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Around the edges at the Catholic-Jewish Emerging Leadership Conference

American vs Italian ecclesial approaches reflected

This was the second such emerging leadership conference sponsored by the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations. The first took place in 2009 at Castel Gandolfo.

There were only a few participants from the first event at this one, intentionally. Speaking with a couple of the Catholic participants of both meetings, some observations on the differences (and how they relate to the difference of Italian and American Catholicism) came up.

At that first meeting, virtually all the Catholics invited were members of the Focolare movement. This time, we had much better representation across the board, but it is a ‘tell’ of the Italian approach of the first one and a more American (and German?) approach at the second.

The Italian church is the birthplace of the lay movements, and here, often, the active lay person – the ‘serious’ Catholic – is a member of a movement. But it is like being part of a political party too, people size you up immediately based on which movement you belong to, or pigeonhole you a little too quickly. “Oh, you’re into ecumenism, you should be in Focolare”, “Peace and Justice is your thing? Go to Sant’Egidio”, “You’re wearing a double breasted clerical suit, your hair is parted just so, and you do not read theology published after 1938? You must be a Legionnaire.” And so on.

The American context however, is a much livelier and generally healthier parochial-diocesan Church. While there is certainly too much polarization generally imported from the general culture, American Catholics tend not to belong to lay movements, or if they do, they tend to be extracurricular to their main parochial and diocesan life and activity. Think Knights of Columbus, Cursillo, and even the Charismatic movement. Instead we encourage people to be engaged in parish life, diocesan visioning, and lay volunteer ministries. A healthy diocesan vocations program encourages lay ecclesial ministry alongside its diaconate and presbyterate programs. A US Catholic who is active in a movement but not in a parish is seen, if anything, as a little suspect, rather than as super committed, where in Italy it seems almost the reverse.

Since the Jewish participants were Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, representing a variety of organizations and movements, it seems much better that the Catholic Church be represented in all its diversity too!

Report on New York: Cardinal Dolan

Cardinal Dolan highlighted five issues where Catholic-Jewish dialogue could concentrate: the human aspect, cultural challenges, theological issues, pastoral issues, and religious freedom/human rights. When asked which of the human rights issues he saw as the most important, he replied, ‘immigration’.

In the five boroughs that make up New York City are about 1.5 million Jews, and nearly twice as many Catholics, out of a total population of just over 8 million.

One of the funniest moments was when the Cardinal admitted that the portrait of Pope Benedict hanging in the room, over the papal chair used during the apostolic visit of 2008, was purchased by Cardinal Egan over ebay a few weeks before the pope’s arrival, because it was discovered they did not have one handy. (Not sure that should be taken too seriously!)

One of the most interesting, for a Catholic ecumenist, was when his diocesan ecumenical officer noted that with the upcoming consolidation of New York area seminary programs, they will finally be requiring courses on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue for all presbyteral and diaconate candidates, as required by the 1993 Directory. Better late than never!

Russell Berrie Foundation

On Friday, for lunch, I traveled out to Teaneck, NJ, to meet with officers of the Russell Berrie Foundation, which so generously supplied my Fellowship in Rome and underwrites the John Paul II Center where I now work. We also were joined by Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the center here, and we spent two hours debriefing the week’s program and structure, the experience of the dialogue and the setting, and then turned to the current state of Jewish Catholic relations (and a little U.S. politics, just to catch me up.)

It was nice to make the connections, and see some key people there outside of Rome. I am always impressed, and grateful for their generous involvement in Jewish-Christian dialogue.

Shabbat services at Central Synagogue

On Friday evening a few of us took up the invitation of one of the participants, Andrea, who is studying to become a Cantor, to join her at the synagogue where she would be singing.

The service was breathtakingly beautiful, reverential, and joyfilled. There was no question of the presence of the Spirit in that place. The first impression truly was the happiness, the genuine joy of all involved in worship. Three points in particular stood out.

First, the music. Granted, we may have been biased, knowing our friend was singing, but it was truly outstanding. Andrea also sang the reading from the torah scroll, which was enchanting.

