By Elena Dini
ROME — Ten years ago, the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue opened its doors at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas in Rome. To mark this anniversary, events were planned May 7-8, including a celebratory dinner, hosted at The Lay Centre May 8. The John Paul II Center is sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation, which has offered fellowships to 95 scholars from 35 countries over the past 10 years to complete a diploma in interreligious studies.
The relationship between The Lay Centre and the Russell Berrie Fellowship is a longstanding one. In fact, a number of fellowship alumni lived at The Lay Centre during their time in Rome. One such Russell Berrie Fellowship alumnus, Andrew James Boyd, acknowledged at the anniversary dinner how much he gained from both experiences.
The John Paul II Center hosted an international conference, titled “Education for Action,” May 7. Organizations actively involved in interreligious dialogue, both at the local and international levels, gathered to take part in “a marketplace of ideas.” They got to know each other, informally present their respective projects, and reach out to people interested in this field.
Panel discussions followed, featuring well-known speakers from these organizations: Rabbi Jack Bemporad, co-director of the John Paul II Center; Angelica Berrie, president of the Russell Berrie Foundation; Huda Abuarquob, regional director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace; Aart Bos, CEO of MasterPeace; Joyce S. Dubensky, Esq., CEO of Tanenbaum; and Sister Lucy Thornson of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion.
“When we invest in one fellow, we plant a seed, and through him/her we can transform communities, societies,” said Berrie.
Rabbi Bemporad spoke of the change that happens in one’s life because of dialogue.
“I’ve engaged for many years in the process of dialogue and I have discovered that my understanding of my religion was expanded because of conversations with people of other faiths,” he said. “To be religious, I have to be interreligious.”
The conclusion of the conference highlighted contributions by Russell Berrie alumni through a series of TED-style talks on the topic of interreligious dialogue and a poster session where alumni who received a grant to run an interfaith project shared their initiatives.
Russell Berrie alumna Elyse Brazel is the education coordinator at the Faith and Spirituality Centre of the University of Calgary in Canada. With a small grant, she organized the Kaleidoscope Project — a one-week program during which students live together and learn about a different faith tradition each day.
“This is an experiential learning program that my centre runs every year during the spring reading break,” she explained. “We bring in scholars or religious leaders who are members of each community to give an introduction to their tradition, which includes common misconceptions about their communities. In the afternoon, we will visit sacred sites of the tradition we are learning about. It’s a great way to explore your local community and to see the city in a whole new way.”
Brazel said living at The Lay Centre during her fellowship “was a way to put in practice what I was studying within an ecumenical and interreligious community.”
Samantha Lin presented the “Interfaith Café,” a yearlong program that she ran at The Lay Centre in 2017, where Lin resided during her studies. The Interfaith Café aimed at providing a space for discussing topics relevant to interreligious dialogue with young adults through encounter and conversation with experts.