Goodall, theologian-ecumenist of Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop toured the Passionist-operated Basilica of San Giovanni e Paolo, and received a brief tour of the Lay Centre and Passionist gardens, including the remains of the Temple of Divine Claudius.

After admiring our view and a few moments of gracious conversation, they were whisked away in Vatican state cars to the Anglican Centre for lunch and preparation for the Archbishop’s address to the Synod of Bishops this evening.

A president, an archbishop, and an ambassador sit down for dinner…

After a summer attempting to survive the Roman heat on my own, with the generosity of friends and colleagues allowing me to housesit in lieu of rent, I moved back into the Lay Centre in early September. Our first guest dinner was a typical Lay Centre affair, in that guests included the following:

  • Mary McAleese, Former President of Ireland, and former Lay Centre resident
  • Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, recently retired Apostolic Nuncio to Egypt, and one of the Church’s leading experts on Islam and Interreligious Dialogue
  • Lithuanian Ambassador to the Holy See Irina Vaišvilaitė, another former resident of the Lay Centre.

Archbishop Fitzgerald updated us on the process for the election of the Coptic pope, which was still ongoing. Involving laity, clergy, and religious, the original field of nominations was 17, bishops and monks, which was whittled down to 5, and then three whose names were submitted to be selected by a blindfolded altar boy. A great deal of consultation and lay involvement went into the decision making fo who those names would be, yet room was left in the process for divine guidance, in the form of the blind innocence of a child.

Ambassador Vaišvilaitė shared her experience of presenting her credentials to the Holy Father at Castel Gandolfo, in an unusual individual meeting and conversation at the summer retreat.

President McAleese is returning to Rome to finish her doctorate in canon law, and now at the Irish College, which is practically bereft of new Irish seminarians after the much contested Dolan Report earlier this year.

In other words, just another evening at the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas!

The Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas: Catholic, Ecumenical, and Interreligious

I wrote the following for Koinonia, the newsletter of the Paulist Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. It was published in the winter 2012 issue:

For Avner, an Israeli Jew, Yom Kippur this year meant spending the day at a Benedictine retreat center with his new housemates and attending his first Catholic mass. It inspired him to fast for the Day of Atonement for the first time in years.

For Kassim, a Muslim father of three from Ghana, his first Sunday in Rome was marked by the celebration of the Eucharist as well – at St. Peter’s Basilica with Pope Benedict XVI and all the bishops of Africa, including Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. Matthew, a Christian born in Singapore and living in Australia, experienced for the first time a Shabbat meal with a rabbi; Muhamed, a Sunni imam from Bosnia studied the liturgy of the hours in the Latin tradition alongside a Belarusian Orthodox scripture scholar and a Syro-Malabar Catholic liturgist.

When a rabbi, an imam, and a minister sit down together, it sounds like the beginning of a joke. Mention that they are housemates, too, and you suspect there is a punch line coming. Add that this is in the heart of Rome, in a Catholic residence for students of the Pontifical Universities in the Eternal City, and your skepticism is almost justified.

For twenty-five years, however, the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas has been just that: a Catholic collegio [1]committed to the formation of future theologians and church leaders in their Catholic identity – and precisely by virtue of that commitment, also a house of hospitality to ecumenical and interreligious scholars in Rome.

The Lay Centre was founded by Dr. Donna Orsuto, of Ohio, and Ms. Riekie van Velzen, of the Netherlands, in 1986 – a time when, surprisingly, there were still very few lay students in the pontifical universities, and when no Roman collegio was open to people who were not priests, seminarians, or religious. It was born out of the Foyer Unitas (literally, Hearth of Unity) of the Ladies of Bethany, which they had operated since 1952 as an information and hospitality center for non-Catholic pilgrims to Rome, including some of the ecumenical observers at Vatican II.

During the recent twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations, the co-founders, Dr. Orsuto and Ms. van Velzen were honored by Pope Benedict XVI as Dame of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, and Dame of the Order of Pope St. Sylvester, respectively.

Three-fold Mission

The Lay Centre’s mission is threefold:

  • To provide a formation program for the resident student community based on the four pillars of Christian formation identified by the Holy See: spiritual, intellectual, human and pastoral.
  • To provide ongoing adult faith formation to the expatriate Anglophone communities of Rome.
  • To provide a series of international programs giving church leaders from around the world a unique opportunity to explore the history and theology of Rome.

There are currently twenty-two residents of sixteen nationalities and from five continents. They are agnostic and Jewish, Shi’a and Sunni, Orthodox and Catholic (even Latin and Eastern!). In such a milieu, there is ample opportunity for a dialogue of life and hands-on learning from a cross-cultural context.

Food and mealtimes always provide such occasions: One student is vegetarian, the three Muslims have three different approaches to halal, and during advent the Orthodox have gone temporarily vegan. As an Italian dinner is never complete without wine on the table, the Sicilian blood-orange juice was redubbed “Muslim red wine” by those not permitted to partake of the Christian variety. Dinnertime conversation can range from the World Cup to circumcision practices in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. A trip to the kitchen for a midnight snack can turn into a two-hour conversation about different religions’ perspectives on agnosticism and secularity.

The Prayer Life of the House

As a lay Catholic Christian community, the prayer life of the house is decidedly in that tradition; members of other churches are welcome to participate, and members of other faiths are welcome to observe, as appropriate. Before the main community meal of the day, all who choose to do so pray either midday prayer or vespers in common, and every day ends with a form of night prayer. A weekly community night includes the celebration of the Eucharist with a guest bishop or priest, dinner, and a formation session. Meal prayers might come from any tradition and be in any language.

Prayer also presents the opportunities for respectful presence and observation at the prayer of another religion, like the Jewish and Muslim encounters with the Mass mentioned above. Prayer can be a time for hospitality: During a recent evening event, one of the Muslim guests asked his Lay Centre hosts for a quiet place to pray maghrib. One Catholic resident immediately went to his room to retrieve a prayer mat he kept for just such occasions, as the other resident volunteered to wait during her friends’ prayer to make sure he was not disturbed.

In October, the Lay Centre organized [2] a pilgrimage to Assisi to join Pope Benedict XVI and other leaders of the world’s religions for the Pilgrimage of Peace, Pilgrimage of Truth,marking the 25th anniversary of the historic first interreligious gathering in Assisi with Pope John Paul II. Though the official agenda included several speeches and declarations of commitment to peace, no form of common prayer was scheduled.

Prayer, pilgrimage, and community are separated only with difficulty, however. As the group wandered around the ancient town for half an hour before dinner, some found their way to San Stefano, a simple 12th century church. Instinctively, Christians made their way to the front benches to quietly pray, while in the vestibule, an imam and a dervish began their own prayers. Our agnostic housemate took time to reflect outside with a cigarette.

Like the medieval church in which we found ourselves – simple, quiet, and peaceful – the prayer and reflection expressed our unity and our diversity. It is precisely this community without communion which marks life in the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas and makes it an oasis of hospitality and dialogue in the heart of Rome.

A.J. Boyd is a graduate student in ecumenism at Rome’s Angelicum University, and graduate assistant at the Pope John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue. Before returning to studies full-time, he was a lay ecclesial minister for the Archdiocese of Seattle and active in ecumenical and interreligious work in the United States. This is his third year at the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas.


1 In the Pontifical Roman system, Universities are the accredited institutions of post-secondary education. Colleges, which are generally seminaries, are the residences and houses of formation where most university students are presumed to live and receive the balance of their formation.

2 In collaboration with the Pope John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue (Rome)


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