Among the one and a half million Catholic youth gathered in Lisbon for the World Youth Day, the presence of people of other faiths did not go unnoticed. On the street, our JPII Leader Venerable Ashin Mandalarlankara (Cohort XV, Myanmar) was stopped by young people asking him which community he belonged to.

The Lisbon-based International Dialogue Centre KAICIID brought together a group of members from various religious communities and geographical backgrounds to offer an interfaith presence during World Youth Day through a number of events open to the young people crowding the Portuguese streets. Among them two of our JPII Leaders.

On Tuesday, August 1, a panel on youth and interreligious dialogue was held at the Belem Cultural Centre, opposite the City of Joy. Among the speakers the Senior Program Manager of the JPII Center, Elena Dini, and JPII Leader Ashin Mandalarlankara who addressed a group of more than 100 young people interested in dialogue and shared their experience.

On Thursday and Friday, August 3-4, JPII Leaders with other interfaith leaders facilitated the DIALOGO board game with groups of young people who came and enjoyed the chance of delving into dialogue issues in a fun way.

The highlight was for sure the private meeting with Pope Francis who arrived in Lisbon to join the million and a half young Catholics gathered there and took the time for some meetings before then. JPII Leader Mandalarlankara was in the small  group of interreligious leaders facilitated by KAICIID who met Pope Francis.

Looking at the young people gathered in Lisbon, monk Ashin Mandarlarlankara comments: “The Buddhist youth in my country have no leader and no vision. And our young Catholics could not attend because of difficulties in obtaining visas due to the political crisis in Myanmar”. These days were a great opportunity for him: besides the private meeting with the Holy Father on Friday, “walking the streets dressed as a monk but with the WYD badge- he concludes – made the young people feel that I was one of them and yet I was different. And this was a great opportunity, for me and for them”.  

The JPII Center is focused on working with its alumni network of JPII Leaders—those who have attended and graduate from their interreligious dialogue training program over the past 15 years—to continue developing training and projects around dialogue. The JPII Center is happy to support our JPII Leaders by sponsoring their participation at international conferences where their proposals are accepted.

In June 2023, JPII leaders came together from different countries and different cohorts to participate in two conferences around the world. 

Nataliia Pavlyk (Cohort XII, Ukraine), Peter Dziedzic (Cohort VI, USA), and Ana Petrache (Cohort XIII, Romania) presented at the European Academy of Religion’s (EuAre) sixth Annual Conference at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

On June 21, these JPII Leaders offered a panel entitled “Building a Common Home in Europe: The Role of Interreligious Encounter in Civil Society,” which aimed to explore “the role of interreligious engagement in shaping new visions of civil society, civic discourse, and cultures of pluralism in twenty-first century Europe.” As scholars and dialogue practitioners, the JPII Leaders drew upon their hands-on experience in the field of interreligious dialogue to contribute to this year’s EuAre conference, organized around the theme of “Religion from the Inside.”

Ana Petrache began the panel with a discussion on the notion of “civil religion” by putting Thomas Hobbes’ commentary on 2 Kings 5:17 in conversation with political and philosophical notions of statehood, obedience, and religious identity and freedom. Drawing on both Islamic and Catholic intellectual traditions, Peter Dziedzic explored the Islamic concept of dīn and the Western concept of religio as a resource for thinking through models and structures of civil society. Nataliia Pavlyk, founder of the Oriental Studies Circle in Kyiv, Ukraine, concluded the panel with a case study of Jain-Jewish dialogue and emphasized how the spiritual practices behind this concrete experience contribute to fostering a culture of religious pluralism.

Meanwhile, JPII Leaders Samantha Lin (Cohort IX, USA) and Rebecca Cohen (Cohort VI, USA) participated in the International Conference of Christians and Jews (ICCJ) in Boston, USA. This theme of this year’s conference, held on June 18-21, was “Negotiating Multiple Identities: Implications for Interreligious Relations.” Samantha and Rebecca’s workshop, “Leveraging Structured Peer Consultancy to Address Challenges in Initiatives Confronting Antisemitism,” offered real-life scenarios of antisemitism and concrete strategies of how to engage such encounters, especially within the context of interfaith dialogue.  

