On February 18, 2023 seven Ukrainian artists—Myroslav Yasinskyi, Rustem Skybin, Yevgen Kotlyar, Violetta Terlyha, Vadym Koltun, Lyubov Yakimenko and Oleg Omelchenko—were represented at an interfaith art exhibition titled “Civilization of Love,” curated by JPII Leader Bogdana Katarzhuk (Cohort XIV, Ukraine). 

The event opened with a seminar, “Dialogue in Times of War,” in which three invited speakers, JPII Center leaders—Olena Komisarenko (Cohort XIV, Ukraine), Vladimer Narsia (Cohort XIV, Georgia), and Nataliia Pavlyk (Cohort XII, Ukraine)—were involved in a conversation around war, art, and interfaith dialogue. The seminar was moderated by Taras Dzyubanskyy, Senior Alumni Advisor to the JPII Center. The event was hosted at the Pontifical Ukrainian College of St. Josaphat and funded by the John Paul II Center Grants Program.

In this seminar, Olena Komisarenko presented an intervention entitled “Interreligious and interconfessional collaboration in the times of war in Ukraine.” She shares an excerpt here: “To commemorate the meeting of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations with the Holy Father on January 25, 2023 in Rome, representatives of the council presented Pope Francis with a painting depicting peaceful Ukraine, painted by Ukrainian children. A piece of art in this situation was an expression of the spirit of true fraternal unity and the spirit of recognition of religious plurality in the society of peaceful Ukraine we are dreaming of, and we are praying for.”

The participants of the opening seminar explored the issues of interreligious dialogue in the times of war and the existential search for God by a person. The desire of Ukrainians to build a society based on the concept of a “civilization of love” and through interfaith dialogue was expressed. Additionally, the question of whether the mutual aid of different religions representatives during wartime is a dialogue about values ​​or a concerted effort to survive was also raised along with the question about the practical ways interreligious dialogue may pertain not only to diplomatic issues but also to the daily challenges people are facing because of war. 

“The tragic anniversary of the full-scale war against Ukraine should remind Western society of the tragedy and grief of our people,” comments Taras Dzyubanskyy, “who, despite all the suffering, remain a people of freedom and resilience. Educational, cultural and social processes are continuing, and for this we owe much to the role of churches and religious organizations. Intellectual discussions continue and we are confident that this is a great contribution to the victory in the fight against the forces of evil.”

The “Civilization of Love” exhibition, which was open daily from February 18 to February 23, was dedicated to Ukrainian realities of war and interreligious dialogue. Some of the artists included: Muslim Crimea Rustem Skybin, who depicts the Easter egg painted in an Islamic style with the images of Czech hedgehogs which are at the same time Qur’an stands; a Jewish artist Vadym Koltun, who rethinks and depicts the “Crucifixion” of Ukrainians made by Russian missiles; and a Christian artist, Myroslav Yasinskyi, who asks the Angels present in all three religions to “save and protect” us. 

Nataliia Pavlyk shared the “Interfaithing Humanity” Colouring Book that she created with the support of a grant from the JPII Center. “I was excited to share how art and creativity can contribute to inter- and intra-religious peacebuilding in times of war when other means of dialogue are not so efficient,” she expresses.

Gavin D’Costa, Emeritus Professor of Catholic Theology at the University of Bristol and Visiting Professor of Interreligious Dialogue at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas, remarks: “This exhibition of Ukrainian artists from three different religions testifies to the soaring human spirit, even in the darkest times. Some of the artists daringly break traditional iconographic boundaries to express the solidarity—and hope—of inter-religious aspirations in a time of war.”

Thomas Cattoi, Associate Professor of Christology and Cultures at Graduate Theological Union and Visiting Professor at the Angelicum, also offers a reflection on this event: “Interreligious dialogue and comparative theology often choose textual analysis as their starting point […] As our culture becomes increasingly visual, however, it is high time to experiment with different approaches for dialogue, and the visual arts provide one such framework. This exhibition and the interreligious coloring book show how the visual, artistic encounter between traditions opens up new horizons for interreligious understanding.”

“The grief unequivocally unites the people,” concludes Bogdana Katarzhuk, the curator of this exhibition, “but only love to God, the state and other people gives them the strength to act and keep standing.”

