Russell Berrie Fellowship, Lay Centre foster interreligious dialogue in Rome

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Russell Berrie Fellowship, Lay Centre foster interreligious dialogue in Rome

By Elena Dini

ROME — Driven by the same willingness to have people experience the richness of dialogue, The Lay Centre and the Russell Berrie Fellowship have a long history of collaboration.

The one-year academic fellowship was born as a partnership between the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, commonly called the Angelicum and the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue; the latter is sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation. The fellowship allows students to pursue a licentiate in theology, with a specialization in ecumenism and dialogue, or a diploma in interreligious studies.

“The academic project of the Angelicum may be described with three terms: synthesis, syntony, synergy,” said Dominican Father Michal Paluch, OP, rector of the Angelicum. “We want to give our students the capacity to develop their synthesis following the example of Thomas Aquinas. We want them to learn how to be in syntony with all those who do not share our understanding of the world, and we want them to look for synergies in their activities with all the people of goodwill.”

“The Russell Berrie project helps us on all those levels,” he continued. “It is important for our synthesis. Christians must know and appreciate their Jewish roots in order to understand the Christian identity. Thanks to the Russell Berrie program our students have a great opportunity to know — syntony — and to start to cooperate — synergy — with people of different traditions.”

Father Paluch said the Russell Berrie program makes a “tremendous” contribution to academic and intellectual life at the university.

Dr. Adam Afterman is the co-director of the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue, as well as the chair of the Department of Jewish Philosophy and Talmud at Tel Aviv University.

“Now entering its 12th year, the goal of the Berrie Fellowship program is to provide and develop the intellectual and practical tools in becoming future leaders in the emerging field of interreligious dialogue and to build bridges among Christian, Jewish, and other religious traditions,” said Dr. Afterman, who is also a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

He described The Lay Centre, where many Russell Berrie Fellows have lived over the years, as “one of our partners in Rome." However, all of the fellows come to know The Lay Centre because they attend regular events in interreligious dialogue there throughout the year, he said.

Russell Berrie alumni who are also Lay Centre alumni consider their academic experience to have been very much connected with the everyday life at The Lay Centre.

“I cannot imagine my time as a Russell Berrie Fellow without the community formation offered by The Lay Centre,” said Peter Dziedzic, who lived at The Lay Centre while in the fellowship program in 2013-2014. “By fostering a diverse, active, and engaging intentional community in the heart of Rome, The Lay Centre offered a platform for a truly embodied, daily practice of ecumenical and interreligious witness and dialogue.”

Dziedzic is currently a doctoral student in religious studies at Harvard University. His research is on theologies of creativity and imagination in Christian and Islamic contexts; he is also a resident tutor at Pforzheimer House of Harvard College.

Dr. Matthew Tan was in the second cohort of the Russell Berrie Fellowship in 2009-2011. He is currently a senior lecturer of theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia and the chaplaincy formation and outreach officer for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.

Dr. Tan said he enjoyed the opportunity to “come to a close encounter with other faiths, especially the Jewish faith, and to also make lasting friendships from across the world.”

“The Lay Centre’s dedication to fostering an interfaith community meant that I did more than learn about other faiths as a set of theories and concepts in a classroom. I also got to see it as a lived reality that is also integrated with my own,” he said.

Bernadette McGonigle is a legal aid lawyer from Ireland who specializes in the areas of family and refugee law. She is currently enrolled as a Russell Berrie Fellow and lives on her own in Rome while on a sabbatical from her work.

She and other fellows attended the presentation “Is Your God too Small?” at The Lay Centre, given by Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, director of the Vatican Observatory. The presentation opened the way for McGonigle and her classmates to visit the Vatican Observatory and to get a tour with Brother Consolmagno. McGonigle said the visit “has remained one of the most inspiring learning experiences from our time in Rome.”

Russell Berrie Fellows attended two other interreligious events at The Lay Centre this past academic year: “Fraternity Beyond Frontiers: St. Francis of Assisi Meets Sultan al-Malike al-Kamil,” with Franciscan Father Jason Welle, OFM, and “Planting Seeds of Hope: Grassroots Initiatives on Creating a Culture of Dialogue,” featuring a panel of international scholars and practitioners of interreligious dialogue.

McGonigle said these events offered “very valuable, practical insights.”

The Russell Berrie Fellowship is currently accepting applications for the fall semester. The deadline is May 4. Find the details here: 

The Lay Centre is also accepting applications for the fall semester. Find details here Email:


Photo: Lay Centre staff.  On the occasion of Father Jason Welle’s public lecture November 12, 2019 on “Fraternity Beyond Frontiers”. Members of the 2019-2020 Russell Berrie cohort are pictured with Father Jason at the end of the lecture.

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