by Gordon Nary
Gordon: Prior to your appointment as Professor of Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome, you served as assistant director of the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue in Rome. What were your primary responsibilities there?
Prof. Boyd: That touches on what brought me to Rome in the first place. In 2009, I was selected for the international Russell Berrie Fellowship in Interreligious Studies at the Angelicum (the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas). I planned to finish the two-year fellowship, take an STL, and then return stateside for a Ph.D. Instead, as I neared the end of the Fellowship, I was asked to stay on and staff the new John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue as its Graduate Assistant / Assistant Director.
I was the only local staff for the Center, working with stakeholders in Jerusalem (Shalom Hartman Institute), Budapest (Institute for International Education), New Jersey (Russell Berrie Foundation), and of course the Angelicum in Rome. Rabbi Jack Bemporad, who had been visiting faculty of the Angelicum for about fifteen years at that point, was eventually named the director, but he was based in New Jersey.
My main responsibilities were to be the local coordinator for each new cohort of Fellows, the contact for visiting faculty attached to the Center, and network with other institutions and individuals involved in interreligious and ecumenical workaround Rome. Staffing academic conferences and workshops for the Fellows were also part of the role. To research questions about dialogue.
The Center was named after Pope St. John Paul II for his commitment to interreligious dialogue in general, and to Catholic-Jewish dialogue in particular. He was the first pope in history to visit the Great Synagogue of Rome! Part of the vision of Russel Berrie, and his widow, Angelica, who now leads the Foundation, was to promote a Jewish Renaissance – and part of that vision was the ongoing development of the relationship and dialogue of Jews and Catholic Christians. The Center, and the Fellowship, is about promoting the teachings of Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate and the popes since, promoting education and dialogue, and combatting anti-Semitism.
I was in that role for three years (2011-2014), but by 2013 had started teaching university and seminary courses, and eventually shifted my focus full time to teaching.
In addition to the Beda College, I teach or have taught with The Catholic University of America, Australian Catholic University, Assumption College, and Richmond University programs in Rome, and the Pontifical North American College’s institute for continuing theological education.
Gordon: Some of our readers may not know what Ecumenism is. Please explain the concept.
Prof. Boyd: Ecumenism is the quest for the unity of Christ’s Church. While recognizing the unity is a gift of God to the Church, we also should maintain it, strengthen it, and restore it where ruptured or threatened.
The ecumenical mandate is in the prayer of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane “that they may all be one”, that Christians should be united just like the Trinity, though three distinct persons are one divine unity.
The unity envisioned by ecumenism is not uniformity. Diversity in the Church is neither new nor a problem (it could not be “catholic” if it were!) But diversity is not division. Christ wills us One Church, one ecclesial communion; human sin divides it.
We all have a responsibility to the ecumenical mission of the Church. To grow closer to Christ is to grow closer to our fellow Christians. To fear unity is to fear Christ. It is not just the formal theological and doctrinal dialogue engaged by theologians and bishops, but also the dialogue of life shared in common, of personal religious experiences, of prayer, of service and action, even the “ecumenism of blood” – recognizing that martyrdom knows no denominational boundaries. All Christians are called to “spiritual ecumenism”, that is, prayer for and with our fellow Christians for the cause of unity.
It also requires education. Every pastoral minister in the Church, whether priest, deacon or lay, ecclesial minister, is required to have at least an introductory course in ecumenism and an ecumenically integrated curriculum, in their seminary or ministry formation program.
Ecumenism has as its goal the full, visible, and organic unity of Christians in a single communion. Common faith, common worship, and sacraments, common ecclesial communion and authority are the classic hallmarks of that unity. We have, with other churches and communities real and partial communion already, starting with our common baptism and common profession of Christian faith – these imperfect and partial bonds of communion need to be perfected and restored, but it must also be recognized that they already exist. We are not completely separated from any of our fellow Christians.
Ecumenism also requires that we engage the truth directly, unabashedly, but always in charity. It is never about negotiating away elements of the faith or finding the lowest common denominator, but it does require us to explore the truth of faith together, in humility, ready and willing to embrace gifts from each other.
Gordon: In October 2017, Thomas Reese in The National Catholic Register write an article titled The ecumenical movement is as important historically as the Reformation. Do you concur?
Prof. Boyd: Yes. There is no question. God is Love, as Pope Benedict reminded us of his first encyclical. Love always trumps pride, sloth, and the other sins that cause schism and division. While the major schisms in the history of the church – the Christological controversies, the Great Schism, and the Reformations – are significant, their healing and our reunion are even more so. After nineteen centuries of largely accepting the results of such divisions as a given, the ecumenical movement has come along to say, “no”. The division is unacceptable. The status quo is unacceptable. And it is not what Christ intended. So we have to bend our will to Christ’s, humble our pride and quell our triumphalism. The temptation of thinking that all the work is on the side of ‘the other’, whether “just come home to Rome!” or “If only Rome would become Orthodox again!” is an illusion. True ecumenism begins with true conversion, a changing of the heart. Once you are called to Christ and called to Christian unity, you cannot accept anything less. That is profound for the history of the Church.