As the winner of an Australia Award, JPII Leader Meilia Irawan (Cohort XIV, Indonesia) has taken her place in a diverse cohort of 25 young women from various provinces in Indonesia with different faith and professional background. “I am grateful for being given this precious opportunity to be with 24 other young women with different cultures, beliefs, ethnicity and professions,” states Meilia, “We all collaborate for peace in Indonesia.”

The Australia Awards Short Course on Leadership for Youth Interfaith Women Leaders is a three-part program that aims to empower participants to be active changemakers in both local and global contexts: to develop the economic, global, and cultural components of their individual organizations and communities. 

“Being a recipient of the Australia Awards for the young women leaders category is an important part of my life,” shares Meilia. “It is a mission to spread a lot of kindness to people all over the world.”

The first part of this program was a pre-course held in Yogyakarta, Indonesia from February 7-9. The next piece of programming will be held in Australia in March.

Meilia reflects: “As a JPII Leader, I am also grateful because the experience in Rome had a significant impact on my perspective.” “This is the time to apply the knowledge I have acquired so far, concludes Meilia, “Hopefully my presence will provide broad benefits for Indonesia and can spread positive energy for your generation especially.”

Read more about the Australia Awards here.

On February 23, this year’s Russell Berrie Fellows had a community dinner in Rome with visiting Israeli professor, Menachem Lorberbaum. Professor Lorberbaum recently arrived in Rome to teach his annual course to the Fellows. “I feel blessed that there has been a Roman chapter in my life,” shares Prof. Lorberbaum. “Every visit to Rome achieves this on so many different levels that it has become a pilgrimage to the soul.”

This year’s class, “Creation and History in the Hebrew Bible,” focuses on both the cosmological and eschatological aspects of God in the Hebrew Bible—divine intervention as well as human salvation. For Prof. Lorberbaum, teaching this course has been insightful in its drive to “encounter the degree to which what we read is conditioned by our prior expectations of the revelatory word.” “We are so busy defending our intuited point of departure,” continues Prof. Lorberbaum, “that we are no longer challenged by the prophetic moment. We have been insulated and we must all (myself included) learn again to listen and read and to experience this opening as a faithful empowerment.”

During his stay in Rome and on top of this three-week intensive course, Prof. Lorberbaum will also be offering a paper during one of the sessions of  a workshop gathering Jewish and Catholic scholars from Europe, Israel, and the Middle East, co-sponsored by the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue. In this framework there will also be a public lecture on “Roman Catholics and Jews after Vatican II: Taking Stock for the Future” that will take place at the Angelicum on Wednesday, March 1 at 5pm. Professor Karma Ben-Johanan and Professor Gavin D’Costa, two leading scholars and dialogue practitioners, will discuss the controversial challenges facing Jews and Catholics in their conversation and cooperation after the Second Vatican Council.

Prof. Lorberbaum’s workshop is on the theme: “Christians in Jewish Religious Zionist Thought.” Prof. Lorberbaum highlights the “courage of Nostra Aetate and its significance highlights for us the challenges of healing in our different faith traditions.” “Declarations,” Prof. Lorberbaum continues, “point the direction to an arduous path of ongoing true work, and this necessarily brings to the surface the most profound, tenacious and authentic resistances in our respective traditions. We are reforging not only the burden of faith but the meaning of faithfulness.”

Having worked with several cohorts of Fellows, Prof. Lorberbaum notes that many in these “global groups” “are at the very forefront of encountering secular society and civil society at their points of difference—not to say enmity.”

“Inter-faith dialogue reflects back to us from another and external perspective our own religious posture: the place we speak from but cannot see,” remarks Prof. Lorberbaum, who expresses his gratitude for “all the wonderful Fellows over the years, the Faculty of Theology of the Angelicum, and the Russell Berrie Foundation for making this all possible.”

Photo Credit: World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations

JPII Leader Rabbi Allyson Zacharoff’s (Cohort VI, USA) devotion to interreligious dialogue was present in her participation as a featured speaker in “Women Building a Culture of Encounter Interreligiously,” an international conference held this month in Rome. Held on January 25-27, this three-day conference featured a variety of speakers from different backgrounds and faith traditions. Along with panels and open discussions, there were also moments to network—to connect and engage in dialogue with one another—and an audience with Pope Francis. 

Indeed, in his speech to speakers and invited guests, Pope Francis remarked on this wonderful event: “It is not a common occurrence for followers of twelve religions from around the globe to come together and discuss important questions concerning encounter and dialogue for promoting peace and understanding in our wounded world.” 

