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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!”


Back home in Rome

What a week! I returned to Rome on Sunday, 26 September with time enough for lunch and a nap before beginning an intensive orientation week for the Russell Berrie Fellowship. Though I started the program last year, the orientation and several other aspects are new this year, and we welcome the third cohort, as the first has finished their course of study (I am in the second).

The new Fellows include priests from Poland, Ruanda, Nigeria and India and lay scholars from Chile, Ukraine, Gambia, India and the U.S. (including one seminarian, one religious sister, and one Muslim). In addition to the Latin Church (“Roman Catholic”), three of the Catholics are Eastern: the Ukrainian Greek, Syro-Malabar, and Syro-Malankara Catholic Churches are represented. More had studied in Rome previously than with my class, and I was reminded how little my Italian has advanced in the last year.

The Lay Centre served as the ‘base camp’ for our orientation, and there is something about sharing my home in Rome with friends and fellow Fellows that gives a special joy. This truly is a place of hospitality and dialogue, of retreat and study, and it is only a pity that more of the Fellows are not also residents the rest of the year! Insha’Allah

It was an impressive schedule.  Our first evening’s introductory remarks were from Dr. Donna Orsuto (Lay Centre Director, Pontifical University Gregoriana) and Dr. Adam Afterman (Shalom Hartman Institute, Tel Aviv University).

Owing to the schedule, I am back-filling some of my notes, but dating them as though they were real time. I hope it makes sense!

Nice to be back on the terrace

Intercontinental Cross-Cultural Dialogue is…

… staying up until the early hours in a city that is nearly 2800 years old, talking of life, love and religion with friends from four continents. Feliz Cumpleaño, David!

The Dialogue of Life in Rome

A former student-resident of the Lay Centre returned this semester as a visiting professor at the Pontifical University Gregoriana (the Jesuit university down the road). Dr. Esra Göezler is a Turkish Muslim who had studied in Rome and returned to co-teach a course with Christian and Jewish scholars, and as a scholar-in-residence at the Lay Centre.

Near the end of the semester Esra sat in a panel presentation at the Lay Centre with a German Jesuit and an Italian Jewish reporter titled “Abrahamaic Religions in the Dialogue of Life in Rome” in which each participant shared their experience of living in the Eternal City in the daily life dialogue with the other Abrahamic faiths. The Lay Centre and PISAI – the Pontifical Institute for the Study of Arabic and Islam, another Jesuit faculty in the City – featured prominently in the discussion.

Over the next few days, Esra provided further opportunity for dialogue and encounter, as the Lay Centre hosted the (brand new) Turkish Ambassador to the Holy See, Professor Kenan Gürsoy and his wife for dinner on 25 May. The following evening Padre Miguel Ayuso-Guixot, director of PISAI presided at our final mass and community night of the academic year. We were honored by the presence and insights of all three distinguished guests by Esra’s initiative.

At around the same time we heard good news about our housemate, another extraordinary Muslim scholar, Rezart Beka of Albania. Rezart has been in Rome this year on scholarship from the Nostra Aetate Foundation, set up in 1990 by Pope John Paul II for non-Christians to study Christianity at the pontifical universities in Rome. Scholars usually stay for one semester, and Rezart was already granted an extension. Facing the possibility of losing him as a student next year as the scholarship came to an end, a donor has set up an entirely new scholarship for Muslims to study at PISAI and Rezart is the inaugural recipient!

Lay Centre residents Nagwa Zarkaa Elymama (Egypt) and Rezart Beka (Albania) are presented to Pope Benedict XVI

Dinner and a movie – Cajun style!

The Drs. Diaz and family were back at the Lay Centre this evening. This time, the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, his wife (and fellow theologian) Marian, and two of their boys brought over a Cajun-themed dinner to help celebrate a culture night focusing on Lousiana. Apparently, culture and movie nights were a fairly common activity at Villa Richardson under Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon, and the Diaz family is looking to continue the custom at least occasionally in partnership with the Lay Centre (which Ambassador Diaz called the family’s second home in Rome this evening!).

The public affairs officer in the Embassy is J. Nathan Bland, a Lousiana native who shared a presentation about the people, faith, culture and cuisine of his home state. We were doubly honored by the presence of Nathan’s mother who was visiting Rome for the first time! Nathan shared his experience growing up as an African-American Catholic, a double minority in northern Louisiana, and his journey of discovery of black Catholic history and experience. The Ambassador then shared thoughts on his experience working with Latino and African-American Catholic theology.

The evening was capped with a viewing of Disney’s Princess and the Frog, notable as the first Disney feature film whose protagonist is an African-American, and is set in New Orleans.

I do not know the last time I have seen a room of 40 grown adults watching a Disney movie, but it was a sight to see! The food was good, too!

Disney's Princess and the Frog

Most popular sport in the world, except in the U.S.

There are 10 men living in the Lay Centre this semester, representing Albania, Chile, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Serbia, and the U.S. When i walked in to the student kitchen to make some tea, they were all there watching a soccer match… all, that is, except for the Americans. Eveline thought it would make a good picture, a glimpse of the “dialogue of sport”, if you will.

