Did You Hear the One About the Rabbi and the Priest?

A priest and a rabbi walk onto a college campus and discover the same thing. They’re in love—with the students, with mankind, with God.

Al Bischoff, SJ, known affectionately at Xavier as “Father B,” and Rabbi Abie Ingber began an uncanny friendship after Ingber was invited to be the founder of the Center for Interfaith Community Engagement at Xavier in 2008. They call each other “Al and Abie.”

Now, when “Al and Abie” walk across campus together, they’re like magnets, drawing in students whom they’ve touched—and there are many—for greetings and hugs.
Ingber: “If I walk this campus every day, I still am unable to touch everyone. But to be in the presence of Father Al, to know if I can’t be in every corner of campus, Al is there. Between the two of us, we’ve got this campus covered.”

When Bischoff, Xavier’s longtime campus minister and residence hall adviser, met Ingber, they discovered they shared a lot of things, the most important of which was love. They began to have regular conversations where they talk about love, God and Xavier students.

Bischoff: “I came to Abie and said, ‘I want to meet with you and talk about God.’ It’s like when I walk across campus, I’m not out to convert anybody. That’s God’s work. I’m out to love and be with people and learn from them and be a help or a support to them.”

Now these two unlikely best friends get together often, usually in Ingber’s office in the Gallagher Student Center. Bischoff sits in the chair, Ingber on the sofa, and they talk.

Ingber: “We’re in a continuous conversation.”

It may seem incongruous that a Jesuit priest and a Jewish rabbi would become such fast friends and have so much to share. But it’s that incongruity that makes their love for each other and their work so powerful.

Bischoff: “I never had a real relationship with a rabbi.”

But when he was a boy, he did have a friend who was Jewish.

Bischoff: “Because he was Jewish and I didn’t know any better and I lived in a Catholic ghetto, I used to pray he wouldn’t go to hell.”

Formerly director of the Cincinnati Hillel Jewish Student Center, Ingber believed he’d be more effective at Xavier as a conduit to bring people of different faiths together in celebration rather than mere tolerance. Even people like Al Bischoff.

Ingber: “Him praying for his friend not to go to hell is so radical from Catholic teaching, which said that no less than being Catholic would prevent the friend from going to hell. Back then, Catholic teaching was to convert the Jews. Yet he was praying for him not to go to hell. That was his loving way, his loving heart.”PriestRabbi

That’s the way it goes with these two. They share their love from the viewpoints of a Catholic and a Jew, and they find that love is their common ground. They also know their love is no joke, but it is a lot of fun, and they wish more people would talk about love more often, because the world could certainly use more love these days. And humor.

Ingber often invokes John Lennon, whom he reveres and even met once.

“John Lennon said, ‘If you dream by yourself, it’s just a dream, but if two share it, it’s a reality.’ We make Al’s dream of giving sainthood to everyone, and mine of giving love to everyone, a reality. We see it on campus.”

Bischoff greets everyone, especially students, with “Hello, saint.” He explains that he just can’t remember everyone’s name, and that if he treats people as if they’re saints, they may actually come to believe it. He believes his friend Abie is a saint.

Bischoff: “Being Catholic in the best sense means worldwide and universal. This is a faith-filled Jewish Rabbi from whom I can learn. It’s life-giving. Jesus was Jewish and said, ‘I’ve come that you may have life and live more abundantly,’ and I believe our encounters are life-giving.”

Ingber: “We see people competing to do evil, but I see Father Al leaving a trail of love and he lets me stand in his shadow. We do walk across the campus together and people come up to us. There’s beauty in being a junior member of a great tag team on campus. I am honored to toil in Al’s vineyard.”

To capture the magic of their relationship, Bischoff and Ingber agreed to a video of a conversation last fall. This one took place in the Conaton Board Room. As expected, the subject was love. Welcome to the conversation.

Two New Institutes

Xavier launched two new institutes in 2014—one for the heart, the other for the mind.

The new Institute for Spirituality and Social Justice focuses on the integration of knowledge, spirituality and social engagement and offers graduate theology degrees, certificate programs, workshops and retreats. All are designed to cultivate depth of thought, imagination and critical skills to deal with violence, social inequity and
environmental instability.

Across campus, the renamed Montessori Institute and Lab School better reflects the program’s growth and reputation as a pioneer of, and world leader in, Montessori teacher education and philosophy. The Institute offers undergraduate and graduate degrees, including a master’s degree in a new, totally online format. Its Lab School now includes grades 4-6. And the program is expanding its global reach with teacher education programs in Korea and China, as well as offering research and professional development for all Montessori educators.