“This workshop engaged the approximately 12 person group to ‘consult’ on real challenges facing Rebecca and her team at the USCCB as they work to add better context and teaching to the Good Friday liturgy,” explains Samantha, who facilitated the discussion and the peer consultancy. 

The Fellows introduced the Consultancy Protocol, “a process developed by Gene Thompson-Grove that focuses on the specifics of a real challenge that involves implementation, buy-in, and metrics of success faced by a program for confronting antisemitism,” and allowed the participants to engage in scenarios of real-life challenges.

“The lively conversation included real solutions that can be extrapolated and applied to different situations,” explains Samantha, “and we walked away with a shared toolbox of strategies for extending the impact of confronting antisemitism programming.”

Read more about the JPII Leaders that make up our network here.

With the support of a JPII Center Leader Grant, Fr. Herbert Banda (Cohort VIII, Zimbabwe) initiated an interfaith symposium on drug abuse in his home country of Zimbabwe. In collaboration with Evans Nyamadzo (Cohort XIV, Zimbabwe), Fr. Banda organized this event to be hosted at his home parish of Our Lady Queen of Peace (OLQOP) in Entumbane.

Fr. Banda, parish priest of OLQOP, opened the Interfaith Symposium on Drug Abuse with a welcome address. Held on February 4, 2023 in Entumbane, this symposium aimed to address the growing concern of drug abuse within local suburbs as well as on a national level—a concern common to many communities in Zimbabwe.

“This project brought together experts and officials—from the Christian and Muslim religions—to give lectures on the topics of substance abuse and domestic violence among their communities,” explains Fr. Banda, “and how to build bridges through dialogue to counter these issues.”

The symposium engaged a variety of voices from the local community: from social workers and psychiatrists to police officers and religious leaders. 

Drawing from the Gospel of John, Fr. Elvis Gwangwava, Assistant Parish Priest of OLQOP, offered a lecture on the Christian approach to drug abuse that drew upon scripture. Sheikh Ronald Mugayi gave a Muslim perspective on drug abuse, quoting from the Qur’an. “We are saying no to stigmatization to those who are into drug abuse,” said Sheikh Mugayi, “instead let us bring them closer to us for counseling/advising, for they have the power to be the leader of tomorrow.”

After a day of diverse and comprehensive talks and workshops, Fr. Banda outlined a threefold “Way Forward” to address drug abuse in Entumbane: the creation of local “Safe Spaces” for youth in the community; the facilitation of open dialogues on drugs at local churches; and an approach of social inclusion to welcome those struggling with drug abuse into the local community. 

“This was the beginning of establishing this platform in my township,” shares Fr. Banda, who is hopeful about continued interfaith collaboration around local and national issues in Zimbabwe.

JPII Leader Ana Petrache (Cohort XIII, Romania) received a grant from the JPII Center to join a group of scholars from around the world—mostly from secular universities based in the United States, the European Union, the Middle East, and South Asia—for two intense weeks of reflection on religion and politics.

The Rome Summer Seminars on Religion and Global Politics, held June 4-17 in Rome, began with a 10-day writing workshop for students, held at the University of Notre Dame Rome Global Gateway (RGG) near the Colosseum, and ended with a 2-day policy dialogue for senior scholars and practitioners, which the students could observe. 

“The program was designed to encourage political scientists to engage more deeply with religious content in order to understand how religious actors think and act,” explains Ana, whose attendance at the Rome Summer Seminars was funded by the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue. 

