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. 

For several years, the JPII Center for Interreligious Dialogue has held an annual lecture on interreligious understanding in collaboration with the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). Hosted by the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue at the JTS and supported by the Russell Berrie Foundation, this year’s public lecture, held online, addressed an urgent issue across religious traditions: “How to Confront Anti-Religious Bigotry.”

The event was facilitated by Rabbi Dr. Burton L. Visotzky, Appleman Professor Emeritus of Midrash and Interreligious Studies and Director of the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Participants tuned in from around the world, including a group of about 30 religious leaders from the US National Council of Churches and the US National Council of Synagogues who were together for a two-day meeting. 

The central concern of the lecture was the rise of white supremacist movements, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and hostility to religion in general.

A distinguished multifaith panel began by speaking from their own perspective about bigotry within and toward their own tradition. The three speakers, all of whom are affiliated with the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, a US-based, interreligious coalition to end anti-Muslim bigotry, were: Rabbi Esther Lederman, Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi, and Kathryn Lohre.

Rabbi Esther Lederman, Director of Congregational Innovation and Union for Reform Judaism, member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ task force on the experience of women in the rabbinate, and co-chair of the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, started off the panel lecture. Rabbi Lederman quoted Ambassador Deborah E. Lipstadt to emphasize the limits of measuring antisemitism through numbers and statistics. After sharing some personal stories of how antisemitism affects her family and community on a daily basis, Rabbi Lederman ended by expressing her two main concerns: first, “the enabling of antisemitism and the enabling of antisemites in our society”; and second, the role of social media in “allowing antisemitism to spread and grow.” 

Next, Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi offered remarks on Islamophobia and the issue of bigotry around the Muslim community. Dr. Elsanousi, Executive Director for the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers and co-founder of the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, began by acknowledging the reality of contemporary Islamophobia and continued by offering a theological explanation for interfaith and intercultural harmony from a Muslim perspective. Citing the Qur’an, Dr. Elsanousi stated: “We are all created equal…so that we may know one another.”

The final speaker was Kathryn Lohre, Assistant to the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Executive for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations and Theological Discernment, and co-chair of the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign. While Mrs. Lohre addressed anti-Christian persecution in different parts of the world, she also focused on bigotry perpetrated by Christians in the United States, where she connected Christian nationalism to white supremacy.

After these introductory remarks, the speakers engaged with each other in a group discussion that was concluded with some words by Prof. Adam Afterman, Director of the JPII Center. Thanking the speakers and the JTS for its continued collaboration, Prof. Afterman noted that “Although focusing on American realities, so much of what you discussed here today is relevant to many places worldwide, including here in Jerusalem.”

“Connecting theology to action is at the core of our mission,” he concluded, talking about the JPII Center and how we tackle these issues in our activities, “and educating our leaders on how to identify and address antisemitism and other forms of hatred is unfortunately a critical part of our formation.”

Watch the entire JPII Center Annual Lecture recorded here.  

This April, the three major monotheistic traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam celebrated holidays that overlapped: not only did Passover correspond with Holy Week and Easter, as celebrated by many Christians, but both of these holidays fell within the Holy Month of Ramadan.

In the midst of these sacred seasons, JPII Leader Gianluca Avanzato (Cohort XIII, USA), a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School, joined a group of pilgrims on a 60-mile Holy Week pilgrimage. Led by Rev. Rita Powell and Alden Fossett of the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard University, a small group of students and community members departed from Cambridge, Massachusetts on the morning of Holy Thursday (April 6) and arrived in Rindge, New Hampshire on the evening of Holy Saturday (April 8). With stops in Lincoln and Fitchburg, where the group attended Holy Thursday and Good Friday services, members of local Episcopal churches hosted the pilgrims for the night: offering food and shelter.

“The generosity and hospitality that we received were humbling,” remarks Gianluca, “I’m grateful for all the wonderful people who hosted us.”

While this pilgrimage was grounded in Episcopal churches and communities, the pilgrims came from all different Christian backgrounds, brought together by the spiritual home and community that the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard offers. As Community Outreach Chair at the Chaplaincy, Gianluca helped to facilitate the embodied contemplative practices offered throughout the journey.

“As the only practicing Roman Catholic in this lovely group of pilgrims, I wanted to offer something unique from my tradition,” said Gianluca, who facilitated these practices during the walk on Holy Saturday, “So I led some activities around the practice of the rosary and offered some reflections on Marian devotion within Catholicism.”