(Due to space constraints, Theodosius did not make the picture, along with Claudio’s head and half of Andrea. Note that the sole American in the room is behind the pillar making tea.)

Watching the Game: Andrea, Milvio, David, Dimitrios, Radmilo, Rezart, Claudio

View from the top

Piazza San Pietro and beyond, our view from the top of the dome

The last day of April was another beautiful sunny day, and the temperature crept toward 80° F (it was 26° C about mid-day): A perfect day to scale the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica, the highest point in all of Rome. This was my first time to the top, having been to the depths of the Scavi two levels below the Basilica floor when Nancy was in town for Christmas break.

Few great days in Rome start without cappuccino, however, and we made our way to the Antico Caffé della Pace, just a little ways off of Piazza Navona, the quintessence of a Roman street café – shaded tables on a cobblestone pedestrian street in view of a large baroque church. A friend had advised you could get café at the table for the same price as at the bar, but I think the reality is that you get café at the bar for the same price as the table. But it would be worth it to camp out for a few hours and read or people-watch, as we did before heading across the Tiber.

These are spacious compared to what comes next

Once at St. Peter’s, a short elevator ride takes you from the ground floor to the basilica roof, the level of the saints’ statues, for €7. It is not a bad view from this level, but with 323 steps to (almost) the top of the dome waiting, we decided to move on. We re-entered the basilica at this level – and thank God for the metal cage installed in addition to the railing! I have never been that fond of heights, but being inside a building this massive, this high up, was enough to remind me what vertigo feels like. Just a little.

Once you adjust to that, or at least confirm the solidity of the security cage, you can appreciate the mosaics up close and read the entire two-meter- tall inscription “Tv es Petrvs et svper hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam. Tibi dabo claves regni caelorvm” (You are Peter and On this Rock i will build my church… I will give you the keys to heaven). Looking down, if you can handle it, giveds a bird’s eye view of Bernini’s baldachino (with ladder stored on top) and the ant-size people wandering the basilica floor – fifteen stories below.

As viewed from the dome: See that green oasis in the middle? In the midst of that is our home at the Lay Centre.

Then we went up. A gently sloping ramp wide enough for four leads to some normal staircases, then a winding spiral staircase big enough for one (no railing) that ends just about the time you wonder whether it ever will. That brings you to the curving level of the cupola itself, and you can actually see the inward curve, which gets steeper until someone my size has to bend over and lean to the right to get through. One more spiral staircase built for people half my size with tiny feet, and we finally make it out to fresh air.

There really is nothing higher than St. Peter’s in Rome. Even the fabled hills of rome barely rate from this height, though we could see the Lay Centre and some of the other features of Rome – the Altar della Patria, the Pantheon roof, the towers of Santa Maria Maggiore, and a commanding view of the Piazza and Via della Conciliazione out to the Tiber. The viewing platform circles the entire base of the lantern at the top of the dome, so there is a good view of the Vatican Museums and gardens, the various buildings. You can see very well how small the world’s smallest sovereign state really is!

This Dutch diplomat and scholar consented to have her picture taken with me, the Eternal city in the background

While at the top we found a small office for a couple of the staff of the Fabric of St. Peter’s – responsible for the physical plant – who apparently spend the day in a tiny cubicle at the top of the dome minding the tourists. Nearby we could see through a locked gate the stairs to the very top of the lantern, the base of the cross. I do not think I will petition to get through there any time soon. We were already about 440’ up, I do not think another dozen would make much difference.

Going down is actually a little worse… those almost endless spiral steps can make you dizzy, but thankfully once you get back to the basilica roof, refreshment waits. Bathrooms, water, a gift shop and a café all operate on the roof of the world’s largest church to provide services for the stair-weary pilgrim. (To get a small taste of the small stairs, check out someone’s YouTube video)

Rounded out the day with a late lunch of Roman pizza by the slice then gelato from the Old Bridge Gellateria – famous for its generous portions and modest prices, and pretty decent quality, too – before heading back to the Lay Centre for dinner and some overdue blogging!

Dinner with our parish priest

The Lay Centre is located within the V prefecture (deanery) of the diocese of Rome. There are 8 parishes and 18 other churches that offer liturgies weekly, if not daily, making no less than 88 Sunday liturgies within a 20-minute walk of our front gate. The closest church may be the Trinitarian Church of San Tommaso in Formis where we celebrated our inaugural vespers a couple weeks ago, but the parish church is just a few yards further, the Basilica of Santa Maria in Domnica, also known as Santa Maria Navicella.

The pastor of the parish, and prefect of the V prefecture (the dean, or vicar forane), is Don Sergio Ghio, a presbyter of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo and native of Milan.

[Interesting aside, as I was looking up how to spell Don Sergio’s last name on the diocesan webpage, I noticed that the diocesan pastoral council includes lay representatives of each prefecture/deanery, who are also listed on the site.]

