The Meeting of Cultures: Encountering Difference and Diversity

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All Roads Lead to Dialogue....

Between January 5th and January 11th a group of professors from the University of San Diego participated in the annual Faculty Travel immersion Seminar organized by the Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture (CCTC). The theme for this year’s seminar was ‘The Meeting of Cultures: Encountering Difference and Diversity’ and the venue was the ‘Eternal City’ of Rome in Italy. The program was divided between academic sessions consisting of lectures, analysis and discussions, and immersion visits to different organizations, offices and historical and cultural sites linked to the overall theme. Participants had to prepare by working through a rigorous and demanding set of preliminary and preparatory academic readings selected by the facilitating professors of the seminar who were Professor Sandra Mazzolini, of Rome’s Urbaniana University, Professor Mary McClintock Fulkerson of Duke University, Professor Peter Phan of Georgetown university and Professor Gerard Mannion, the Director of the CCTC who organized and coordinated the seminar and program. Professor Gioacchino Campese facilitated an academic session that particularly focused on the challenges of the pastoral care of migrants. Other sessions included a focus on ‘Otherness’; the story of Rome as the meeting point of cultures and faiths historically; encountering difference and diversity; Catholicity, Pluralism, Inter-church relations (ecumenism); The ‘Religious Other’ (Inter-faith relations); issues of gender, race and able-bodiedness/disability; migration and multiple belonging; and being religious inter-religiously.

The group was based right beside St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City and their immersion visits included meeting with the Superior General and general Council of the Religious Sisters of the Sacred Heart – the order which co-founded USD – at their mother house in Rome. A lively and fascinating exchange took place with the sisters here and many participants saw this as one of the key highlights of entire program which helped bring together the many themes of the entire program and also helped increase their understanding of the foundation and Catholic identity of USD in general.

A large number of the academic sessions were hosted by the Benedictine Community and Pontifical University of Sant’Anselmo where the rich hospitality of that Order was witnessed in earnest in its beautiful setting on the Aveline Hill above the city of Rome. Other meetings and visits included the hosting of one of the academic sessions at the Pontifical University Urbaniana and a short visit to the Centre for Chinese Studies, with its astounding historical and cultural collections and breathtaking views overlooking the Vatican and St Peter’s Square. On Friday late afternoon there was a warm discussion with Bishop Brian Farrell at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Christian unity, which gave much cause for hope that the ‘ecumenical winter’ can be transcended and Christian dialogue between different churches has much to hope for in the future. A further visit was to the fascinating Centro Pro Unione, hosted by Fr James Puglisi, where the group was shown the extensive library of ecumenical and dialogical documents, texts and journals and were lucky enough to sit in the room where not only was one of the first performances of Vivaldi’s Four Seasonsstaged, but also a number of the most significant and crucial inter-church meetings before, during and after the Second Vatican Council were held. Fr Peter Balleis, SJ met with the group to speak about the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Pontifical Gregorian University hosted Saturday’s academic sessions, facilitated by the Faculty of Social Sciences at the invitation of Professor Rocco D’Ambrosio and the Dean of that faculty.

Among the numerous other sights and sites encountered along the way were the church of San Clemente, a place of worship that unfolds in layers across history to reveal Byzantine frescoes and altars, underneath a Baroque church, with a pagan Mithraic temple and ancient homes and pathways underneath the Byzantine layers, demonstrating religious co-existence from the very earliest Christian times. So, also, the beautiful Fifth Century church of Santa Sabina – with a long history attached to Saints Dominic and Thomas Aquinas.

The group also had expertly guided tours of the Colosseum and Roman Forum – during which they learned just how much the glory of Rome is dependent upon its cultural and ethnic encounters and borrowings across the centuries, and also tours of the splendour and ancient, medieval, Renaissance and early modern architectural and cultural sites of Rome, such as the Pantheon – demonstrating an early form of religious pluralism and co-existence at the highest level, and the ‘Spanish steps’ where French, Spanish and Italian styles and interests merge, the headquarters  of the Propaganda Fidei – the office that for centuries co-ordinated the missions of the church around the world and which gathered learning, knowledge and artefacts relating to all the diverse cultures, languages and traditions that were encountered along the way and Campo Di Fiore where the scientists Giordano Bruno was put to death – demonstrating the negative side when religions close their minds to new ideas and intellectual developments. Naturally the Trevi Fountain was a highlight, a place where people from all over the world have traditionally gathered to throw their coins over their shoulder in the hope of finding love or at least the path of return to Rome again another day!

Among the greatest highlights was the guided tour of the Vatican itself, its astoundingly rich and culturally diverse artistic and museum collections, the splendour of the Sistine Chapel. St Peter’s Basilica itself and the welcoming embrace of Bernini’s colonnades that surround St Peter’s Square were daily highlights for all concerned.

On the final day the participants joined with scholars from all over Italy and also from Germany, Serbia, Kenya, and various parts of the USA in a full day of inter-disciplinary and ecumenical academic presentations and discussions on ‘The Dialogical Imperative: Ecclesiology and Inter-culturality’. The USD group, facilitators and some of the other participants enjoyed a wonderful buffet dinner at the end of a hard day’s work, with the food all made from the gardens of the Benedictine Community itself.

Over the course of this program, a little short of a week, this group of individuals from diverse backgrounds, disciplines and contexts themselves, blended to form a strong and mutually enriching community – bonded by debate, shared meals, conversation, humour and song, encounters of the history, story and magic of Rome, the peoples who have passed through and of peoples from across the globe, and by their commonality in being part of the USD family and community itself. All left with a sense of being determined to continue the conversations further. Look out for details in the coming weeks in relation to presentations and papers that each participant will be giving in relation to their own experiences.

Those members of USD faculty who took part were Harriet Baber (Philosophy), Ami Carpenter (Peace Studies), Evelyn Diaz Cruz (Theatre Arts), Carole L. Huston (Communication Studies), Belinda C. Lum (Sociology), Mary MacDonald (SOLES), Reyes Quezada (SOLES) and last but certainly not least Necla Tschirgi (Peace Studies).

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