The pilgrimage concluded with a sunrise service at the Cathedral of the Pines on Easter Sunday led by Rev. Steve Miller of the First Church in Jaffrey (United Church of Christ) and Rev. Rita Powell, episcopal priest and chaplain of the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard. A community tradition for generations, the sunrise service on Easter Sunday offers a breathtaking view of Mount Monadnock and a beautiful place for people from different faith communities and Christian denominations to come together. 

Gianluca and the group from the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard made a special entrance and knelt in front of the outdoor altar to signify the completion of their pilgrimage. During this procession, the pilgrims and those in attendance sang “In manus tuas, Pater,” a hymn from Taizé, an ecumenical community in France whose rituals and practices have been of great inspiration to this pilgrimage. Gianluca read one of the Gospel readings at the service. 

Before returning to Cambridge—thankfully by car—the pilgrims embarked on one final adventure; they journeyed to the nearby Mount Monadnock and hiked the mountain to its peak: the culmination of a pilgrimage in conversation with people, place, and land. 

“This was a life changing experience that will remain with me always,” shares Gianluca. “The open road, the earth in springtime, the kindness of strangers, and the fellowship of my companions—all were blessings beyond measure.” 

In March 2023, a group of 45 participants consisting of Muslim and Christian clergy, leaders, and youth gathered in Obudu, in southeastern Nigeria, for a seminar around interreligious dialogue and understanding. With the support of a JPII Leader Grant, Fr. Humphrey Udechukwu (Cohort XIV, Nigeria) organized this two-day seminar aimed at educating local leaders of Muslim and Christian communities “on the need to promote peaceful co-existence among adherents.”

Fr. Humphrey, a Catholic priest in Nigeria, was interested in focusing on interreligious dialogue in light of a key tenet expressed in both Islam and Christianity: love of neighbor. The resulting seminar, which came together with collaboration from the Christian Association of Nigeria and the local Muslim community, sought to address religious intolerance and violence in Nigeria. 

In organizing the event, Fr. Humphrey faced hesitance from both Christian and Muslim communities, some of whom were wary of engaging in such a dialogue. However, by the end of the program, Fr. Humphrey notes, both the Christian and Muslim participants “were all edified and appreciated our common heritage in God. They now have a positive approach to one another.”

Fr. Humphrey also notes that, since the project, the Imam of the local mosque has visited his parish twice. “This was conceived as a taboo before the execution of the project,” he explains, “I hope that this new understanding will foster growth and peaceful co-existence among both adherents.”

We wish Father Humphrey all the best in his interfaith efforts in Nigeria!

This month, the Russell Berrie Fellows engaged in two connected events to build awareness of all forms of antisemitism.

On March 15, Fellows participated in an informative session titled “Antisemitism: Past and Present.” Led by Holly Huffnagle, U.S. Director for Combating Antisemitism

 of the American Jewish Committee, this webinar presented topics such as the history of Judaism, the diversity of the modern Jewish community, the legacy of Christian Anti-Judaism, and antisemitism in the present. 

“[The webinar] provided factual basis and historical background and introduced terms and concepts, necessary for the understanding of the nature of antisemitism,” reflects Russell Berrie Fellow Maria Petrova (Russia). 

“Holly’s presentation on the history of antisemitism was helpful for seeing the bigger picture,” shares Russell Berrie Fellow Elizabeth Langan (USA), “I now see more clearly that understanding trends over time might be the best way to be proactive and prevent similar escalations in the future.” 

This presentation was followed up on March 17 with a “Practical Workshop on Antisemitism and Countering Hate Speech.” Stéphanie Lecesne, Training Coordinator of A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe (CEJI), facilitated this in-person four-hour workshop, which aimed to provide participants with the skills and sensibilities to counter antisemitism and create inclusive environments.

“The workshop on antisemitism was very informative and challenging,” remarks Russell Berrie Fellow Fr. Jackson Johnson (India). “Indeed, antisemitism exists in different forms in society, whether we know it or not.” 

“Thanks to this workshop, I know more about the Jewish tradition and its suffering in human history,” says Russell Berrie Fellow Sr. Minh Sa (Vietnam). “I also got to know some more particular terms relating to life and religion,” she continues, “Knowing more about the Jews and their history may help me a lot in the future when I have to mention or attend dialogue with them.”

“This workshop gave a new impetus to fight against antisemitism,” concludes Fr. Jackson, “and work together to improve as a community where all discrimination needs to be eradicated.”

“So often, young people are just invited to interreligious gatherings, but very rarely are they the ones organizing them,” explains JPII Leader and Senior Program Manager Elena Dini (Cohort VII, Italy). With Diventa Protagonista del Dialogo, a project supported with a grant from the JPII Center, Elena intended to create a different kind of interreligious gathering that puts young people at the center: to allow them to “become protagonists of dialogue.”

