Chieti and Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue

Thursday, 18 January 2018 at 4:30 PM

The Lay Centre and Centro Pro Unione, on the occasion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, cordially invite you to an afternoon of prayer and reflection.


“Chieti and the Trajectory of Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue”
Rev. Prof. Paul McPartlan
Carl J. Peter Professor of Systematic Theology and Ecumenism, School of Theology and Religious Studies, The Catholic University of America

Followed by

An Ecumenical Celebration of the Word

Rev. Anthony Currer, Presider
Officer, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Rev. Ruth Frampton, Preacher
Asst. Curate, Holy Trinity Church, Salcombe, England



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Recognizing the humanity in ‘the other’

By Samantha Lin

In December, we welcomed resident scholar Tamara Sonn, who holds the Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Chair in the History of Islam at Georgetown University’s Alaweed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

While in Rome, Professor Sonn gave an intensive course at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI) while also being an active member of The Lay Centre. She led a lively discussion on Islamophobia in the Western world at The Lay Centre’s second Interfaith Café.

We sat down with Professor Sonn to get to know a little more about her and her work in Islamic history and in fighting Islamophobia.

What inspired you to study Islam?

There are two answers. The short answer is that my first master’s degree was in Medieval philosophy, 13th-century metaphysics, which is all based on Aristotle. Working through 13th-century metaphysics, I realized there were numerous references to Muslim philosophers. Why did Muslim philosophers figure so highly? The answer is that European philosophers gained access to their Aristotelian base through Arabic translations. They didn’t have access directly to the Greek. I discovered that the classical Greek texts had lain in oblivion for centuries in Egyptian libraries until Muslim conquests when they were discovered. The Muslims saw value in them, translated them into Syriac and then into Arabic, from which the European Latin translations come. The professors who were teaching me at the time at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto said they needed a student to specialize in Islamic studies to figure out to what extent the European philosophers were influenced by the Muslim thinkers. I had the opportunity to study in Jordan and found, to my shock, that I was horribly ignorant of Islam in general and specifically of the Islamic heritage of European cultures. So I decided to start all over again in Islamic studies.

What do you hope for the future of Muslim-Christian dialogue?

Recognition of common humanity! That’s the short answer. Recognition of commonality. Islam teaches that the monotheisms are a single tradition. I think that is something Jews and Christians can learn from Muslims — recognizing that we have far more in common. All monotheisms are founded on belief in a single Divinity who intervenes in human history and who sends messages periodically. The messages are all the same but the interpretations are different. There is a profound metaphysical truth there that we all need to contemplate; we need to share our experiences, rather than compete in intellectual claims. It makes more sense to me to compete as the Quran says [Quran 5:48] in demonstrating our commitment to the single creator by struggling to do the creator’s will. In other words, to “compete in good works.”

What brought you to The Lay Centre?

Georgetown University established a memorandum of understanding with PISAI about three years ago to do a faculty exchange. Father Thomas Michel was the first exchange faculty and, by a stroke of miraculous luck, here I am! I happen to be on sabbatical this semester, and so Dr. John Borelli, special assistant for Catholic identity and dialogue to Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, was so kind as to devise a special format for the faculty exchange: instead of a full year or full semester, to have an intensive three-week course during the month of December.

During her stay in Rome, Professor Sonn urged The Lay Centre residents to see the humanity of “the other” and encouraged the aspect of The Lay Centre’s mission that focuses on interreligious dialogue.

Professor Sonn said she is hopeful for the future, which she said begins in environments, such as The Lay Centre.

“You just have to hold onto that hope: that by studying other religions, one day human beings will recognize each other’s humanity,” she said.

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Spotlight: Community and a supportive environment conducive to study

Susan Mulheron hails from Minnesota in the United States. A canon lawyer, she works as the chancellor for canonical affairs for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. Susan is residing at The Lay Centre this term thanks to Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, who gave her permission to spend one semester in Rome to begin work on a doctorate in canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. He recommended that she stay at The Lay Centre, which he described as “a very supportive environment.”