The program is by nature interdisciplinary and collaborative, bringing together academics, policy experts, and religious scholars as well as several institutions: the RGG, Keough School of Global Affairs and Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion; the Pontifical Gregorian University (PUG); the Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI); the Sinderesi Foundation; the Adyan Foundation of Lebanon; the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies of Jordan; the Hanns Seidel Stiftung; and John Cabot University (JCU).

Elena Dini, Senior Program Manager for the JPII Center, was one of the invited panelists in a roundtable event entitled “Islam and Roman Catholicism and Political Defeat.”

“Compared with other IRD events, which are mostly the fruit of faith actors who want to meet and engage with other religious leaders, the Rome Summer Seminars were born out of the need for scholars and politicians to enforce multidisciplinary research concerning the interaction between religious and political actors,” explains Ana, “Greater knowledge in this field might help the reconciliation process in conflict zones—or even prevent certain conflicts altogether.”

Participants went on daily visits to a variety of religious and international institutions, such as the Foreign Embassies to the Holy See. “I realized how important the consultation process between religious and political actors is,” shares Ana, “Working closely with their communities, religious actors can often better address grassroots problems, and a more religiously-oriented approach can offer creative resources for solving crises.”

“I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to have received feedback on my presentation concerning the religious fundament of models of sovereignty from Kristina Stoeckl, specialist on Russian Orthodox Church (LUISS University), and Anna Rowlands, specialist on Catholic Social Teaching (Durham University). It was a great occasion to enlarge my political theology network and to engage with contemporary theologians such as Cyril Hovorun.”

Beyond an exceptional professional experience, the Rome Summer Seminars offered Ana several meaningful interactions and friendships; she recounts: “During our visit to Santa Maria in Trastevere, an Indian Muslim came to me and asked if I knew any prayers. After my positive answer, he asked me to pray for him and his family. I particularly like how he framed his request in a theologically correct manner: he did not ask to pray together but for me to pray for him. So I did; I asked the Mother of God that his own work in Christian/Muslim dialogue make a difference.” 

Cohort XV arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday, June 11 to begin their Israel Study Tour, the final part of the Russell Berrie experience before graduating into the JPII Center for Interreligious Dialogue alumni network as JPII Leaders.

The Study Tour kicked off with interactive scriptural study sessions at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where Professor Adam Afterman offered an introduction to the academic program of this visit, and Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, president of the Institute, gave a talk on “Judaism and Pluralism.”

Academic study at the Hartman Institute continued throughout the week with excursions around Jerusalem, including an ecumenical tour of the Old City with Hana Bendcowsky, a guided tour of the Israel Museum and the Shrine of the Book, and a visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. 

The Fellows also participated in “Healing Hatred and Meeting Place,” a workshop facilitated by members of the Rossing Center, an interreligious organization based in Jerusalem that promotes an inclusive society for all religious, ethnic, and national groups.

“From various encounters of workshop and group study/sharing with some indigenous groups, I learnt that people are waking up in an unprecedented manner to the pluralistic realities and challenges of our world today and are devotedly committed to fostering a peaceful coexistence,” shares Sr. Geraldine Anugwem (Nigeria), “with religion as a starting point.” 

Rev. Karikoga Tawanda Hope (Zimbabwe) reflects: “Understanding the three Abrahamic religions—how they live and feel in suffering and joy—gives me hope that a world free of violence and atrocities among humanity is attainable.”

June 17 began with a mass at the Garden of Gethsemane and continued with visits to the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Last Supper Room, and King David’s Tomb. 

“Every bit of the Holy Sepulchre is divided, but the thing that unites every bit of it is the prayer,” reflects Sr. Josmy Jose (India), “Every pilgrim’s whispering during the visit turned to be a prayer for peace in the world. I am reminded again that I am a pilgrim on this earth.”

In the final days of the Israel Study Tour, the Russell Berrie Fellows traveled to Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the Sea of Galilee, including stops at the Mount of Beatitudes, Capernaum, and the Supremacy of St. Peter. 