Held in four sessions across two days and structured thanks to the collaboration of other local organizations and people of different communities engaged in dialogue around Rome, Diventa Protagonista del Dialogo offered young people of different faith backgrounds the chance to come together in Rome. “I wanted this opportunity to be not only for people in big cities but also for people living in smaller places,” says Elena, who ensured that resources were allocated to make it possible for youth to join from cities and villages neighboring Rome. 

This program helped young people develop their religious literacy and interreligious dialogue skills through interactive case studies, scriptural reasoning workshops, and project planning. “The idea was to give them a toolbox—what can be more effective in one situation or the other,” explains Elena. 

It was crucial for young people from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish backgrounds to come together and increase their familiarity and literacy around other faith traditions in a youth-centered setting. “I was surprised because I never read the Torah,” explains a young Muslim participant to the Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper that published an article about this course, “We had the possibility of expressing our thoughts in a safe space while listening to thoughts different than mine that I would have never imagined.”

A Christian participant was thrilled by the chance of meeting young Jewish people: “Meeting the Jewish community was an intense experience. They explained the different approaches and their internal diversity.”   

What’s more, beyond these workshops and trainings, participants had the opportunity to create their own projects and initiatives—to truly step into the role of a protagonist in critical interreligious dialogues.  “We already have some initiatives that have come out of this network that we created,” shares Elena, “and this is really inspiring.”

On March 25-26, the Russell Berrie Fellows participated in the annual Skills-Building Workshop, held this year at the San Tarcisio Institute, a religious home in the midst of an archeological park in Rome. 

Facilitated by Dr. Amjad Mohamed-Saleem, Manager of Inclusion, Engagement, and Protection at International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC), this workshop offered interactive sessions on relationship-building, holding space, and engaging in meaningful dialogue. 

“Mr. Amjad, the facilitator of the workshop, did a great job by engaging us in different activities and making sure that we may learn […] the skills of interreligious dialogue by practicing the 5 R’s of trust building, that are: Responsibility, Relationship, Respect, Reflection and Renew,” explains Kashif Anthony (Pakistan). 

“The topic was clearly presented in an approach of conveying theoretical knowledge and creating spaces in order to build trust among the participants through group activities,” Halil Avci (Germany) adds.

Trust was a major theme throughout the workshop—and one of the key takeaways for the Fellows. As Sr. Josmy Jose (India) shares, “I learned the importance of the responsibility in trust building in the scenario of an interreligious dialogue.”

“Trust is the foundation for lasting peace,” expresses Rev. Karikoga Tawanda Hope (Zimbabwe), “All IRD practitioners should foster the foundation of trust in their works as building trust is a long term commitment.” Kashif adds: “The process of trust is a mutual process which has no limits, it goes deeper and deeper when two people open themselves to each other.” 

Activities and down time were important for fostering trust and friendship between the Fellows. “This experience highlighted the importance of socializing in order to build trust among us,” reflects Halil Avci, “I especially enjoyed these group activities and the opportunity to share my spirituality with the other  Fellows.”

On Saturday evening, Fellows shared an Iftar dinner, the meal eaten after sunset during the month of Ramadan, with guests. For Halil, it was “a significant sign of the generosity of the Christian hosts in cooperation with the JPII Center to accommodate us and to serve an enjoyable Iftar dinner for all the guests.” “It was a golden opportunity to know each other better,” says Sr. Josmy Jose, “The participation in the Ramadan meal and being part of the Muslim prayer moments was very inspiring.”

“Hearing from professionals in the field of interreligious dialogue sharing their experiences on building trust among diverse communities was inspiring,” shares Andrew Mixson (USA) regarding an online session that was organized with members of the Network 4 Dialogue, a European-wide platform established to bring faith and civil society actors together to promote the use of dialogue and develop more effective recommendations for social inclusion policies for migrants and refugees in Europe. The guests from Network 4 Dialogue discussed their work with the Fellows. “What I cherished the most were interactions from the practitioners of interreligious dialogue,” expresses Sr. Josmy Jose.

Beginning with a Sunday morning mass celebrated by Fellow Fr. Jackson Johnson, the second day of the Skills-Building Workshop concluded in the afternoon of Sunday, March 26.

“The skills-building workshop was invaluable for turning the essential though oftentimes theoretical and academic work of studying at the Angelicum into practical grassroots initiatives,” shares Andrew Mixson. Indeed, for Rev. Karikoga, it’s this crucial bridging of the academic and the practical that makes the Skills-Building Workshop “the heartbeat of the success of the Fellowship program.”