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Judaism and Christianity in Islamic Perspective

The Russell Berrie Foundation supports an enormous amount of activity in a wide variety of fields. The John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue and the Russell Berrie Fellowships at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome are just the most recent, though positioned to have profound impact on the life of the church.

One aspect of the Foundation’s work in Rome is the sponsorship of an annual John Paul II Lecture in Interreligious Understanding, featuring a prominent scholar or religious leader. The inaugural lecture was delivered in 2008 by Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. and the second was offered in 2009 by the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich. After two years of leading pastors, this year’s lecture was delivered by a world-class scholar, Dr. Mona Siddiqui of the University of Glasgow.

Professor Mona Siddiqui

The original date for the lecture was to take place the day before our Mosque visit, but was delayed to volcanic activity! It turned out to be a good way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, however!

The Berrie Fellows had the privilege to lunch with Dr. Siddiqui, Ms. Angelica Berrie, and the members of the Foundation and the IIE who were in town for the event yesterday after the seminar on Mary in Islam. In an unexpected re-enactment of the wisdom from Luke 14.1-11, I had situated myself at the end of the table to allow others near the honored guest, and after some shuffling I suddenly found myself placed between Dr. Siddiqui and Ms. Berrie – two fascinating women! And both so very approachable, a gift I appreciate more and more the longer I am in service to the Church.

During today’s featured lecture, Dr. Siddiqui addressed the history of interaction between Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Islamic perspective, and focusing on the religious rather than the political realities of our day. The importance of dialogue is something she underlined, not for the sake of conversion, but for the sake of compassion.

“Furthermore, many in the West are aware that despite media frenzy at times, dialogue is not a necessity, it is an option even a privilege. Inter religious work can be a symbol of unity across civilisations and it can also reverberate amongst the followers of the faith. But it works best when there is both text and context. There are many Muslims and Christians who remain convinced that dialogue is fundamentally flawed, not just theologically but also in practical terms. How can Muslims and Christians talk about the same God when they hold such different understandings of the same God? If dialogue is not directed at conversion to Christ or to the event of the Qur’an, what is its real purpose?  …

Inter religious work has never been about implicit or explicit conversion. As a Muslim who has lived most of her life in the West, I have learnt that faith speaks to faith in many ways. Dialogue has been a process of learning and accepting, of questioning and appreciating, of self-doubt and humility. Most importantly it has been to understand that talking about a common humanity demands much generosity in the face of practical difference.”

 The full transcript is available here, and a video of the lecture here.

Mary in Islam

Dr. Mona Siddiqui presaged tomorrow’s Annual John Paul II Lecture on Interreligious Dialogue with a visit to the seminar Fr. Fred Bliss has been conducting on Mary in Ecumenical Dialogue (which incidentally, uses the Seattle Statement as its primary text). This is my summary of her presentation, with a little reflection.

One of the few things most (western) Christians would know about Islam is that Jesus is respected as a prophet and messenger of God – though not as God himself. Less well known is that Mary is also mentioned from the Qur’an, and considered by some also as a prophet (though not a Messenger). She is, in fact, referenced more frequently in the pages of the Qur’an than in the New Testament. Instead of Mary, Mother of God, the reference is almost always to ‘Isâ, son of Miryam. Mary’s elevation to a place of respect is owing to her being mother of one of the great prophets. There are 114 suras (chapters) in the Muslim holy book, eight of which are devoted to, or named for, a person. One of these is Mary of Nazareth, to whom the 19th sura is dedicated.

Islam does not hold a view of original sin and the need for salvation from sin that dominates Augustinian-influenced Christianity. Adam’s first act of sin was also his first act of the will, and was apparently a part of the divine plan from the beginning that he would populate the Earth (which is part of the result of his choice). We are not born into a state of sin so much as we are inclined to commit particular sins. Nevertheless there is a sort of myth that sometime before birth, we are each of us ‘pricked’ by the devil, which has a similar effect. Mary and Jesus were spared this pricking for much the same reason that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was developed, to recognize Mary’s holiness and purity as a worthy mother of a great prophet and Messenger.

ARCIC II Seattle Statement: Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ

The virgin birth of Jesus is affirmed, though the Qur’an and its commentators never focus as much on the physicality of all this, as in some of the extreme Christian views. For Islam, Mary’s purity was ethical and spiritual rather than physical. And nothing about a perpetual virginity.

She is a popular person of devotion, especially for Muslim women. Her role is perhaps not as prominent as Fatima, the daughter of the prophet, who is especially revered among Shi’ah Muslims as the mother of successors to the Prophet Mohammad.

