Every year the Lay Centre welcomes new students and says good-bye to those who have completed their studies in Rome. Among those who are moving on from the Lay Centre is Anna Surrey from New Zealand. Looking back at her two years at the Lay Centre, Anna counts it as a “real privilege to have lived with so many people from so many different countries and faiths. An experience that was enriching and enlightening.”
We began the Fall term this year by welcoming 15 new students to the Lay Centre along with several students who took part in the Lay Centre experience last year. At full capacity, the current make up of the Lay Centre includes Christian (Catholic and Orthodox), Muslim, and Jewish students from 14 different countries: Belarus, Israel, United States, Mexico, Czech Republic, Germany, Hong Kong, Egypt, Indonesia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Romania, and Georgia.
The first week of orientation included the opportunity for the students to get to know one another and for the new students to become acquainted with the many opportunities that the Lay Centre offers as a place of welcoming and dialogue among people of various faiths. English is used daily as the common language among all the students, while everyone is also encouraged to learn some Italian.
Among the new students this year, the Lay Centre welcomes Gayatri Wedotami from Indonesia. While continuing completion on her Masters Degree thesis in Islamic Philosophy at the Islamic College for Advanced Studies in Jakarta, here in Rome Gayatri will be studying both at the Gregorian and at the Angelicum.
Kyle Burkhart comes to the Lay Centre from the USA, and will be studying Theology at the Angelicum. After his first few weeks at the Lay Centre Kyle comments, “I have encountered an amazing community of friends and companions that I am truly delighted to be a part of. Gathered together here in beautiful Rome, we are all afforded the opportunity to engage in serious study, dialogue, prayer and more than a few opportunities for fun. May God be praised for his rich gifts and kindness.”
Robert White, Assistant Director of the Lay Centre, led the students on a tour of the rich historical neighborhood in which the Lay Centre is located, beginning with the gardens in front of the residence, from which one can enjoy a view of the Colosseum unparalleled in Rome. Robert explained the historical development of the land on the Caelian Hill, from pre-Roman times through early Christian times where it was mainly used by monastic communities. It was then given to Paul of the Cross in the 17th Century and it is still home to the Passionists. From these gardens the students were led to the excavated site of the ancient house of the Martyrs John and Paul, two brothers who were martyred during the time after Constantine when Julian the Apostate ignored the edict of Milan and began persecuting Christians again. The beautiful Basilica of John and Paul now towers above their house where it is believed the two brothers were martyred and buried.
Student leaders David Angeles Garnica, from Mexico, and Veronika Baur, from Germany, spent much of the first week helping the new students to sign up for their classes at the various Pontifical universities of Rome and also helping students navigate through the process of registering themselves as students in Italy with the respective permesso di soggiorno. For several students this included going with each of them to their various universities, being with them for several hours at post offices and university offices, and helping them to complete their documents.
During the week of orientation for students, the Lay Centre also welcomed Brad Poore, the new Assistant Director of Program Administration, to the staff. Brad brings to the Lay Centre his experience in non-profit advancement on an international level. He has worked on sustainable development projects in Ukraine, Russia, and India and served as the director of adult-education for the Continuity Movement in England. Brad has extensive experience in communications for non-profit organizations including publishing, journalism, public speaking, and web-based communication. He also brings experience in financial management for non-profits, including annual giving and capital campaign fundraising.
On Wednesday, the 5th of October, the Lay Centre began its weekly Celebration of the Eucharist and Community Evening. Fr. Felix Körner, SJ, celebrated the Mass and spoke to the community during dinner about “Living with Diverse Faith Traditions.” Fr. Körner lived in Turkey for several years and has worked in interreligious dialogue. He is currently teaching Dogmatic Theology at the Gregorian and is the Universities’ representative on interreligious dialogue.
On Thursday, the 6th of October, Fr. Milan Zust, SJ, a native of Slovenia, and a Collaborator at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, gave a talk entitled “Towards Ecumenical Spirituality.” Fr. Zust also shared a film with the Lay Centre community which showed the work of the Centro Aletti community, which seeks to build Christian unity through art, particularly through the construction of mosaics. Blending historic footage of Slovenia’s painful history under the Tito regime with the history of the construction of a mosaic, the film showed how mosaics can serve as symbols of man’s transformation from darkness into light, from death to resurrection.
Fr. Zust is also superior of the Jesuit Community at the Centro Alleti. The Centro Aletti has placed many of its mosaics in chapels throughout the world, including the Redemptoris Mater Chapel in the Vatican.
The week of orientation ended with a two day retreat at the Casa S. Bernardo on the grounds of Tre Fontane which marks the place of St. Paul’s martyrdom. Donna Orsuto, the Director of the Lay Centre, welcomed everyone to the retreat and to the new academic year, and encouraged this year’s Lay Centre community to take advantage of the retreat to reflect on the unique opportunity which their time at the Lay Centre will offer to each to grow in knowledge and understanding of their own faith and the faith experience of others.
As the retreat began, Avner Ecker, who comes to the Lay Centre this year from Israel, was beginning the observance of Yom Kippur. Avner shared with everyone his memories of Yom Kippur from his earliest years growing up in Israel. As a sign of solidarity, the Lay Centre students joined Avner for a simple meal before he began the fast for this year’s day of atonement.
Then Donna introduced Fr. Felix Körner, SJ, who was also celebrating the sixteenth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. After celebrating Mass for the community, Fr. Körner offered points for a meditation about community life using the first reading from Isaiah from the Sunday Liturgy: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines. On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations…” (Isaiah 25)
Fr. Körner invited each person to take one hour to reflect quietly on two aspects of their life, silence and the other, as two dimensions in which God manifests himself. Each person was encouraged to consider in which way they might be called to grow in order to better respond to the challenge of realizing the kind of community which was described by the reading from Isaiah.
After the retreat, the students returned to the Lay Centre to prepare themselves for the new academic year with a renewed understanding of day to day community life at the Lay Centre. This includes a daily opportunity to come together for vespers, an evening meal, and a short night meditation. Everyone is welcome to the weekly Wednesday Eucharist which is followed by a community discussion with a guest speaker. Throughout the year the students are offered other opportunities to attend local and international lecture series held at the Lay Centre or to participate in important occasions for interreligious dialogue and cultural and intellectual enrichment. Besides these highlights of the academic year, each student is also given community responsibilities in maintaining the daily order of community life, like washing dishes, welcoming guests, and last but not least, taking out the trash!