“Exploring ancient archaeological sites like Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, I learned about the interconnectedness of different faiths and the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” shares Ashin Mandalarlankara (Myanmar), “I gained a deep appreciation for the rich history, diverse cultures, and religious significance that permeate the Holy Land. The most enjoyable aspect was witnessing the vibrant tapestry of traditions, from tasting delicious Middle Eastern cuisine to participating in religious prayers.”

The Israel Study Tour concluded in Tel Aviv, where the Fellows visited Jaffa, St. Peter Church, and the ANU Museum of the Jewish People before taking off from the airport. 

“This is a unique experience: to study Judaism in Israel,” shares Fr. Jackson Johnson (India), “Interaction with different people engaged in interreligious dialogue in the Holy Land helped me explore new possibilities. It gave me a new outlook on approaching interfaith dialogue in the future.”

“​​It was quite moving to see what interreligious life looks like, with its beauties and challenges,” says Halil Avci (Germany), “I learned a lot about my fellows, because we have spent much quality time together. I learned more about what they are bringing into this endeavor of interreligious engagement and where they are going to take it in the future.”

“Meeting with people who are motivated to create a culture of peace and harmony strengthened my aspirations to work for peace in and around the world,” concludes Sr. Josmy Jose.

Russell Berrie Fellow Sr. Josmy Jose FMA (Cohort XV, India) received an official invitation from His Eminence Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot to participate in the sixth Colloquium, organized by the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue (DID) and the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies (RIIFS). Held in Rome, Italy on May 3 and 4, this important and prestigious Colloquium was organized around the theme of “Creative Commonalities between Christianity and Islam” and gathered a small and selective group of experts in the field.

The Colloquium was opened with remarks from Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot and His Highness Prince El Hassan bin Talal, chairman of RIIFS. Sr. Josmy, a delegate of the 12-person Catholic delegation, was one of 24 international Catholic and Muslim participants who hailed from Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, France, Spain, Lebanon, Italy, Tunisia, and India.

Delegates presented on the current state of Muslim-Christian dialogue in the world. Each presentation was followed by discussions that engaged important questions and comments among the participants. “Some of the personal and institutional experiences were very enlightening in promoting creative dialogue,” remarks Sr. Josmy.

On the second day of the Colloquium both groups of delegates were received by His Holiness Pope Francis in his Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. Pope Francis offered words of encouragement to the delegates and pointed to the perseverance of this journey of interfaith and intercultural dialogue, with RIIFS having been founded in 1994 in Amman, Jordan, under the patronage of His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan bin Talal.

Pope Francis emphasized friendship as a means of continuing to build bridges of peace and solidarity. “He also remembered the people who are suffering in Turkey and North Syria,” notes Sr. Josmy, “The words and the very presence of Holy Father Pope Francis brought a lot of joy and gratitude to each of the delegates present in the colloquium.” 

The Colloquium ended with generative discussions, ideas, and suggestions from the Christian and Muslim delegates. “The search for common platforms to express these diversities remains a challenge and an opportunity,” shares Sr. Josmy, “The awareness of a call to global citizenship is another key point that resounded all throughout the Colloquium.”

With the support of a JPII Leader Grant, Fr. Mak Caesar Abagna (Cohort XI, Ghana), created and led three workshops for young people in Ghana to raise awareness around religious-based conflict. With workshops in December 2022, March 2023, and May 2023, Fr. Mak Caesar’s project, “Christian-Muslim Youth in Dialogue for Conflict Prevention,” sought to achieve conflict prevention “by creating bonding and cohesion in the context of interreligious dialogue by means of educational workshops.”

Fr. Mak Caesar elaborates: “The objective of the project has been to invite young Christian and Muslim students, whom the experts say are the ones easily recruited into the terrorist gangs, to an awareness training workshop. The goal herein is to raise their consciousness of the pending threats and encourage them to seek to be each other’s keepers by not allowing themselves to be drawn in any way to whatever attraction these dangerous groups may steal in and propose. We aimed at educating them to be critical and report any suspicious persons in their environs.”

