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Return to Rome

Time Flies. Two years on the Russell Berrie Fellowship in Interreligious Studies have come and gone. For those who know me well, it is unsurprising that my two major goals here – learn Italian and write my thesis – are still works in progress, despite a number of other accomplishments.

I am returning for a third year to the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas, Rome’s pre-eminent collegio for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free lay students. Which is, basically, anyone who cannot play on a pontifical university football (soccer) team for the annual Clericus Cup – but I digress.

Only two of us, aside from director Donna Orsuto and assistant Robert White, are back for a third consecutive year: the other being my newly-wed friend and next-door neighbor from Morelia, Mexico, David. Others who were here last year, or at least part of the year, include Muhamed (Bosnia), Marija (Croatia), and Julia (Hong Kong).

In total, we have citizens of 16 countries this year:

Belarus, Bosnia, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Georgia, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, Romania, Serbia, and the U.S.A.

Religiously we are:

  • 1 Secular Jew
  • 3 Muslims (2 Sunni, 1 Shi’a)
  • 4 Orthodox Christians (Belarusian, Georgian, Romanian, and Serbian Churches)
  • 13 Catholic Christians (12 Latin, 1 Syro-Malabar)

This year I also start a new role continuing the relationship with the Russell Berrie Foundation, through the Institute for International Education, in the form of a graduate assistantship at the new John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue, housed at the Angelicum.

The first month back in Italy consisted of jet lag, a severe cold, orientation week for new Lay Centre residents, and then orientation week for new Russell Berrie Fellows. The tesina awaits. There are a few highlights I will be, ah, highlighting shortly.


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.

A word about food…

Tonight is a good example. When we got to the restaurant, our group of 16 plus some local guests, the fresh baked bread and about a dozen little bowls of dips and toppings were ready and waiting – humus, salad, vegetable, couscous, several that I do not know names for. Over the last few days, my experience has been that usually the first course is like this, with bread or pita for dipping on several tastes, then a main course of meat or fish. So next came some excellent seared tuna with strawberries, whitefish in a sweet sauce, and thin-sliced veal caprese. It was one sumptuous taste after another. After we had been eating for a little over an hour, I was pretty well satisfied.

That was when the waiter came over to ask if he could clear the appetizers and bring us the main courses.

Little filet mignon, skirt steaks, meatballs, each wonderfully flavored. Rice, mashed potatoes, and cubed French fries.

Then dessert – three flavors of sorbet, vanilla ice cream topped with flaky strings of crunchy goodness, and a hot chocolate torte.

Except for the mini-loaves of bread, each of these came in bite size servings… but as each dish disappeared, another took its place! Whatever weight I lost after five months of walking in Rome, I will have gained back after a week of Jerusalem fare and Berrie Foundation generosity!

The Roman Classroom, or, Reflections on Methodology and Pedagogy in the Pontifical Roman Universities from an American Catholic Paradigm Typified by L’Universite de Notre Dame du Lac

What is it like studying in Rome? Are the courses challenging? Are the students on par with peers in the U.S.? Is the university academically rigorous? Are the faculty orthodox? How does it compare to [Notre Dame/Seattle University/Catholic University]?

These are the kinds of questions I have had from a number of friends and colleagues, and I thought I would address them together once I had had some time to get a sense of the pedagogy here.

Sts. Dominic & Sixtus

Church of Dominic and Sixtus at the Angelicum University

It is a different system, no question. The first thing to note is the nature of the university. The Universities are really just buildings with classrooms, and very minimal administrative staff. The entirety of the Angelicum – classrooms, offices, chapel, faculty residences, library and bookstore – is about the same size as Hunthausen Hall at SU, Caldwell at CUA, or O’Shaughnessy at ND. This is because the university really only offers the classes, mostly lectures and a small number of seminars. It is assumed that the bulk of your formation actually happens elsewhere, specifically, independent research, formation in community, and the experience of being in Rome.