There’s a new doc’ in town

My fellow Russell Berrie Fellow Matthew John Paul Tan was celebrated for two significant milestones at Rome’s most famous Austrian restaurant today. My Singaporean-Aussie classmate was officially awarded his Ph.D. in theology from the Australian Catholic University on Friday, just two days before his 30th birthday today.

Though he put in several years of effort toward the first achievement, credit is largely due elsewhere for the second. Nevertheless we threw him a party for both.

Actually, he invited us. So it is not so much that we threw a party for him as that we showed up for his party. But we brought gifts!

Well, a gift, anyway. Moving on…

Cantina Tirolese is famous, at least among Vatican-watching theology nerds, as the favorite haunt of the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger, whose presence was frequent enough that he had a perpetually reserved booth. I do not know if he has been back since his election five years ago, though. Maybe they deliver?

Congrats again to Matthew!  

Dr. Matthew John Paul Tan

Angelicum Leads the Way in Rome for Eucharistic Adoration

Rome Reports is an English-language news program based in Rome, and broadcasting to several countries. They recently did a feature of the Angelicum, apparently the only Pontifical Univeristy in Rome with daily Eucharistic Adoration, including interviews with familiar faces: Benedict Croell, OP; Matthew John Paul Tan, PhD (another Russell Berrie Fellow); and Jill Alexy, M.Div. (fellow Notre Dame alumn).

You can watch the clip here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8Wh3YqLOoU

Holy Land Seminar Day #9

The Wall, border between Israel and Palestinian Authority

Our final day in the Holy Land was spent beyond Israel’s borders, as it were, in the Palestinian Authority area including Bethlehem – just a few minutes from Jerusalem. The wall reminds me of the border between San Diego and Tijuana, though the crossing was a lot smaller. There is a distinctive difference from Israeli to Palestinian controlled territory, but not nearly as dramatic (in terms of poverty and plenty) as the Mexican to American transition. Instead of kippot, you see keffiyet. The Arabic signs are more prominent, but English and Hebrew are still present.

Basilica of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Ezra, our driver, and Yitzik, our guide, being Israeli citizens are not allowed to cross the border, so we had a new driver and picked up a new guide once on the other side. We spent the better part of the morning at the Church of the Nativity, and then walking through the streets to the Church of the Theotokos, or as it is more commonly called, the Milk Grotto. We paused to view shepherd’s field, which upended my lifelong mental image of the shepherds on a hill top and the little town of Bethlehem in the valley below – it is actually the other way around. Villages are built up along the hillside to leave the valleys clear for farming and grazing.

Church of St. Catherine, Catholic portion of Nativity site

Like so many of the holy sites, the Nativity church is shared/divided among Catholic (Roman/Latin, Franciscan) custodians, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox. The main basilica is shared by the Orthodox churches, and the adjacent church of St. Catherine is catholic. The former is ancient, dirty, dusky, and dark. The latter is bright, well-lit, and modern. The original mosaics of the basilica are still present in some degree, though so covered in grime as to be virtually unrecognizable. The contrast is striking, and only a happy medium would be an improvement.

Grotto of the Nativity, Catholic chapel

The Cave of the Nativity is small, located below the main altar in the Orhtodox section, with some of it accessible from the Catholic side –including St. Jerome’s living space of the last quarter century of his life- though the traditional site venerated as the place of Christ’s birth is on the Orthodox side.

The official site of the Nativity, under the altar in the Orthodox section of the grotto

The Milk Grotto is one of those sites that at first glance, I had to cringe. This was a place where Mary fed Jesus? Did George Washington sleep here too? Give the faithful some credit! …But, even cynical prayers are answered.

The Franciscan custodian inside the grotto volunteered to give us a brief synopsis of the church – historical arguments and pius myth both included. Apparently, when St. Helena made her state visit to Bethlehem, the local Christians showed her two places – the cave of the Nativity, and the site of Joseph’s house in Bethlehem, where the Holy Family lived until ordered into flight to Egypt, and where the Magi are supposed to have visited. The “milk grotto” story developed from the idea that in one of her feedings, the Blessed Mother spilt two drops of her milk to the stone, which immediately turned white. Powder taken from these stones, when imbibed, is supposed to heal any reproductive ailments a woman might have, and is a very popular devotional/sacramental in some parts of the world. That the church is one of the oldest sites dedicated to Mary as Mother and to include Joseph, the poor man, is what makes it most worthy of veneration.

