Winter 2016

Pope Francis, in Philadelphia following the World Meeting of Families, blessed “Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time” in an unscheduled stop at SJU on Sunday, Sept. 27.

Bringing Nostra Aetate’s Promise to Fruition

Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations helps celebrate five decades of interfaith collaboration

As co-directors of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations (IJCR), Saint Joseph’s University Theology and Religious Studies faculty members Philip Cunningham, Ph.D., and Adam Gregerman, Ph.D., worked behind the scenes for nearly three years to facilitate the events of Sept. 25-27, 2015, the most memorable weekend the Hawk Hill community will likely ever witness.

Members of the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Archdiocese of Philadelphia and other organizations witnessed the Sept. 25 dedication of an on-campus sculpture marking the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 decree Nostra Aetate. Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires and longtime friend of Pope Francis, delivered the keynote address. Two days later, the eyes of the world gazed upon Saint Joseph’s as Pope Francis came to Hawk Hill to bless the sculpture in both instances.

In a larger context, the on-campus recognition of the anniversary of Nostra Aetate, which repudiated a long tradition of Christian animosity toward Jews and called for friendly relations and dialogue between the two communities, had been in the making for 50 years.

Pope Francis waves to the crowd gathered before the Chapel of St. Joseph – Michael J. Smith, S.J. Memorial.

Pope Francis waves to the crowd gathered before the Chapel of St. Joseph – Michael J. Smith, S.J. Memorial.

Less than two years after Vatican II, Saint Joseph’s became the first Catholic university in the United States to respond to the Council’s call with the founding of the IJCR to increase interfaith conversations. Under the guidance of its inaugural director Donald Clifford, S.J., the institute brought the promise of Nostra Aetate to fruition.

“Father Clifford was a pioneer in the field, nationally known and respected for his impact on interfaith dialogue,” said IJCR board member Charles Kahn Jr. “We owe him a debt of gratitude for creating the meaningful opportunities for members of both faiths to engage in healthy dialogue.”

Under Cunningham and Gregerman’s direction, the Institute remains instrumental in deepening the relationship between Jews and Catholics. Cunningham, a Catholic, and Gregerman, a Jew, personify the Christian-Jewish relationship outlined in Nostra Aetate, making the SJU among the few American universities with full-time Jewish and Catholic experts promoting understanding between the two faiths.

“What makes us distinctive is the emphasis on Jews and Catholics studying together,” Cunningham said. “Jews and Christians are participating in interfaith discussions that haven’t happened in 2,000 years. There’s so much we can learn from each other.”

Through the philanthropy of members of the University and local Catholic and Jewish communities, the Institute pursues its mission to increase interfaith knowledge and understanding by hosting lectures and panel discussions; fostering local partnerships; and sponsoring international research studies.

“SJU should be proud of the strong ties with the Philadelphia Jewish community that the Institute has fostered for nearly five decades,” said Gregerman. “It is a wonderful and distinctive legacy.”

Members of the board of directors of the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations, Gregerman and Cunningham team-teach interfaith honors classes and publish regularly in popular and scholarly publications. Cunningham also serves as president of the International Council of Christians and Jews.

Through their own dialogues, Cunningham and Gregerman live Pope Francis’ interpretation of Nostra Aetate as “a journey of friendship.”

– Kevin Kaufman