Interreligious dialogue remains a vital part of our world as we strive for greater peace than has ever existed previously,” states Rabbi Zacharoff.“It is so important because we see the amazing power religion has to bring us together, but also the ways in which all too often it has torn us apart. We need to find better ways than ever before to grow in understanding, respect, and ultimately, love.”

Held by the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue in collaboration with the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations and the Pontifical Urban University, this conference seeks, according to its “Goals of the Conference,” “to open a dialogue with women of other religious traditions to talk, walk and work together to foster a better world where each upholds the dignity of all.”

Rabbi Zacharoff reflects: “This conference raises up the very important piece of women’s participation in our society at large, and in interreligious spaces in particular—a massive contribution that needs to be celebrated even more. The opportunity to have these conversations around the role of women in the field with people from all over the world, to bring a global perspective to the incredible value of this encounter work, will allow us all to truly grow in our understanding of how female leadership plays out in different contexts, and hopefully also help inspire us all into how we might even grow the role of women in the field. It is critical that both our dialogues and leadership of those dialogues accurately represent the beautiful diversity within our own communities, and we know how much women lead and do for our communities–it is essential that they should be involved here, as well.”

This three-day conference has three principle goals: (1) “to appreciate and encourage the role of women and women’s leadership in social, economic, religious and political life at local, national and international levels”; (2) “to rediscover how our respective religious classics, saints/sages, religious arts and music can be shared to reawaken our spiritual energy, to heal us and the world”; and (3) “to learn from the stories of women in fostering interreligious dialogue and a culture of encounter.”

Rabbi Zacharoff shares that she is inspired in particular by the conference’s goal of communal and global healing. “Our worldwide community is in need of healing in so many various ways, with each country or community in need of different healing,” continues Rabbi Zacharoff. “I find this goal so unique and inspiring, that we can seek healing and inspiration from our various traditions as we come together in our differences and seek to build a better world.”

Addressing the speakers and invited guests, Pope Francis said: “I encourage you to continue this important work together, sharing with one another the insights and practices that give you strength and creativity as you strive in your particular contexts to offer healing to many people who are seeking not only material relief from suffering, but above all, a sense of meaning and purpose for their lives. In this regard, I am grateful to you for your commitment and effort to foster the dignity of women and girls in particular.”

The conference’s emphasis on encounter is based, in part, on the teachings of Pope Francis: “We, as a people, should be passionate about meeting others, seeking points of contact, building bridges, planning a project that includes everyone. This becomes an aspiration and a style of life” (Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti 216). 

Rabbi Zacharoff reflects on the meaning of encounter: “The only true way to come together in holy understanding is to meet our neighbors as they are in their fullness–even and especially where we disagree. It often matters less that we disagree than how we disagree: we must explore our differences and similarities with honor and respect for the other, remembering the key piece we learn in Jewish tradition, betzelem Elohim—-that we are all created in the image of G-d, and that does applies even to those with whom we disagree or even dislike.” 

“It is through honest dialogue as we strive to genuinely learn about others while also sharing of ourselves that we can approach a world in which we feel authentic love for others in our differences,” Rabbi Zacharoff concludes, “A culture of true encounter must include space for us to listen, and also us to share, and a space that feels safe for everyone to bring their true authentic selves.

Read more about “Women Building a Culture of Encounter Interreligiously” here

This last semester, beloved professor of interreligious studies and Judaism, Rabbi Jack Bemporad, Founder and Director Emeritus of the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue (JPII Center), offered a course on Maimonides, a prominent 12th-century Jewish philosopher and rabbi, to this year’s Russell Berrie Fellows and other students at the Angelicum. This course, “Maimonides Teaching on the Nature of God and the Ethical life,” seeks to reconcile the teachings of philosophers with the teachings of religious traditions.

Rabbi Jack not only situates Maimonides’ philosophical and religious discourses within contemporaneous traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Greek philosophy but also connects them to contemporary questions. “What I was really trying to get my students to see,” Rabbi Jack explains, “are the kinds of issues that Maimonides faced and to what extent these issues are the same issues we are facing today.”

Russell Berrie Fellow Halil Avci (Germany), reflects on the course: “Rabbi Jack focused on the proper understanding of God envisioned by Maimonides and its implications for current interreligious relationship building. He repeatedly said that the teaching of God is ultimately linked to the understanding of ourselves and thus helps in relationship building with God and our neighbors. This course helped me further build mental bridges between Judaism and Islam through the teaching of Maimonides.”