On our way out of town, I had to stop and take a picture of a café sign that reminded me how good my people are at exporting western values…

Western economic ideas in Bethlehem

Holy Land Seminar Day #8

On our penultimate day in the Holy Land we started with a fascinating discussion with David Neuhaus, SJ, director of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem and Patriarchal Vicar for the Hebrew-speaking Latin Catholics in the Holy Land. Most Catholics, both Latin and Eastern, are Arabic speaking in Israel, Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Cyprus, the area covered by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. But, there are also a significant number of Hebrew-speaking Catholics of the Roman church, and he is their go-to guy.

It was only a brief overview of the complexities of the church in the middle east. On top of the complex details of the Status Quo ecumenical “treaty” governing the holy sites, the internal Catholic complexities converge with language, rite, church, ethnicity and nationality. And Fr. David has to transverse borders of all kinds in the execution of his ministry. Some of the interesting pastoral notes were the mandatory minimum 2-year RCIA period, often longer, for people converting to Christianity from Judaism or Islam, in large part to make sure it’s a manageable process for the family. Another is the case of Hebrew-speaking Israeli children, at Hebrew schools, where all their classmates are doing Bar Mitzvah. How do you respond when they say they want one too?

We then went on our walk through the Old City of Jerusalem, through the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian Quarters, including a stop at HaKotel, the portion of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount which has become the primary site of prayer for Jews in the last couple centuries – the closest they can get to what was once the Holy of Holies in the Second Temple, now the site of the Dome of the Rock.

Following the post-crusader pilgrimage route of the Via Dolorosa, we did a brief walking tour of the original Stations of the Cross, ending at the Holy Sepulchre, which is a massive church complex visibly divided by the broken state of Christianity. Various parts of the church (and of the other holy sites) are cared for and controlled by various churches – Catholic (Latin Franciscans), Greek,  Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Syriac Orthodox. Some areas are common space, which means nothing can change without the consent of all parties. The doors to the church are protected by Muslim families entrusted to the charge since Saladin, one has the key and another guards to doors to keep them open during established times. As we got to the main entrance, you can even see a ladder set on a ledge that has not been moved since the Status Quo was established. While we were celebrating the Eucharist on the first day in Jerusalem and started to chant the alleluia, we were shushed by some sisters who had come in to join us – apparently singing is forbidden to the Latins during the normal schedule, because back in the day the only singing happened at “high mass” and only “low mass” (unsung) were permitted…

For the evening Shabbat meal, we traveled out toward the Judean desert, in view of the crusader Good Samaritan fortress inn, to Ein Prat Midrasha. The midrasha is a place where young Israelis -mostly after high school and before military service, or after military service and before university –spend four months living in community and studying Torah, philosophy, other religious texts. It seems like a profoundly formative opportunity. We were joining them for their final Shabbat meal together before ‘graduation’, and got there just in time for small group studies.

Just before the sun sets, they head out to a bluff overlooking a desert valley, facing west to welcome the Shabbat (the Sabbath), which arrives with the sunset on Friday and ends only when three stars are visible on Saturday evening. This is done first with the singing of psalms and dancing, practices which I think originate in the mystical tradition from around the 16th century. Following this, before the meal, are the more traditional and common prayers that begin the Sabbath. As I commented to one of the students I ate with, the Sabbath practice is one of the great gifts Judaism has for the world, and is especially powerful for my fellow Americans and our intensive, frantic business and inability to slow down much!

It was a beautiful evening, and I was blessed to share it with the community here.

Holy Land Seminar Day #7

Morning sessions today included Rabbi Jack Bemporad, visiting professor at the Angelicum, on the challenges of “Facing the Holocaust Theologically and Morally” and Rabbi David Hartman on Zionism and the Challenge of Sovereignty.

Catholic-Jewish relations are coming up on a critical turning point. The current generation of leadership at the very highest level of the church is a generation formed by WWII, the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel from the former British protectorate of Palestine and the resulting wars, intifadas, and other forms of violence. Pope Benedict was a youth in Nazi Germany. John Paul II was a young man under Communist Poland.

But for me and my generation of peers both Catholic and Jewish, these are historical events. Important, yes. The Holocaust cannot be forgotten lest genocide be allowed to happen again, as it has too many times this century. But they are not experienced events. They did not shape our identity, and the future of Catholic-Jewish relations will not be able to sustain the Euro-centric focus that has dominated it for the last few decades. What happens when we elect an African pope (or Asian, or one from the Americas?), especially one who is now 60 or younger? It might not be at the next conclave, but it will happen. Thankfully, the conversation is already started.

Rabbi Hartman’s quote of the morning, “Weakness invites violence; strength invites dialogue” indicated that this is not the kind of interfaith meeting between reform rabbis and liberal protestant pastors that are familiar back home! Politics cuts different lines here, but religious dialogue needs to continue, including if not especially from the more traditional parts of our respective religious bodies.

