By Elena Dini
ROME — Born in the United States and ordained a priest in France, Father Etienne Vetö was called to serve as the director of the Cardinal Bea Centre for Judaic Studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in 2017. After the lockdown in Rome, we reached out to him to learn about the recent past, present and future of the Bea Centre, which is particularly close to the mission of The Lay Centre.
Q. Father Vetö, could you share with us your background?
A. I’m a Catholic priest and member of the Chemin Neuf community. Life in our community was a preparation for the position I was called to have here at the Bea Centre. It is a community composed of men and women, where most members are Catholic, but there are also members from other Christian denominations, and we pray every day for unity. This experience opened my eyes to the issue that the people of God was wider than what I thought and that we need to listen to other people and receive from the treasure of their tradition and their way of looking at God.
As for my academic background, I have an “agrégation” (French equivalent to a PhD) in philosophy and a PhD in theology. I also studied at the Protestant Humboldt-Universität in Berlin. Being one of the few Catholic students was a powerful experience.
Q. Could you tell us more about the Bea Centre?
A. The existence of a Centre for Jewish Studies within a Catholic University, more specifically a pontifical one, is very rare. At the Bea Centre, we offer a two-year, full-time training in Judaism and some courses on Jewish-Christian relations. Other centres would offer some courses but not focus exclusively on it.
Forty per cent of our faculty are Jewish scholars, many from Hebrew University, and some classes are taught by a Christian and a Jewish professor together. This allows the students to have direct contact with people who live Judaism and, at the same time, to see professors modelling fruitful discussions. Last year, we had the chance of having an audience with Pope Francis when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Cardinal Augustin Bea’s death. He invited us to live dialogue in order to speak about it and we work in that direction.
Q. How did the Cardinal Bea Centre live the lockdown phase?
A. Like all the other centres and faculties at the Pontifical Gregorian University we adapted to the situation. Seminars were held on Zoom. We hosted live video conferences. Some professors recorded classes and sent them to students. I witnessed a deep commitment both from professors and students. There were some challenges, too; it was not always easy from a technical point of view and some people moved back home and had to deal with a huge time difference. A Canadian student, for example, had to wake up at 4 a.m. to attend the seminar.
We made a lot of mistakes, but we saw that it was really possible to teach and study online. We also saw that people were very happy to see each other, above all those lay students stuck in apartments far from home.
If we consider continuing with a fully online format for those who cannot travel to Rome, we should definitely think about more interactive and shorter teaching. However, we should not forget that one specificity of pontifical universities in Rome is exactly that they are located in Rome. Part of the experience our students have is that they live here with people coming from so many different countries and you immerse yourself in 2,000 years of history. Although we can teach online, nothing can replace being in Rome.
Q. What are your plans for next year?
A. In October or November, we will host a study day on tools to fight anti-Semitism. Then, for March, we are working on two conferences: one on Philo of Alexandria and the other on the question of the land of Israel. This is a sensitive topic because there is a political dimension to it and because it is so important for so many Jews who hold different positions. On April 21, we will offer a study day on the Jewish reading of the New Testament.
Finally, in May, we will have an event recalling what happened on May 13, 1960, when Jules Isaac and Pope John XXIII met for about 20-30 minutes. The Jewish historian presented the pope with what he called “the teaching of contempt” and explained how he thought this had an effect on the Shoah. I’m struck by the extent to which personal relations are important. Something happened in those few minutes that changed the story of the Catholic Church and the Jewish people. We organized a webinar during the lockdown phase to discuss this anniversary, but we are rescheduling the conference as well to 2021.
Q. Some Lay Centre scholars were students at the Bea Centre and you had some opportunities to visit. In what ways do these two institutions work in the same direction?
A. I think the experiences we offer are very complementary. You do need academic dialogue but of course the relational dimension needs to be nurtured. There is a living experiential dimension to both ecumenical and interfaith relations that happens at The Lay Centre and that gives a grounding to the people who are in touch with the Bea Centre.
In the end, I believe that the true foundation for any kind of dialogue is friendship. Let me mention here, for example, Abraham Heschel and Cardinal Bea. Together, they were the ones who gave birth to the questions related to Jewish-Christian relations at the Second Vatican Council, and this happened because of their friendship. Probably, some of the relations that have been established at The Lay Centre will last for a lifetime and that will really change the way these young people interact with people of other faiths.
Photo by M. Correa / Pontifical Gregorian University