The clergy, rabbis and cantors, throughout the service each had a role and shared as often as not, it never felt as if one person only was leading the service, but the whole team. If lex orandi, lex credendi applies in Judaism as well, the ‘ecclesiology’ expressed here was healthier than many churches I have been to! And they were the first we noticed to seem truly at peace, and filled with joy, to be here welcoming in the Sabbath.

The procession of the Sefer Torah, after being removed from the ark (tabernacle), was a brilliant demonstration of both. With great reverence and joy, lively music, and smiles, the scroll was brought around the sanctuary, giving everyone a chance to touch it with their prayer books, before being brought up to the bimah (altar) for the proclamation. It made such a counterpoint to the Eucharistic processions of Holy Thursday or Corpus Christi, the most obvious comparable ritual, which are so often somber and solemn. Both so reverent, yet so very different in emotive response.

Friends and Fun

Before the conference, some of us coming from Rome stayed at Alma Matthews House, run by the United Methodist Women, serves as a residence and meeting venue for non-profit organizations. Beautifully situated in the West Village, it was a wonderful place to stay that I would highly recommend for anyone staying in Manhattan on Church business. You just have to be there somehow connected to a non-profit.

After the conference, some of us stayed at Leo House, a Catholic guest house in Chelsea I was introduced to last year. The facilities and neighborhood are not quite as nice as those at Alma House, but there is a chapel on site and a good breakfast buffet. They are planning major renovations, however, and I suppose after those it will be of a similar standard. The hospitality at both places was appreciated!

During the week itself, our last night at the Isabella Freedman center, we had a campfire, and I got to instruct David (Mexico), Eveline (Netherlands), and others on proper S’Mores techniques, having finally discovered a truly unique American food.

I had the opportunity to meet up with my college roommate, Liam, as he joined some of the participants for dinner and a night of showing us around the city that never sleeps. Probably our favorite stop of the evening was the inelegantly named “Burp Castle”. Billing itself as a “Temple of Beer Worship” murals inside depict monks and mendicants in various scenes with their brews. A rotating tap of monastic and other import brews is excellent, and the rule of the house is that a certain level of quiet must be maintained to appropriately enjoy the beer, and conversation, without getting drowned out. No music, and the bartender actually shushed people regularly. Not unlike the ambiance of the Sistine chapel, but with beer. Never enough time, but I am so grateful to get an evening with a longtime friend, and introduce him to others who mean so much to me!

On Saturday, another local friend, Courtney, gave a walking tour of southern manhattan, showed us the 9-11 memorial site, and brought us up north for an excellent Mexican dinner and broadway show. Only a pity she left for home before she could join us spend the rest of the evening on a rooftop terrace bar just under the Empire State Building.

Two friends in particular i missed were Sr. Lorelei Fuchs, SA and Rabbi Robbie Harris, for scheduling reasons or my own disorganization and procrastination. Next year in Jerusalem… or New York!

That being said, i established new contacts, discovered energetic your leaders from both religions, i now count several new friends… and not just on Facebook.


Catholic-Jewish Emerging Leadership Conference

Catholics and Jews: Our Common Values, Our Common Roots
Second Catholic-Jewish Emerging Leadership Conference

My first chance to participate in a national ecumenical conference was almost exactly ten years ago, in May 2002. Five years later, I was invited to present in a plenary session at the 50th Anniversary of Faith and Order in the US, at Oberlin. Last week, I gave my first plenary presentation at an international, Vatican-sponsored interreligious dialogue.

Forty scholars and religious leaders under the age of forty, from a dozen countries, were gathered at the invitation of the Holy See’s Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews  and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC).  The nexus of these two groups is the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee (ILC). The bulk of our meeting took place at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in northwest Connecticut, with a day of meetings in New York City. Before and after, a few of us were able to enjoy the city itself, for some informal sharing and reunions – already, five of the other participants were friends or colleagues from Europe and the States.