After the presentations, we concluded with a celebratory meal and ‘graduation’ ceremony. It has been an intensive week, but far too short. We are left thirsting for more – which I suppose is the idea – rather than having questions answered, I have come away with more questions than with which I arrived!

The afternoon schedule was something I had been looking forward to and dreading at the same time, a visit to Yad VaShem (the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Memorial and Museum). We were honored to begin with meeting Dr. Ehud Loeb, a survivor from Germany and member of the committee on the Righteous Among the Nations. The committee singles out and recognizes people or organizations who risked their own lives and safety to rescue Jews from the Holocaust, using rigorus documentary standards. Dr. Loeb’s own life was saved by several people at various points, including five now honored among the Righteous.

It has been almost 14 years since my first visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Musem, and it remains one of the most powerful experiences of my life. It took me over four hours to make it through, and much longer to process it all. I anticipated Yad VaShem to elicit a similar response. Unfortunately, you cannot do something like this on a schedule, and I am skeptical even about doing it with a guide or a group. The museum is in itself excellent, powerful, evocative. But we did not have enough time to experience it all, or to process it afterwards, or discuss the content – including the controversial panel on the “Silence of the Church” and Pius XII. I will go back to Jerusalem, even if just to get the full experience there sometime.

Rabbi Bemporad did take the opportunity at that point in the tour to make clear his objection to the treatment of pope and Church in eloquent and informed terms – unfortunately our guide was not one of the historians or otherwise responsible for the content. That would make an interesting debate – “Hitler’s Pope” [sic] as understood by different Jewish voices. This was part of the discussion during Pope Benedict’s visit last year, and the recent opening of more archives to allow all scholars access to information regarding Pius’ actions during the Holocaust.

Dinner was at the Motefiore estaurant, in the shadow of a Motefiore’s Windmill (or, as we dubbed it, the Dutch Church/ St. Eveline’s). An interesting neighborhood history, with him having to pay Jewish settlers to live outside the city walls during the waning Ottoman occupation in the late 19th century. One of our guests was artist Avner Moriah, who gave us each prints out of his newest series of work, “Genesis”, featuring Abraham taking Isaac up to Mount Moriah for his sacrifice. I got to sit between two post-modern Jewish philosophers for dinner – and there are not that many, I hink!

Holy Land Seminar Day #6

This morning’s program featured orthodox Professor Menachem Fisch, examining the topic, “Beyond Mere Tolerance – Jewish Resources for a Genuine Religious Pluralism” using Nostra Aetate and Dignitatis Humanae as starting points, noting that neither Judaism nor Islam has adequately responded to these 50 year old documents.

Then post-modern Jewish scholar Micha Goodman, who is what we would call a lay ecclesial minister, offered an overview of Anti-Semitism, its causes and the realities of the current situation.

For our afternoon excursion, we went to the village of Ein Karem, which is believed to be the village where Zachariah and Elizabeth raised John the Baptizer, and also includes the church of the Visitation and Mary’s Well, two locations vying for the role of memorial to the meeting of Mary’s visit to her elder relative.

For dinner guests, we had recent graduates of the first cohort of law students at Ono Academic College, bringing together the Christian, Jewish and Muslim judges responsible for the religious laws in Israel. Unlike most countries, Israel has no civil marriage. If you want to get married you have to do so through your religious authorities; therefore also divorce and custody issues are handled by religious law. This program took the people responsible for these decisions and put them through a three-year degree in civil law together, creating interreligious dialogue along the way. Our able included a Haredi Jewish Rabbi, an Islamic Judge from Jaffa, and a Melkite Catholic priest.

Holy Land Seminar Day #5

The Shalom Hartman Institute, which is serving as our academic centre for the morning sessions of our seminar in the Holy Land, was founded by Orthodox Rabbi and Professor David Hartman in the 1970’s and named for his father. It serves as what we (Christians) would call an ecumenical centre of education, bringing together Jews from almost the entire range of thought and life – Modern Orthodox, Traditional, Reform, Liberal, Secular, and a few that defy customary categories. It serves as a centre for the continuing education of Rabbis, has two high schools (boys and girls separate), and several research fellows and innovative education programs, including the intensive week seminar that serves as part of my Russell Berrie Fellowship in Interreligious Studies.

This morning’s first session was with the founder’s son, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, continuing the themes of membership and identity, the differences between these questions being addressed in Israel and in North America (where the largest population of Jews live). We then engaged the question of feminism in Judaism, especially as it is being dealt with in Orthodox Jewish congregations, and how it relates to other movements.