Gordon: There appears to be an epidemic of Antisemitism in Europe and the United States. What are some of the factors that are contributing to this hatred?
Prof. Boyd: The recent rise of Anti-Semitism, along with other forms of racism and hate-crimes, has to do with the deliberate stoking of fears among some people that their identity or way of life is under threat; with the need of liars and manipulators to identify a scapegoat for bullying, to distract people from their real problems; and from the acceptance of an age without universally accepted facts. The “dictatorship of relativism” is alive and well in fake news and nationalist propaganda. All of which allows Anti-Semitism, and other sinful attitudes, to flourish.
Gordon: What are some of the factors that contribute to the hated of our Jewish brothers and sisters?
Prof. Boyd: I confess I have never really understood the ‘logic’ of anti-Semitism. Especially by Christians. Rabbinical Judaism and Christianity both grow about the same time, out of the latter part of the Second Temple period. Many of Jesus’ teachings are consistent with the Pharisees and rabbis of the time. And, of course, Jesus, Mary, the apostles, and most early Christians were Jews. Well into the fourth century, in some places, Christians still worshipped as part of the synagogue as well.
When you visit the great church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine hill in Rome, built in the fourth century, you see the inscription honoring the church as both “ex circumcisione” and “ex gentibus” (of the circumcised – the Jews – and of the Gentiles). If you were to ask an early Christian what it meant that the Church “breathed with two lungs” they would not think East and West, would think Jewish and Gentile. That is who we are as Christians. To be Anti-Semitic is impossible, for a Christian. Only ignorance of Christ, ignorance of the gospel, and ignorance of Judaism can explain someone hating Jews and Judaism.
Gordon: In your opinion, should parish priests and deacons discuss this challenge from the pulpit?
Prof. Boyd: Yes, of course. The Church has even published guidelines on the presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic preaching, as well as on the irrevocable nature of the covenant of God with the Jews, and reflections on the Shoah (the Holocaust).
All preachers - including deacons and priests, catechists and theologians – should know Judaism well enough that any Jew who happens to hear their preaching could say, “Yes, that’s me. That’s us. That’s what we believe. That’s who we are.” There are some common problems in preaching that are easy to address:
Judaism today is not the same as 2000 years ago. Like Christianity, it has evolved and grown. You cannot project the present to the past, or, more often, assume the Judaism you read about in the New Testament is what you would find if you walked into a synagogue today.
The Pharisees get a bad rap. You often hear “Pharisee” used as synonymous with “hypocrite”. But the Pharisees are the early rabbis. They are the lay scholars of the law. Paul was a Pharisee, and Jesus sure sounds like one. They even called him rabbi. He got upset with the hypocrisy of some, I imagine, precisely because he was one of them, or at least they were close to his heart. In the same way that the hypocritical action of some priests so angers good Catholics (just think of the abuse scandals). That certainly does not make “priest” synonymous with “hypocrite”!
Nor can we give into gross stereotypes or inaccuracies like “the God of the Old Testament was all fire and brimstone, but the God of the New Testament all love and warm-fuzzies” or Judaism as a religion of the Law (a burden) and Christianity a religion of love (and freedom). We fall into Marcionism there.
Amy Jill Levine and others published a “Jewish Annotated New Testament” in 2011, something that should be referenced in the preparation of every homily or reflection.
Gordon: I understand that your interest in promoting Christian unity and in developing interfaith understanding was sparked at about seven years old. Do you recall some of the factors that spark your interest at that time?
Prof. Boyd: Yes, this truly has been a lifetime vocation. I was about seven when I first discovered, as I understood it then, that “not everyone went to church; some went to the temple, or synagogue, etc” and also that “not everyone who went to church could go to the same church together”. I think it was all sparked by the fact that a friend who was staying the night at a sleepover on Saturday was not allowed to go along with me to Mass on Sunday morning, even though he was also Christian.
I found the first idea fascinating and sparked my interest in learning about world religions, and interreligious dialogue. I found the second idea abhorrent. I knew even then that it made no sense for Christians to be divided, so I dedicated myself to learning how to heal those divisions. By my teen years I was thinking of it as a kind of inter-ecclesial diplomacy, I suppose. When I applied to Notre Dame as an undergrad, I wrote that “ecumenism” was my intended major, assuming there was an established career track like being an accountant or a lawyer! Imagine my surprise that I had to settle for the much broader “theology”!
Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional interview