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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 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.
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  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)