Rabbi Jack has a rich legacy of scholarship and teaching and has been a mentor to dozens of students of interreligious dialogue from around the world. “A teacher’s job,” he states, “is to somehow present things in a way that will make them want to think these things through—to want to solve these problems on their own.” Rabbi Jack describes his teaching style as “not dogmatic at all.” “I’m happy to listen to anybody,” he says, “I want to help them grow.”

“I always felt in the seminars, webinars, and classes, there was space,” reflects JPII Leader Gianluca Avanzato (Cohort XIII), “more of an opening rather than a narrowing. I really appreciate that space.”

“Most of what I teach my students, they’ll forget,” admits Rabbi Jack, “But what I hope they will never forget is the method of learning or the method of questioning or the method of investigation.” One of the main methods of investigation Rabbi Jack stresses—not just in this latest course on Maimonides but also throughout his teaching career—is the importance of context: the need to “de-politicize” on top of “de-ideologizing” and “de-mythologizing.” The organization of religion can be “distressing,” Rabbi Jack says, because it often wants to “carry favor” with the surrounding political structure; religions, he explains, are sometimes “forced to go along with the worst practices of the government of which it is a part.” For Rabbi Jack, this can affect the “job of religion,” which should be “the conscience of society and the voice of humanity.” “Where are you going to appeal to conscience,” Rabbi Jack asks, “if you can’t appeal to conscience in the religions? Where is there going to be a voice for humanity?”

This is why Rabbi Jack encouraged the Russell Berrie Foundation to create the JPII Center for Interreligious Dialogue and the year-long fellowship program in Rome. He shares his thought process around the Center’s inception: “Get the leaders, give them a Rolls-Royce scholarship, and expose them to a variety of religions so that they can say, ‘Look, based on what we’ve studied, what you’re saying is not the Judaism that I’ve been exposed to. It’s not the Islam that I’ve been exposed to. It’s not the Christianity that I’ve been exposed to.’”

Rabbi Jack emphasizes the importance of religions knowing about and defending other religions. And this is what he teaches. One of the main takeaways of this year’s course on Maimonides for Russell Berrie Fellow Fr. Jackson Johnson (India) is as follows: “We shouldn’t criticize people before putting ourselves in their shoes. Only via communication with the other can we fully comprehend their situation and background.”

At the center of Rabbi Jack’s philosophy is education. The Russell Berrie Fellowship has offered an education in Interreligious Studies to more than 140 Fellows from around the world. “We’ve got really wonderful, wonderful students who are doing great work in the world,” Rabbi Jack shares, “and I consider it one of the great things I, in some small way, was responsible for.” For Rabbi Jack, it has been “a joy” and “a great privilege” to work with people from all different backgrounds through the years—people who, after completing the Russell Berrie Fellowship in Rome, have continued promoting the ideals of the program around the world and devoting their lives toward dialogue and peace.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, met virtually with JPII Leaders and Russell Berrie Fellows on January 16 to speak about his experiences of and perspectives on interreligious dialogue. Cardinal Schönborn began by describing his interreligious background. Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Cardinal Schönborn had Jewish roots in his family. Thus, His Eminence shares: “From early in my life, the question of Christian-Jewish relations was very present”: not only an area of theological interest but part of his biography. 

Cardinal Schönborn went on to discuss the Catholic Church’s “great opening to other religions” that occurred during and after the Second Vatican Council. His Eminence addressed questions that have emerged since this period: “Can we say there is a true religion?” “How can we relate to other religions?” and, most prominently, “Where is truth?” 

In discussing these questions, Cardinal Schönborn cited the teachings of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI). “A number of us asked Cardinal Schönborn about the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, as Schönborn had him as his professor at Regensburg,” remarks JPII Leader Fr. Ryan Muldoon (Cohort XI, USA). “Cardinal Schönborn pointed to Ratzinger’s belief that every human mind ‘is in need of truth,’ and this common search and the ‘universalism of truth’ (Schönborn’s phrase) is a starting point for interreligious dialogue.”

To illustrate his approach to interreligious dialogue, Cardinal Schönborn recounted his trip to Iran, where he was invited to give a lecture at the University of Tehran in 2001. In this lecture, he posed a question: If both Christianity and Islam have a “call to universality,” is dialogue possible? He concluded that it is possible to engage with someone from another religious tradition on a “deep level” by, first, recognizing that the search for truth “belongs to human dignity,” and, second, sharing one’s “precious values” with the other. For Cardinal Schönborn, the search for truth is not “a danger” to interreligious dialogue but “a condition,” and the most important part of such dialogue is the sharing of “our deep convictions: what we are living from.”

Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, Cardinal Schönborn emphasized the importance of friendship in interreligious dialogue and encounter. “Friendship, not fear, is the basis of interreligious dialogue,” reflects JPII Leader Bernadette McGonigle (Cohort XII, Ireland). “Real friendship is based on respect for the equal dignity of the other, made in the image of God.” Indeed, for Cardinal Schönborn, friendship is integral in the creation of a “culture of conviviality.” 

This meeting with Cardinal Schönborn was a highlight for JPII Leaders and Russell Berrie Fellows alike. “Although online” remarks JPII Leader Ana Petrache (Cohort XIII, Romania), “the cardinal spoke directly to our hearts.” “It is only by talking live with him,” Ana continues, “that one can measure his charisma, a way to express a message of peace by his mere presence.”

This year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, held from January 18 through the 25, offered an opportunity for Christians around the world to reflect on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. “Christian Unity is living Jesus’ prayer ‘that all of them may be one,’” shares JPII Center Leader Evans Nyamadzawo (Cohort XIV, Zimbabwe), who participated in the World Council of Churches’ live broadcast for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity’s in January 2021, “Ecumenism seeks to call various church traditions to visible unity.”

A quote from the Book of Isaiah, “Learn to do right; seek justice” (17.1), stands at the center of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This theme, selected in response to the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd in 2020, challenges Christian communities to pray and meditate in particular on racial injustice. As the “Resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity,” jointly prepared and published by the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity and the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches, states:

“Isaiah challenged God’s people in his day to learn to do good together; to seek justice together, to rescue the oppressed together, to defend the orphan and plead for the widow together. The prophet’s challenge applies equally to us today. How can we live our unity as Christians so as to confront the evils and injustices of our time? How can we engage in dialogue, increase awareness, understanding and insight about one another’s lived experiences?”

Learning and striving for justice and just action are integral to the shared prayers and programmings  in the promotion of ecumenism. Evans reflects: “Ecumenical prayers have stood out to me when people from different countries, races, skin colors, languages, and church traditions set aside their physical barriers and differences to come together with a single goal of praising God.”

For Reverend Karikoga Hope, Russell Berrie Fellow (Cohort XV) and Interreligious Practitioner from the Church of Christ, ecumenism goes beyond what we might commonly associate with Christian unity. Rather, ecumenism is significant because of its ability to foster “unity and understanding between humanity irrespective of their beliefs.” Rev. Karikoga believes that Christian unity is about “loving those who have different views,” creating access to people who express their belief in different ways. 

At the core of the JPII Center’s philosophy is dialogue: the need to converse not only with people of other religious traditions but also with those within the same tradition. Ecumenism—intrareligious dialogue—is critical to creating meaningful conversations between larger faith traditions: interreligious dialogue. “Dialogue is the heartbeat of unity,” shares Rev. Karikoga, “Without it, it is difficult to attain unity of peace and co-existence among humanity.” 

Explore the Centro Pro Unione’s resources for this year’s Week of Christian Unity here

Professor Noam Zion’s visit to Rome offered this year’s Russell Berrie Fellows rich opportunities to engage in the study of rabbinic texts and have a personal experience of some Jewish rituals such as the Shabbat dinner and the Hanukkah candle lighting. The events with Prof. Zion in Rome began with two lectures: one on Wednesday, December 14, and the other on Thursday, December 15. These in-person lectures were held at the Angelicum, in the beautiful Sala Torretta, which has a spectacular view out onto Rome’s historical center. 

The lectures were entitled “Rabbinic Midrash: Reinterpretation of the Hebrew Bible—Cain and Abel and the Birth of Religious Violence in the First Human Family.” Russell Berrie Fellow Ashin Mandalarlankara (Myanmar) describes Prof. Zion’s teaching as “clear and precise.” Mandalar, a Buddhist monk, also reflects: “Even though our religious beliefs and teachings are so far away from each other, we still have many similarities between the Buddhist and Jewish religions.”