The emphasis on conflict prevention is in response to the increased threat of violent extremism in Ghana. “The initiative was thought of as international security reports continue to raise the alarm bells of the spread of terrorist activities across the Sahel Region of Africa,” explains Fr. Mak Caesar, “For instance, INTERPOL has sounded the warning and Ghana’s Government has also alerted citizens of threats received from these terrorist groups.” “The activities of these destructive groups, most of whom claim to be Muslims,” Fr. Mak Caesar continues, “are evident in countries with which Ghana shares political borders.”

One of the biggest takeaways for Fr. Mak Caesar from leading these workshops on “Christian-Muslim Youth in Dialogue for Conflict Prevention” has been the enthusiasm of the young participants in engaging with the subjects of interreligious dialogue and conflict prevention. “This gives credence to our hope that the fraternal future we desire can be constructed when there are avenues for guidance and education with clear goals as in the case of this initiative,” shares Fr. Mak Caesar. 

Fr. Mak Caesar is now a postdoc Research Fellow at the Angelicum, where he is focusing on the contributions of and developments in all the Episcopal Conferences in Africa on ecumenism in the course of the ongoing Synodal process.

Rabbi Jack Bemporad, beloved professor of interreligious studies and Judaism, was welcomed to Rome this May of 2023 to offer academic lectures, meet this year’s Russell Berrie Fellows, and connect with friends and former students from around Italy and the world. 

Rabbi Jack’s two public lectures focused on the Hebrew Prophets—of special significance to Rabbi Jack, who in his first teaching position in Rome at the North American College, taught a course on the Hebrew Prophets.

“The Decisive Significance of the Book of Amos for Understanding the Literary Prophets in the Hebrew Bible” was held on May 17 at the Centro Pro Unione. Rabbi Jack discussed the Prophet Amos’ rejection of sacrifice, a critical point in positioning the human’s relationship to the divine. “Morality is the way to God,” said Rabbi Jack during the lecture, “God is a moral deity…You don’t get to God through sacrifices.” 

A week later, the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas hosted Rabbi Jack’s second lecture, titled: “Virtue in the Hebrew Prophets: Some Theological Reflections.” Rabbi Jack emphasized the fact that “the prophets spoke at times of incessant war”—times that resulted in large numbers of widows, orphans, outcasts, strangers, and more. Within the context of war, the Hebrew Prophets, Rabbi Jack says, oriented themselves around “organizing principles” such as peace, compassion, mercy, and love.

“The Hebrew Prophets are the first to sustain that God cannot be bribed with sacrifices—virtue does not consist in sacrifices or burnt offerings but in morality,” reflects Russell Berrie Fellow Sr. Geraldine Anugwem (Cohort XV, Nigeria), “Some of the virtues which many of the Hebrew Prophets hold up for emulation are: kindness to the needy, benevolence, faith, compassion for the suffering, a peace-loving disposition, and a truly humble and contrite spirit.”

With these lectures, Rabbi Jack hoped to continue to open students up to literature they might not otherwise be exposed to and was pleased when several audience members left his lecture wanting to read the Book of Amos. 

“Part of my work is to help students contextualize parts of the liturgy that aren’t in the spirit of Vatican II,” explains Rabbi Jack. In this vein, the Russell Berrie Fellowship has intentionally offered a wide variety of Jewish perspectives to its Fellows: courses by Rabbi Jack alongside those by Profs. Menachem Lorberbaum, Noam Zion, Israel Knohl, and other Jewish scholars as well as the annual Study Tour in Israel. 

“It was a joy to finally get to meet Rabbi Jack and hear him speak in person,” shares Liz Langan, Russell Berrie Fellow (Cohort XV, USA), “He always offers unique perspectives that help us expand our thinking, this time especially in the area of biblical morality and virtue.”