It was our first opportunity to meet with Don Sergio, though most of us had been to the Navicella a couple of times at least, and some have made it their regular Sunday home. Instead of a more formal presentation, we opted for basic introductions and sharing. Father Ghio seemed either surprised or impressed with the international character of the community living just down the street. When Donna asked about what kind of relationship the parish and the Lay Centre could have, and what we could do for the parish, his response was basically this (in Italian):

“I will tell you what I told the Missionaries of Charity [whose Rome house is also in the parish] when they came and offered to help in the parish. Hopefully you will not be as scandalized as they were. I told them, ‘nothing’. There is nothing you should do for the parish. What is your charism, your vocation? Is it parish ministry? No… it is gift enough for the parish that you are here following your vocation. The question is, what can the parish do for you? So, I am telling you the same thing. If some of you get more involved individually, great, but the fact that you are living out your vocation [as lay pontifical students] is gift enough for the parish. What can the parish do for you?”

SCA, Roman Style

Legions of Rome march again!

Apparently there is a lot going on in Rome this week. Every year there is a “culture week” in which the national museums and sites like the forum and coliseum are open for free. Also, in and around the forum, there was apparently a re-enactment honoring the birthday of Rome, officially celebrated later this week, on 21 April. We missed most of that, but heard about some goings on down at the circus maximus. So, in true Roman fashion, instead of writing a paper I went to go watch the barbarians battle it out with the legions, some gladiator duels, and even some belly-dancing Imperial cheerleaders. You never know what will happen in Rome!

Rev. Donald Senior, CP and St. Paul of the Cross

Rev. Donald Senior, CP, STD

As part of our week of events celebrating the official Inauguration of the new site of the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas, a number of our board members and residents gathered for a celebration of the Eucharist in the rooms of St. Paul of the Cross, founder of the Passionists, presided by Father Donald Senior, CP.

Fr. Senior celebrates 50 years as a Passionist this year, is a renowned New Testament scholar and president of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, the largest graduate school of ministry formation in the United States. He also serves on the Pontifical Biblical Commission and concelebrated mass with the Holy Father on Thursday morning (the unscripted homily for which made headlines).

As a member of the Lay Centre Board for several years, Fr. Senior was a key figure in bringing the Passionists and the Lay Centre together, making this new home a possibility,something for which the entire student community is deeply grateful!

Conveniently, the proper of saints includes settings for St. Paul of the Cross’ feast day (Oct 19) which we used, along with the daily readings for Friday. The reading from Acts 5 recounted the ‘prophecy’ or judgement of Gamaliel to the Sanhedrin concerning the Apostles:

“For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.”

(Timely, as the last few weeks have shown the human elements of the Church all too clearly.)

St. Paul of the Cross, with the crucifix he would take to parish missions

Paul Francesco Danei was born into a wealthy merchant family in 1694 near Genoa, Italy. With over 2000 extant letters from his lifetime, we know a lot about his struggles and spirituality, and his intentions for what would eventually become the Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ. When he came to Rome originally, it was not to found a religious order but something more like one of today’s lay movements – he did not seek ordination, and did not want a monastic or mendicant order. He and his brother sought jobs in one of the hospitals in Trastevere, still in operation today, as what we would know of as orderlies.

The 18th century Roman curia was not yet ready for something this ‘outside the box’ however, and his request for permission for a society of non-ordained, non-religious ministers was rejected, and he was moved into a more familiar model, eventually being ordained at St. Peter’s in 1727 by Pope Benedict XIII. His vision remained for a mission to those who were in closest solidarity to Christ’s passion – the poor, marginalized, the migrant workers – and he continued to resist classical definitions of religious life. Instead of a monastery, the houses are “Retreats”, implying a place of solitary refuge to replenish the soul and then go back into apostolic ministry, rather than to remain cloistered and focused only on the community. Their ministry was preaching, giving retreats and parish missions, but not commonly in education or staffing parishes directly.

St. Paul also did not seek leadership in his own order, but was elected superior for life. Possibly unrelated, he recounts nearly 50 years of spiritual aridity, a time without emotional, visceral faith to reflect his intellectual assent. That blessing only came near the end of his life, which he spent in the rooms in which we celebrated the Eucharist today, wandering the garden of the Retreat we now call home.  

Retreat of Sts. John and Paul

This Retreat had belonged to another religious order, a Congregation of Jesus, which had been around for centuries but diminished by the time of Paul. Probably because of his reputation for compassion, St. Paul became confessor to many people, including a couple of popes. It serves as both glory and shame to the order today – as I have said before, it is a beautiful place, a genuine retreat, an Oasis in the City of Rome. It is also more than was ever needed, and has never been filled by the Passionists, and too easy a temptation to adapt models of monastic life never intended by the original charism of the Founder and the Congregation.

The Passionists are in the midst of a paradigmatic shift, the ongoing reception of the Second Vatican Council’s mandate to orders to rediscover their distinct and varied charisms. They are becoming less national and more globalized – though relatively small in numbers (about 2100) they are in almost 60 countries. Inviting the Lay Centre into the Retreat that houses the Generalate, we see a move to underline the founder’s original ideal of lay community and ministry, and the building up of spiritual ‘alliances’ with partners in the ministry of the Passion.

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