My specialization does not even use the university library, for example. Instead, we have access to the Centro Pro Unione, run by the Society of the Atonement; that is our library. Sure, it is about a 25 minute walk from the Angelicum, but it’s a walk that passes by the Trevi fountain, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and some of the most famous gellateria in the city, so one cannot complain. Moreover, there is a lot of time for research, so once I settle on an idea, I will not be bogged down by unwanted topics in order to pursue it.

The presumption of the university is that its students live in a house of formation, one of the “colleges” around Rome – and these are operated entirely separately from the universities. The problem is, of course, that only about 70% of students have access to one of these colleges as they are usually established either by national bishops’ conferences exclusively for priests and seminarians, or by religious communities for their own members. That leaves a significant number of students – deacons, lay ecclesial ministers, non-ecclesial lay students and non-Catholics – without an essential part of their education in Rome. The Lay Centre is the only such college trying to meet this need, and it is a private venture. It is also limited in space, with only room for about 20 residents out of the hundreds needing such a place. (Though get the impression the quality of life and of formation here exceeds what can be found in many of the national colleges for seminarians and priests!)

Further, I think the course load is intentionally light, though it does not appear this way at first. It is normal to be registered for about 8 or 9 courses a semester, one of which is a seminar. Whereas the typical 3-credit course in the States meets for 3 hours in two or three classes a week, here we get 90 minutes, once a week – about half as much time. The reading load is considerably less, too, if you just look at the syllabi. Two of my courses have only one required text of about 200 pages each, for the entire semester. The rest rely entirely on lecture notes. I have a total of 30 pages of writing due this semester, and most final exams are oral rather than written.  (I am remembering my first semester sophomore year at ND, over 100 pages on 60 different topics, not counting finals!)


Sacred Heart Basilica and Main Building, University of Notre Dame

The difference between being located in South Bend, IN and in Roma cannot be overstated, though. It is easy to take on a thousand pages of reading a week at ND when there is nothing to do otherwise anyway. Here, if you want to learn about early Christianity or the history of the papacy, go for a walk. San Giovanni in Laterano is ten minutes from here. San Clemente is even closer. The Vatican is a few metro stops away. Just in the last week, we have had dinner with two of the three Catholic representatives on the reconciliation talks with the Lefebvrite schismatics (Archbishop Ladaria and Charles Morerod, OP). The week after the press release about the Anglican personal Ordinariates, we got to talk with two different members of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. Then, of course, the discussions had over dinner and caffé more than make up for the pedantic lecture style in some of the classrooms.

It is important to note the international character here too. Granted, ND and CUA were both pretty international, but I think this is the most mixed place I have ever been. I am frequently the only native English speaker in a class, or one of two. It seems to be a good representation of the Church in general: lots of representation from Africa, southeast Asia, India, and Eastern Europe. (Some from Latin and South America, but most of them seem to go to the Gregorianum rather than the Angelicum). This probably makes lecture rather than group discussion in class more feasible, and accounts for what seems like a slow pace.

A dialogue of hospitality

We had a few guests for dinner at the Lay Centre tonight.

That would be the “necessary but insufficient” description. Allow me to elaborate.

Ambassador Tony Hall

Ambassador Tony Hall

Former U.S. Special Representative to the U.N. agencies in Rome (and former U.S. Representative), Ambassador Tony Hall, his wife Janet, their daughter Jyl and her husband Ryan joined us for dinner. Apparently during their years in Rome, Mrs. Hall was a regular participant of the Centre’s ongoing formation program, the Vincent Pallotti Institute, and she and Ambassador Hall became regular guests and friends of the Lay Centre.

Now back home in the States, they were in Rome for a few days and were able to stop by to see the new location and meet the new members of the community. Ambassador Hall shared with us some reflections on his dedication to eradicate hunger and malnutrition in our world, and gave witness to the fact that it was his faith in Christ, and the conviction of the Gospel, that moved him to spend so much of his life in service to those most in need.