Into the Wild

A program started by visiting theology professor and alum Leon Chartrand gives a whole new meaning to the idea of the outdoor classroom. Xavier Expeditions offers courses that include trips to cool places such as Yellowstone Park and the Sawtooth Wilderness in Alaska. This year, Chartrand added a trip to the American Southwest. For one week over spring break, students enrolled in Sacred Ground & the New Story: Navajo Lands explored nature and Navajo spiritual concepts, like “walking in beauty.” They did hands-on learning in the Grand Canyon and Painted Desert of the ancient Southwest and the Navajo and Hopi nations. Students are encouraged to draw from Native American cultures, the Judeo-Christian and other religious traditions, and from the knowledge of evolution to rediscover the earth. Chartrand hopes his students learn to see the earth as a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects, and how to tackle human-earth relations. Chartrand invites students to suggest favorite locations for future trips. Some of his favorites? The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Galapagos Islands and the Serengeti.

A Year of Faith

It’s been a busy year for Xavier on the faith front.

In response to Pope Benedict XVI’s declaration of the Year of Faith—called to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council—the University spent the last 12 months creating a series of lectures exploring how the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola apply to Catholic life today.

Led by the Center for Mission and Identity, the series “Education of Desire: The Gifts of Ignatian Spirituality,” included six lectures that examined the intersection of contemporary issues with the Spiritual Exercises, particularly as they shed light on modern moral issues.

“The people within this community came together to think about the Ignatian tradition within the Catholic Church,” says James Riordan, a former Jesuit who is now a major gifts officer and who chaired Xavier’s Year of Faith committee. “No one was excluded from this conversation of faith. That’s the Ignatian tradition.”

The six lectures were:

• “Deepest Desire: Seeking God in the Ignatian Tradition,” an exploration of the role of desire in spiritual life grounded in the Ignatian tradition.

• “Is the Universe Purposeful?” a look at the universe and the role of science in exploring questions about the possibilities of the existence of multiple universes.

• “Conscience and Freedom in a Time of Planetary Crisis,” which explored Catholic understandings of conscience and their relevance to major crises facing our world today, particularly hunger and climate change.

• “Is There But One Christian Spirituality: Discernment and the University,” an exploration of everyday decision-making and larger life choices in the Ignatian framework.

• “Option for the Poor? Economics and Inequalities,” a look at market economics with a particular focus on the option for the poor.

• “Setting the World on Fire: Faith that Inspires Action,” a panel discussion about faith that incites action in the life of the University.

The Sisters

Xavier is known for its Jesuits, but the order of priests have not been the only religious presence in the history of the University. Nuns have also had a place at Xavier, even though the Jesuits don’t have a corresponding order of women religious. While the nuns were mostly students and instructors in the early years, they have in later years become full-time faculty and members of the University’s administration.

The number of nuns on campus peaked in the early 1980s after Xavier bought Edgecliff College, which was run by the Sisters of Mercy. Those who came to Xavier with the merger have all retired. With their departure—paralleled by the overall decline in women entering religious orders—the number of nuns on campus has dwindled. The four who remain hold strategically important positions at Xavier—Nancy Linenkugel, chair of the Department of Health Services Administration; Jo Ann Recker, professor of modern languages; Rose Ann Fleming, special assistant to the president; and Rosie Miller, professor of theology. But they are all advancing in years and may be the last nuns at Xavier.nunsvideo

Xavier magazine sat down with the four nuns at a roundtable discussion and spoke with them about a wide range of topics, from their history to modern issues such as the Church’s investigation of American nuns and how their lead organization must now undergo a five-year reformation for not following the teachings of the Church. (Click on the image to the right to watch a video of the conversation.) Here are their thoughts on a few of those subjects.

 

Q: What has been the role of women religious at Xavier and what special gifts do you bring to the University and its students?

Rose Ann Fleming: “One of the gifts that women bring to the University campus is the gift of love and the gift of sharing and hopefully students in our classrooms have been able to find that gift in reality with us and enjoy their time with us as Xavier students because that gift.”

Jo Ann Recker: “I would add that it brings a balance because as where Pope Paul VI said, ‘Where’s the other half of humanity?’ The other half deserves a presence. And where I have seen women be helpful especially to women students is that sense of balance and advocacy for women’s issues.”

Rosie Miller: “I think another gift as a woman religious is bringing the feminine side of the Church into the classroom. It’s another window of how to read the text as a woman particularly as a woman who stands in the Church committed to church ministry.”

linenNancy Linenkugel: “I recall being a student here in 1971 shortly after women were allowed to take classes here—I had a habit on at the time—I was teaching at a school in Cincinnati and needed a bachelor’s degree. So I came here and there weren’t a lot of others like me around here at that time. There were very few women but hardly any other sisters. I didn’t think too much about it because I had a job to do. But today, now that I am back, I think there’s a powerful presence that women religious provide to this campus, and I would add I think I stand for something of value that our students maybe don’t think about all the time. I start every class with a prayer and when I let students take over and introduce a guest speaker they have to start with a prayer or reflection and only after the semester is over do they say that was really helpful. So I think we can stand for something higher in life for our students.”