“I followed my archbishop’s advice and I’m so glad that I did! He was absolutely right about The Lay Centre,” she said. “I walked right into a wonderful community of friends with all of the comforts of home. People were welcoming and very helpful in getting me acclimated to Rome and ready to begin my studies. There is a very intentional community life here that is an anchor, especially when you are working long days. I can’t recommend The Lay Centre enough.”

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The Lay Centre organizes class on Global Christianity for University of St. Thomas

The Lay Centre was delighted to welcome students from the University of St. Thomas Rome CORE Semester Program for a course, Global Christianity. Donna Orsuto gave theological lectures both in and outside the classroom, and was joined by other experts for site visits that widened the students’ horizons and enhanced their understanding of Christianity.

The Lay Centre also engaged the students in a project about migrants and refugees. They met refugees firsthand, learned about the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center, the Missionaries of Charity. They also volunteered at the Caritas Project for unaccompanied minors.

In addition, The Lay Centre also organized opportunities for dialogue on related topics, inviting friends from the diplomatic service, the Vatican Curia, and various agencies, in order to make the students’ time in Rome as meaningful as possible.


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Interfaith Café

In line with The Lay Centre’s mission to promote interreligious dialogue, the Interfaith Café has flourished as part of a yearlong program, supported by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and the Angelicum’s John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue. The Interfaith Café is aimed at introducing a broad range of interfaith topics to the Roman community, especially young adults, through discussion with experts.

In October, about 40 students and friends gathered for the first Interfaith Café on the theme, “Religion in Dialogue: From Local to Political.” Victoria Martin, a Spanish journalist and press officer for the Group of the Social Democrats in the European Parliament, and Fearghas O’Beara, who coordinates the European Parliament’s official dialogue with churches, as well as with religious and non-confessional organizations, led the discussion.

Professor Tamara Sonn, who is currently living at The Lay Centre while teaching an intensive course at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI) in Rome, led the second Interfaith Café on Dec. 5. She holds the Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Chair in the History of Islam at Georgetown University. She gave a survey of the history of Muslim-Christian relations in order to help listeners understand why Islamophobia appears to be growing in the West.

The Interfaith Café series will continue through spring 2018, and will focus on the work of the laity, as well as the role of institutions in interreligious dialogue.


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Thank you for your support


I am pleased to say that many of you chose to give support to The Lay Centre on #GivingTuesday.

Through online donations and messages of encouragement, I was very touched by the outpouring of your emails and the generosity of your gifts.

Please be assured of the prayers of all of us at The Lay Centre as we give thanks for all of you. Your support will enable us to continue the formation programs we offer for the laity and the activities we organize to promote ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, both locally and internationally.

I want you all to know how profoundly grateful we are for your continued friendship.

Donna Orsuto – Director of The Lay Centre


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A great opportunity to ‘begin again’

By Donna Orsuto

ADVENT is upon us once again. A great opportunity to “begin again,” to launch into a new liturgical year with joy. The first Advent candle, flickering in the darkness, invites us to embrace the light that is Christ.

Advent is a time of preparing—preparing surely to celebrate the Birth of Christ with our family and friends, but also preparing a space for Christ to enter into our hearts in the here and now, as well as for that day when we will meet Him face to face.

One poem that captures the paradox of the Advent season is Mary Oliver’s poem, “Making the House Ready for the Lord”:


By Mary Oliver
Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice –it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances –but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And I still believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.

Making the House Ready: celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation

In the Catholic Church, one way of “making the house ready” is to take time to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance, Confession). In Rome, an Advent initiative at the Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere offers a beautiful and reflective space to do just that. Edmund Power, OSB, former Abbot of St. Paul outside the Walls, will be available during afternoons to celebrate the sacrament.

With regard to this sacrament, I have found helpful the following reflection written many years ago by the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini:

It is not my intention here to present a pastoral study, but simply to offer a suggestion to those who, perhaps, have found themselves making their confession less and less frequently, without quite being able to establish why; and who find themselves incapable of resuming a practice, by now formalised, because of a certain inner unease, I want to offer this suggestion only because it has been helpful to me. We all propose what we have experienced to be positive.