 Jyl and Ryan – who, as it turns out, is a native of Bellingham, WA –came across the Adriatic from Macedonia where they are involved in a ministry sponsored by Faith and Learning International. Between sports and art, they are reaching hundreds of youth in the context of a broader outreach in the Balkans. You can read their blog here:

Daniel Roberts, Dr. Adam Afterman, AJ, Naomi Schenck

Daniel Roberts, Dr. Adam Afterman, AJ, Naomi Shank

We were also honored to have Ms. Naomi Shank, director of the Russell Berrie Fellowship program, Mr. Daniel Roberts, director of the Institute for International Education’s Europe Office (IIE), and Dr. Adam Afterman of Hebrew University and the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. As you know, my studies at the Angelicum are being funded by one of the Russell Berrie Fellowships, which is coordinated through the IIE, and a part of our fellowship is a seminar in the Holy Land coordinated by Dr. Afterman and the Hartman Institute, so it was a particularly welcome opportunity for me to put faces with the names of those responsible for my grant.

Finally, complete with Caribinieri escort, the newly appointed U.S. Special Representative to the U.N. agencies in Rome, Ambassador Ertharin Cousin, joined us just as Ambassador Hall was beginning his after dinner remarks. Having just arrived to her post the same day I arrived in Rome, not quite two weeks ago, that she was willing to find time to join us was indicative both to the Ambassadors own commitment to interfaith and inter-cultural dialogue and reconciliation, and to the value of the Lay Centre in the life of Rome as a place where the dialogues of life, charity, and hospitality coincide with the dialogue of truth.

Ambassador Ertharin Cousin

Ambassador Ertharin Cousin

For those who do not know – and I certainly did not – the U.S. mission to the U.N. Agencies in Rome is our relationship with the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture, including the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Program and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. It is also responsible for overseeing U.S. participation in the International Development Law Organization, the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law, and the International Center for the Study and Preservation of Cultural Property.

Ahhh, Bella Roma!

Foro Romano

View from my room: Vittorio Emmanuele monument and Roman Forum

I am in Rome. After a flight cancellation, delayed luggage, and a fairly typical (read: nail-biting) taxi ride from Fiumincino airport to my new residence, I arrived at the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas at about 1700 (5pm for us non-Europeans), just over 24 hours after Nancy dropped me off at SeaTac. Just in time for a brief tour, a moment to admire the view from my room, and a short nap before venturing to the nearby church of Santa Maria in Domenica for Mass and then dinner with the other residents.

With this blog I hope to regularly update family, friends, and insomniac internet wanderers as to my life in the Eternal City, as well as to provide reflections on the courses, research and other theological or ecclesiastical goings on. My intent is to save your inboxes but keep in touch, and to provide either catechesis or opportunity for theological discussion, depending on the reader. Please feel free to respond publicly or privately! I’m looking forward to a view of the church from Rome, though I have a long way to go on my Italian before it becomes unfiltered!

Some initial observations:

Technology: I am seriously considering investing in trans-Atlantic homing pigeons and a stock of quill pens. Our wireless connection at the residence has only worked for a few hours a couple of times over the last week and a half, apparently because of some issue with the electricity – twice the routers have been fried by the electrical system in the monastery! Likewise, the wireless at the Angelicum University has not been connected to the internet any time I have tried it, but I was able to ‘borrow’ a cable from a physics conference on campus last week. Not that it mattered too much, as my laptop crashed literally the first time I turned it on in Rome. Thankfully my files were backed up, but  I left some important software backups at home, like my Italian lessons from Rosetta Stone…

Liturgy: My first Sunday Eucharist was the Pontifical Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica for the opening of the Synod of Bishops for Africa. If you’ve been there, you know San Pietro is “in the round”, albeit in a cruciform shape, with the altar in the center – much like St. Brendan’s in Bothell. And, like St Brendan, the presider (in this case the Holy Father) was able to celebrate both ad orientem and versus populum, simultaneously. That is, to face east, one must also face the largest section of the assembly in the long nave adjacent to the piazza. Communion was taken in the hand, along the center aisle, with the Eucharistic ministers moving back and forth between about five or six rows. The cup was not offered, and we stood during the Eucharistic prayer. The mass parts were in Latin, given the international character of the liturgy, but readings in English and Portuguese, with prayers in the languages of Africa, from Ge’ez and Arabic to Swahili and French. Most other liturgy has been in the community; more on that momentarily.