This year’s awardee of the John Paul II Prize for Catholic-Jewish Studies is Fr. Dr. Jackson Johnson, a Russell Berrie Fellow (Cohort XV) from India, for his thesis, “Liturgical Changes in Judaism and Christianity: A Study of Alenu, Birkat Ha-Minim, and Oremus et pro [perfidis] Judaeis in their Historical and Textual Contexts.”

Born in the multi-religious context of Kerala, India, Fr. Jackson has continued to deepen the interests in Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations that were first sparked during his time in seminary. Having completed Licentiate studies at the Cardinal Bea Centre (Gregorian University) and engaged this year in Interreligious Studies at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) as a Russell Berrie Fellow, Fr. Jackson began a PhD in Jewish-Christian Dialogue at the Angelicum in February 2023.

This annual prize is awarded to a student with an excellent Licentiate thesis or outstanding Doctoral research around topics related to Catholic-Jewish dialogue. With the larger aim to encourage and acknowledge this important theme and academic work around it, the JPII Prize for Catholic-Jewish Studies is supported jointly by the Institute for Ecumenical Studies of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas and the JPII Center for Interreligious Dialogue, in collaboration with the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity.

The award ceremony was held online on May 16, 2023. “We are particularly happy to host this today on May 16,” stated Elena Dini, Senior Program Manager of the JPII Center, at the beginning of the ceremony, “which is the International Day of Living Together in Peace.” 

Cardinal Kurt Koch, Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity and President of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, offered introductory remarks on Fr. Jackson’s award-winning work. Fr. Jackson then presented his thesis, which, in his words, “attempts to show how liturgical prayers are essential to Jewish-Christian dialogue and how their changes can promote and/or hinder dialogue.” 

At the end of the presentation and a brief question-and-answer session, Fr. Jackson thanked, in particular, Professors Israel Knohl and Noam Zion, visiting Israeli professors and mentors of the current and previous cohorts of Russell Berrie Fellows, for their support throughout this project. 

The ceremony was concluded with remarks from Prof. Hyacinth Destivelle, OP, Director of the Institute for Ecumenical Studies of the Angelicum, who thanked all those who made this award possible and recognized Fr. Ryan Muldoon, JPII Center Leader (Cohort XI, USA) and last year’s recipient of the JPII Prize for Catholic-Jewish Studies. 

“The emergence of a new generation of experts in Jewish Studies is a promising sign for Christian-Jewish dialogue,” concluded Prof. Destivelle. 

Click here for more information on this event, including a full abstract of Fr. Jackson’s award-winning thesis.

Each cohort of Russell Berrie Fellows has engaged in an immersive Study Tour of Israel alongside their education at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, Italy. To prepare them for this visit, especially for the academic program at the Hartman Institute, Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On led two sessions for this year’s Russell Berrie Fellows on April 26 and 28.  

Rabbi Shraga is the Director of the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought and the David Hartman Center for Intellectual Excellence, both part of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He also works as a lecturer of Talmud and Jewish Thought at Shalem College. 

In the sessions with the Fellows, Rabbi Shraga explored the fundamental issues of Jewish existence in Israel since its beginning: the importance of the promised land for Jews, the major challenges facing Jews today in Israel regarding current Israeli politics, the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, and the differences between Jewish communities.

During his presentation, “Israel at 75: Accomplishments, Crisis, and Hope,” Rabbi Shraga examined the diversity and polarization of Israeli society regarding the current judicial reform. Rabbi Shraga points to the collaboration of multiple Jewish communities  as an example of hope and shared about the Tent of Agreements that he set up together with other individuals or organizations to show the possibility of a third way to deal with the situation, acknowledging and taking into consideration the pain and challenges of all parties. 

“Love your friend more than you hate his or her ideas. Let’s have love be stronger. Let’s use our religion not to hate each other but to strengthen love,” he concluded.