While the Russell Berrie Fellows had already had several online lectures with Prof. Zion, meeting him in person was an even more fulfilling experience. Beyond actively participating by asking questions during the lectures, the Fellows also engaged in Chavruta study: a traditional rabbinic learning method wherein small groups of students engage in the close reading of a text, share their opinions, and debate it. For Russell Berrie Fellow Dr. Maria Petrova (Russia), “reading and commenting on the stories from the Torah with a biblical scholar was an unforgettable experience.”

On Friday, the Fellows and Prof. Zion gathered around 4:30pm for Shabbat Dinner, hosted by Father James Puglisi, at the convent of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in Rome, Convento di Sant’Onofrio al Gianicolo. Prof. Zion began the evening by lighting two Shabbat candles and speaking about the history of Shabbat. 

Mandalar noted similarities not only between Hanukkah and Buddhist Puja candle-lighting ceremonies, but also between Jewish Shabbat practices and those of the Buddhist Uposatha, days of cleansing, meditation, and reflection. He reflects: “Professor Zion and I had a great conversation about these similarities—we had interfaith dialogue.” 

One of the many fascinating topics he focused on was food: historical and traditional meals eaten during Shabbat and other Jewish rituals. After the eating of Challah bread, a special bread associated with Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, everyone shared a meal together. Of the Shabbat dinner, Maria remarks: “On the one hand, it created a cordial atmosphere of a home holiday. On the other hand, celebrating Shabbat in a Christian convent with the representatives of different religions sitting at one table, singing and sharing blessings, food, and wine is the best manifestation of interreligious communication in practice one can imagine.”

Prof. Zion’s time with the Fellows in Rome concluded with a moving Hanukkah celebration on Sunday, December 18. The Fellows gathered at Casa Maria Immacolata in Rome, where Prof. Zion began the afternoon with a lecture on the history of Hanukkah. Next, Prof. Zion led the candle-lighting ritual and performed lovely Hanukkah songs with his wife and two granddaughters. 

In the dim room, lit only by the Hanukkah menorah, everyone was given a candle and asked to name a darkness they want to chase out and a light they want to bring to the world. “It was a very emotional moment,” Diana Marinescu, Graduate Administrative Assistant of the JPII Center reflects, “because we could listen to everyone’s personal fears and pains and hopes for the world and for humanity.”

The evening concluded with fun Hanukkah games and with yogurt and chocolate pancakes—a substitute for the Ashkenazi tradition of potato pancakes. “You could tell that sharing Shabbat and Hanukkah with us was very meaningful for Noam,” reflects Russell Berrie Fellow Liz Langan (USA), “and it was lovely to finally meet him and his family!”

“I am extremely grateful to Prof. Noam and his wonderful wife and granddaughters for our lunch together and Hanukkah candle lighting—for this unique opportunity to learn more about Jewish religion and traditions and their great support at this time, difficult for all of us,” shares Maria. “I will be looking forward to meeting Prof. Noam and his lovely family in Jerusalem next year.”

During his visit to Bangalore, India for an interreligious seminar, Monsignor Indunil Janakaratne Kodithuwakku Kankanamalage, Secretary to the Pontifical Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue, visited the Daughters of the Church, the community to which JPII Leader Sister Gracy Joseph Vadakara (Cohort III) belongs and of which she is the Provincial Superior for India. 

For Sr. Gracy, who also participated in the seminar in Bangalore, Msgr. Indunil’s visit to her community was a highlight. “It was a moment of great blessing and honor for us to have him for a short time,” she shares. “The children welcomed him with dance. He felt at ease with them, which shows his special attention for the poor and underprivileged.”

Msgr. Indunil’s address kicked off the four-day seminar, “Dialogue & Solidarity: A Religio- Subaltern Perspective,” organized by Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram (DVK), a Pontifical institution for higher learning and formation. He spoke about the initiatives of the Catholic Church to be in dialogue with other religions and highlighted Pope Francis’ leadership around these endeavors. 

Other eminent leaders of interreligious dialogue presented alongside Msgr. Indunil J. Kodithuwakku K. during this seminar, including Archbishop Felix Anthony Machado, who has served as Undersecretary in the same Dicastery as well as chairperson for Office for Interreligious Dialogue of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI).

Religious and lay folks from a variety of religions came together for this seminar, which covered a variety of themes around interreligious dialogue pertinent to all participants: “Interreligious Dialogue: Legacy and Reality,” “Women in Religion: Exploring Dimensions of Interreligious Dialogue,” and “Religions and LGBTQ: Intra- and Inter-religious Dialogue.” Some of the topics focused specifically on the Indian subcontinent, including: “Juridical and Political Impact of Laws and Policies on Religions in Contemporary India” and “The Role of Inter-religious Dialogue in Confronting Racial and Caste Segregation.”