An example: There is a mitzvot,  one of the religious laws, that 10 men are required for liturgical prayer. This is traditionally interpreted such that it does not matter how many women are present, one or a hundred, you cannot begin until you have at least ten men. A Reform synagogue might say, “this is an unjust law – women are people too!” and dispense with the rule, or amend it so that ten people of either gender is sufficient for the liturgy to begin. One Orthodox congregation, by contrast, has decided instead of breaking or ignoring the law, they will honor it but add one of their own, requiring also ten women to be present before the liturgy can begin. (I would be interested to hear thoughts on this, to me, the Reform response seems more masculine, and the Orthodox more feminine!)

The afternoon we spent in the neighborhood of our hotel, known as Mt. Zion (though historically, the original reference to Zion was probably the temple mount in the City of David, and this Mt. Zion took the name later). We started at a holy site that is simultaneously holy to all three major monotheistic religions, including the Last Supper Room and Pentecost shrine, which was at one time converted to a mosque, and the Tomb of David.  

Nearby we stopped by the Church of the Dormition of Mary and the Church of St. Peter Gallicantu (the rooster sings), commemorating the denial of Christ by Peter and including what is thought to be Caiphas’ house. The organ at the church of the dormition was being tuned while we were there, adding an eerie tune to the background while meditating on the mystery of the resurrection of the body.

Holy Land Seminar Day #4

Happy Birthday Angie (my little sister)!

5:00 AM. Awake. In Jerusalem. On purpose – Fr. Charlie Cortinovis, who was part of the first cohort but could not join them for the Jerusalem seminar owing to his being ordained, had arranged to celebrate mass in the holy Sepulchre, with a half dozen of us going with him. He and the three other priests who went actually squeezed into the tiny area on top of the grave itself, while Matthew, Val, and I were joined by a couple of sisters in the tiny chapel just outside, which itself is located within the much larger Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. This is another experience I need more time to receive before I can share it properly!

After walking back to the hotel, we start with an Israeli Breakfast. If you have never had an Israeli breakfast, you have never really had breakfast. It makes the American version look Continental! But, enough about food, I’ll save that for later…

We started our sessions at the Shalom Hartman Institute today, and for the rest of the week our mornings will be spent in seminars offered by a variety of rabbis and scholars from across the Jewish spectrum, and afternoons are spent  touring the holy sites. Evenings are spent at dinners with other guests, getting to know a variety of people.

The first session is with a Conservative Reform Rabbi, Bill Berk, originally from Phoenix and now in Israel, on the “Emergence of Modern Judaism” outlining the encounter with, and reaction to, modernity in rabbinical Judaism, and the shift taking place from rabbinical to (post)modern Judaism. The second presentation is with Liberal Rabbi Rachel Sabbath Beit Halachmi, on “God, Torah, and Israel: The Theologies and Ideolgoies fo the Different Streams of Judaism” outlining the complex world of Jewish realities – Ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Traditional, Reform, Liberal, Secular and even “post-denominational”.

[As I write this, at about 6:45, I can hear the muezzin call to prayer from the minarets of Jerusalem – haunting, beautiful, prayerful – like hearing the bells of Rome when I am there.]

We took the afternoon to head up to the Mount of Olives, first stopping on Mount Scopus to look out over the Judean dessert and the Jordan valley to the high places of Jordan.

Jewish tradition holds that the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment will occur at the end of time here, where since biblical times there has been what is now the largest Jewish cemetery in the world, on the slope of the Mount of Olives facing Jerusalem.

As we walk down the hill, we stop at the church Dominus Flevit, commemorating Jesus’ weeping at the sight of Jerusalem. Continuing down we come to one of the most reliable, historically accurate sites in the holy land. The Holy land is filled with memorials of memorials, contemporary churches built on the site – and sometimes the very foundations of – older churches: crusader, byzantine, Judeo-Christian. Some are only ever intended as commemorations of events or people, not claiming to be accurate, others are held by tradition to certain locations from at least the time of Helena’s state visit to the region in the 4th century. There are varying degrees of historicity, many being probable, but only three are considered absolutely certain – one of these is the Garden of Gethsemane, with olive trees still standing that date back to the time of Christ (confirmed by DNA and carbon dating, no less).

A stone’s throw from the Church of All Nations and the Garden is Mary’s Tomb, along with the traditional site of the tombs of Joseph, Joachim and Anna.

We returned to the hotel for an hour reflection session with Rabbi Berk and Dr. Adam Afterman, coordinators of the academic program, and then head to dinner at Canela restaurant nearby.

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