Diet, Exercise, and Environment: The university is just about a 35 minute walk from our residence, and the Centro Pro Unione (Center for Union), which serves as the library for my department, is another 30 minute walk beyond that. Though, as I walk around in my shorts and shirtsleeves sweating enough to flood the colloseo, I no doubt stand out like a sore thumb, as the Romans are all dressed in black, some wearing coats already, all in long pants, and never seem to break a sweat. It must be 75 and its very humid, but apparently it’s a big relief from summer! As for food, I have never eaten so well in my life! After just a few days, I actually feel healthier. Even the cappuccino seems fresher, smaller, and less addictive.

I also really appreciate the pausa – or siesta – the break from about 12:30-3:30pm which is especially necessary on hot days. You just cannot get anything done in the heat, so why not nap, and save your energy for the more active evening time? So classes are held 830-12:30, then 3:30-7:30, and many businesses are on similar hours.

To orient yourself to my daily route, look at a map of Rome (google maps is good), start just south of the Colloseo at the monastery of Sts. John and Paul (on the site of the Temple of Claudius), follow Via Claudia north along the east side of the colloseo, then along the Via dei Fori Imperiali past the Foro Romano and the Foro Augusto to the Monument for Vittorio Emmanuele II. Turn right at Trajan’s Column, up the stairs to the church of Santi Domenico e Sisto – that’s the Angelicum “campus”. From there to the Centro Pro Unione, head back west and somewhat north to the Piazza Navona, passing the Church of the Gesù, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and the Pantheon if you like. Just behind the Palace Pamphilj, the Society of the Atonement has their headquarters and the Centro.  Rest assured, I have already been shown the famous Gellateria La Palma nearby!

Community: I am staying at the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas, which has an interesting history. Foyer Unitas was originally founded in 1962 by a small Dutch religious order of women known as the Ladies of Bethany as a house of hospitality for any non-Catholic in Rome, just off the Piazza Navona in the same building as the Centro Pro Unione. The Lay Centre is the brainchild of Dr. Donna Orsuto and Riekie van Velzen, who had been connected to the Foyer Unitas, as a college for those of us coming to Rome who did not quite fit in to the ecclesiastical residences. The NAC, for example, houses only seminarians and priests, leaving religious to live with their orders, deacons and lay ecclesial ministers, along with other lay students, to fend for themselves. Founded in 1986, it was housed first at Foyer Unitas (hence the name) and then in the English College, the Irish College, and now at the Passionist Monastery of Sts. John and Paul.

We are 21 residents this year, from Albania, Canada, Germany, Greece, Ghana, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Serbia, Turkey, and the U.S. Three Muslims, three Eastern Orthodox, an Anglican, and the rest of us are Catholic.  We have a medical doctor, a lawyer, and a nurse all studying for new vocations. Breakfast and lunch are self serve during the week, with dinner at 7:45 followed by Compline (night prayer). Wednesdays are our community nights, with mass at 7:00pm followed by dinner and usually a presentation. During our first several days, we’ve had brief presentations during dinner each night, and a day of reflection on Sunday. We’ve already had some orientation to community life from a Jesuit, a Benedictine, an Augustinian, and a Marist, in addition to our director (Donna Orsuto) and assistant (Robert White).

The location is a profound blessing. We are in the historical center or Rome, within the Aurelian walls, but with large enough private gardens that we are removed from the street noise – something unheard of almost anywhere else in the city. We sit on top of one of the famous Seven Hills of Rome, Monte Celio, and my bedroom window looks right down on the Foro Romano, the Colloseum, and the Capitoline Hill with the Monument for Vittorio Emanuele. From our patio ledge, we can see the dome of San Pietro.

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