As is usually the case with such things, the best dialogue and exchange tended to happen between the official agenda, as good as it was. But the former is always inspired by the latter, and this was a good model for developing leadership in dialogue for the reason that it allowed the ‘emerging leadership’ to actually engage in the conversation. The leaders of the two delegations, Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, president of IJCIC, and Fr. Norbert Hofmann, SDB, secretary of the Holy See’s Commission, were present throughout the conference but aside from their role in introducing the history and context, largely stepped back and served as advisors and guides.

Contrast this to other experiences of academic conferences where the ‘emerging generation’ of ecumenists, religious leaders, et al., are invited to attend and even give a presentation on topic, but the conversation is still largely dominated by established authorities, and may be about the dialogues, but does not allow for an actual dialogue to take place. To put it another way, the agenda of this conference was modeled after an official dialogue at the highest level, in many ways, including the topical presentation of papers on both sides on a given issue, discussion and break out groups.

The schedule also managed very well to provide the necessary background for those who were new to dialogue, as well as keep things interesting for the veterans among us. Some of the Jews present had never heard of Nostra Aetate, and some of the Catholics had not known about Dabru Emet. Others, like the Russell Berrie Fellows in attendance, had made a study of the dialogue and already were familiar with a wide range of thought on the dialogue.

Our first day was basically introductory, with presentations on the Commission, IJCIC, and the ILC and an opening presentation on “The Rise and Development of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity” by Prof. Schiffman. There were three major elements of the recurring agenda, which were the plenary presentations, the working groups, and the resource sharing workshops.

The plenaries were the official presentations, consisting of two 30-45 minute presentations, one Catholic and one Jewish, followed by between 30 – 60 minutes of questions and discussion, depending on the length of the presentations.

The first plenary was “Catholic-Jewish Relations post-Vatican II” with presentations by Rabbi A. James Rudin and Fr. Lawrence Frizzell. On day two, the second plenary was “Men, Women, and the Family” offered by Dr. Adena Berkowitz and Fr. W. Jerome Bracken, CP. The third plenary explored “Religion in Public Culture”, with yours truly for the Catholics, and Marc Stern, Esq., of the AJC for the Jewish side.

The working groups followed explored pre-determined themes of the conference, and met twice. People could stay with the same group both times, or rotate. These explored the themes of Justice and Charity; Religious Prejudices and Responses to Hate Crimes; Religion and Secular Society; the Role of Religious Leadership. I was asked to facilitate the last, along with a young rabbi serving as university chaplain at Leeds in the UK, though to be honest, there was not a lot of facilitating needed with this group!

The resource sharing workshops were opportunities for participants to raise issues and share from their own experience. As an example, Eveline van der Ham and David Angeles-Garnica, with the help of Andrea Ponzone, led a presentation on their experience at the Lay Centre, “Living in interfaith community” which they summed up with three key points: pray together, play together, and ‘prost’ together.

We spent one long day in Manhattan, dressed in business garb at nearly 100 degrees, I was reminded how much more manageable this is when nearly every building and form of transport is well air conditioned, a luxury not often found in Rome!

Our first appointment was with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, at his residence, and with his ecumenical/interreligious officer. His eminence came in and was literally kissing babies (well, the one baby present), and shaking hands (of literally everyone in the room). “He’s the Bill Clinton of the Catholic Church” was whispered in one corner, so stereotypically the American politician, presented 15 minutes of remarks without notes and with lots of enthusiasm. We were also given a short tour of the cathedral, including a visit to the crypt and the tomb of Ven. Fulton Sheen.

We then travelled to Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s flagship, and met with Chancellor Arnold Eisen, Prof. Burt Visotzky (Midrash), and David Wachtel, the head of the rare books collection, which includes manuscript letters from Maimonides, and part of the Gutenburg bible, among so many other truly rare Hebrew texts. It was encouraging to hear Prof Visotzky even mention this year’s John Paul II Lecture given by Cardinal Koch in Rome.

After this we visited a reform synagogue known for its outreach work, Congregation Rodeph Sholom  and north america’s first jewish congregation, the Sephardic orthodox congregation Shearith Israel, better known as the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue.

That’s just the official program… more to come, from Shabbat services to S’mores-making lessons.

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