I asked myself – or, rather, the Lord inspired me to ask – when I found it difficult to make a short and hasty confession, why not try to make it at greater length, and with greater calm? This appears paradoxical; but sometimes even paradoxes may help to get us out of a corner.

So, with another’s help, I moved from confession to what I would call a penitential dialogue…

It seems to me that it is, above all, a dialogue with a brother who represents the Church: a priest, therefore, in whom I recognise God’s immediate representative; a dialogue carried out in prayer together, during which I put forward what I feel within me, at this moment: I present myself, as I am, before the Church and before God. Recognising what brings joy. 

To my mind, this dialogue includes two essential parts: the first one, which I call “confession laudis”, that is, confession according to the original sense of the word. Here again, we start off with a paradox: if it is so difficult and uncomfortable each time to say my sins, why not begin with good deeds? Saint Ignatius himself recommends it in the Exercises, taking thanksgiving as the first point: Lord, I want, first of all, to thank you for helping me, because such and such a thing has happened, because I have been able to establish contact with such a one, because I feel myself to be more at peace, I have got over a difficult moment, I can pray better. Thanking God for what I am, for his gift, in the form of a dialogue, a prayer, giving praise; recognising before God what, at this time, gives me joy; I am happy with such and such a thing, whether past or present.

It is important that these things come out before the Lord: recognition of his goodness towards us, of his power, of his mercy. Recognising what makes me ill at ease.  Having done this, you can move on to a “confessio vitae” which I would define as follows: rather than a seeking and enumerating of formal sins, it is saying before God that which now makes me ill at ease, whatever I would like to do away with in my life. Frequently, they are more attitudes or ways of being, rather than formal sins; but in the final analysis, the causes are the twelve attitudes listed by St. Mark: pride, envy, cupidity that come out in these states of soul. Or rather I will say before God: I regret not being able to speak sincerely with such a person, my relationship with such a group is not authentic, I do not know where to begin. I regret not being able to pray, I feel ill at ease in the grip of my sensuality, of those desires that I would rather be without, these images that haunt me. I may not have any particular sin to confess, but I place myself before the Lord and ask him to heal me. It is not a matter of placing three or four sins on the table, so that they may be wiped out, but rather of a baptismal immersion in the power of the Spirit: Lord, purify me, guide me, enlighten me.

I do not only ask, in this confession, that such and such a sin be obliterated, but that my heart be changed, that there be less heaviness in me, less sadness, less scepticism, less pride. Perhaps I do not know where to begin, but I put all of this in the power of the crucified and risen One by the power of the Church. Out of this emerges a prayer that you can make together with the priest: you may like to recite a psalm, a thanksgiving or petitionary prayer from the Bible, or even a spontaneous prayer, upon which the sacramental absolution comes down like a showing forth of God’s power that I am seeking, precisely because I am incapable of making progress all on my own, I place myself once more at the foot of the cross, under that power that baptised me, so that it may, once again, take me in hand. 

A penitential dialogue 

Here is what I mean by a penitential dialogue: it is not just a psychological dialogue, or a kind of therapy. It is not necessary for the confessor to reveal to me the secret sources of my faults: that can be done equally with a specialist of the human heart, but even if the confessor does not know much about the human heart, he can still pray for me, over me, with me. It is a matter of submitting myself to the power of the Church and thereby rediscovering the value of the sacrament. I am going to make a confession not in order to experience something interesting, nor to see what advice I will be given, but because I am the one who needs to submit him/herself to the power of God; and that is enough for me, brings me joy and peace. 

This, then, is the suggestion that I wanted to make to you – with its many possible variations. It is obvious that a confession, made in this way, can last a long time; but we face it the more willingly because we can see what it means in terms of our journey towards God. To each one of us the Lord will probably have suggested other forms, forms that can also be usefully communicated as experiences, because they will be of help to others.

Wishing all of you a fruitful Advent, where each of us can say to the Lord, in so many different ways, “Come, and come quickly.”

Donna Orsuto is the director of The Lay Centre and a professor of spirituality at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

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