The “Dialogue & Solidarity” seminar concluded with visits to various religious centers in Bangalore, including a Hindu ashram, a Buddhist temple, and a Jain temple. The interreligious focus and nature of this seminar resonate with Sr. Gracy’s many local initiatives. In fact, Sr. Gracy was recently featured in the Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, where she discussed her latest project, funded by a JPII Leader Grant: the building of an interreligious library in one of her congregation’s schools to provide children with the tools to learn more about other faiths, grow in religious literacy,  and enhance their interreligious dialogue skills.

“The Sri Lankan multi cultural ethnic ethos and religious milieu is religious diversity,” shares JPII Center Leader (Cohort XIII) Ruki Salgado. An academic by profession, Ruki has been a teacher and mentor at the Theological College of Lanka. “In my journey to further interfaith encounters in Sri Lanka among different religious groups, I am exploring new avenues of active engagement by implementing different theoretical and practical approaches to interfaith relations. Therefore, I requested for a grant to participate in the online ‘Cambridge Academic Summer School in Interfaith Relations’ to further my knowledge and gain wider exposure to interfaith relations.”

Ruki applied for and won a grant through the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue and attended the Cambridge Interfaith Programme’s (CIP) Academic Summer School in Interfaith Relations in July 2022. This program, held online, included a variety of courses, such as: “Scripture & Violence: Community Interpretation and the Realities of Violence in Religious Texts” with Julia Snyder; “Visual Approaches to Interfaith Relations” with Safet Hadži Muhamedović; and “Inter-religious Relations in South Asia” with Hina Khalid.

Since completing her Diploma in Interreligious Dialogue at the Angelicum—a virtual experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic—Ruki has been involved in creating interfaith initiatives in Sri Lanka among its inhabitants of many traditions: not only among the Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus, who constitute the majority of the Sri Lankan population, but also among Catholics, Protestants, and the increasing number of Christian evangelical groups. 

Ruki has been holding sessions on “Teaching English Language Skills by Using Interfaith Religious Texts” by Zoom and sometimes in-person, free of charge for participants. “The target group is High School students,” explains Ruki, “university undergraduates and women (irrespective of age, from different walks of life). The project objective is to create interreligious awareness as a first step.”

“Attending ‘Cambridge Summer School in Interfaith Relations’ helped me further explore and discover innovative and productive ways to engage with folks from other religions, especially in South Asian context,” says Ruki. “Since religion and politics are intertwined in the Sri Lankan context, I was encouraged to think rationally about the relation between religious plurality and politics, since ‘religious conversion’ issues have become politicized in historical context and currently.”

Ruki points to the sessions on “Scriptural Reasoning” as important in helping her to understand the value of scripture in broader contexts and to communicate about it with people from other traditions. She was therefore happy to be one of the Leaders representing the JPII Center at the Scriptural Reasoning session during the digital festival to launch the Rose Reconciler Hub in mid-November 2022.

“Visual Approaches to Interfaith Dialogue” offered Ruki insights on her own context; these visual approaches, Ruki says, “can be used as a tool to encourage and foster interfaith relations networking by understanding the synthesis of Interfaith relations in the complex mosaic religious landscape of Sri Lanka in the context of post war religious conflict. For example,” she continues, “most Buddhists and Hindu temples are very decorative with exquisite sculptures with historic and archeological significance and value. Some of the catabolic churches built during the Colonial era are magnificent structures of architecture and sculpture as well.”

“Since the Indian Ocean Island is a multi religious pluralistic island, I learned the importance of utilizing ‘syncretism of shared sacred landscapes’ to foster interfaith relations among folks from different faith traditions.” Ruki points out that many public places in Sri Lanka—from schools to recreation centers, from government institutions to tourist hotels—“have shared sacred spaces that are accepted and used by all religions.”

Ruki concludes: “I hope to pursue research in ‘visual approaches to interfaith dialogue’ and ‘syncretism of shared religious landscapes’ as a common medium and platform for strengthened interfaith relations and post graduate studies.”

Ruki’s participation in the Cambridge Interfaith Programme’s (CIP) Academic Summer School in Interfaith Relations was supported by a JPII Center grant.