 

Q: Do you think the trend toward fewer women entering orders will be reversed or reach a plateau? Or are you the last nuns at Xavier?

Nancy Linenkugel: “With the decline in religious women, I think we’re at new frontier moment. Today there are young women who say to me, ‘I don’t have to become a sister to do what you’re doing. I can teach, I can be nurse, a manager, make money, go off and pray and live how I wish to live in a holy manner. I don’t need to be a sister and give up everything.’ So where I see the next frontier for religious life is in about 25 years, I believe there will be one kind of religious life, and it will match the men’s orders such that women will have a choice of being ordained or being deacons or like the brother Jesuits. I believe this will be the next wave. What does the Church have to offer the rest of society, the women? I don’t think we’ll continue on with the type of religious life we have now. We might be close to the last of the current kind of sisters that everybody knows in society, but I don’t think we’re the last. I think there’s a bright future.”

flemingRose Ann Fleming: “I think our job is to help define what the future of religious life is going to be. A lot of that will come out of talking with women I have met on this campus who are extremely dedicated to the needs of the poor. As religious women, we have seen over time how our order has helped change cultures. The whole Catholic school system changed cultures, and if we can look in the future and harness some of the vision some of these women are coming out with, we’re going to be in very good shape as far as religious numbers are concerned.”

Jo Ann Recker: “That’s good. If you look at Jesus’ model, he formed his apostles and his spirit and then left because they were evangelized. That’s what we’re trying to do with our sponsorship ministries.”

Rosie Miller: “I think we’re beyond reaching a plateau. I think we’re on the other side of the decline in the sense of our numbers. One of the ways I view that is that since Vatican II, we as religious women took very, very seriously reforming the Church and we moved onto that bridge. I always saw most of my ministry as a bridge between the laity, which I am member of as a religious woman, and that of the clerical side of the Church. In my early ministry, it was important to empower and train the laity, and I moved into jobs where I was paid very little, but then eventually parishes or communities who hire people were able to pay appropriate salaries for people who are raising a family. I think we are also still those bridge makers in the sense that for the increased role of the laity, the time is now.”

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Rose Ann FlemingRosie MillerNancy LinenkugelJo Ann Recker

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Q: How will this increased role of the laity affect Catholic education as a whole and Xavier in particular?

Nancy Linenkugel: “When it comes to Catholic schools and even Jesuit Catholic schools, the key to keeping them going is to pass on the mission to lay persons. Xavier does a wonderful job of that with AFMIX and other programs. It’s no different in Catholic elementary schools in that the lay leaders and the teachers all must understand why they’re there and the important legacy to hand on to the students. I attended a Catholic grade school and even back then lay teachers were extremely key to maintaining the school. That role has only increased. Priests and sisters have done their jobs if lay persons understand the school’s mission and take that forward.”

Rose Ann Fleming: “I think that the future of Catholic and Jesuit education is bright. It may have to be delivered through media with which the population is familiar. The decline of religious women in the schools has largely been offset by the rise of extremely well-educated laity who are willing to dedicate their lives to continuing the tradition of Catholic schools. The teaching of religious doctrine and religious values is worth the expense to date. The schools appear to be prospering.”

reckerJo Ann Recker: “Interestingly, I just came from a three-hour presidentially appointed committee meeting on what it is that makes Xavier a Jesuit Catholic university. We are charged with clearly articulating this. And it behooves most religious congregations to do something similar so as to educate and form the laity who will follow in maintaining our educational heritage and charisms. I think that if the heritage and charism are ‘owned’ and embodied in those who follow, we will be in good shape. Isn’t this what Jesus did when he entrusted his church to his followers?”

Q: Will all of this be impacted by the investigations into religious orders and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious?

Jo Ann Recker: “I do know that an early step taken by Pope Francis was to reaffirm the mandated reform of the LCWR. But as long as men cling to power in the Church, along with total responsibility for serious decision-making, and continue to see women religious [and women, in general] as holding ‘special’ [but not equal] roles, I don’t see this long history changing. The problems of the contemporary Church are many and well-documented, but women religious are not really among them. However, a focus on the LCWR is, from my perspective, but a diversionary tactic. It gets people talking about something other than the problems in the Church and the exodus of many from the Church.”

Rose Ann Fleming: “At this point, Pope Francis has indicated that he will not abandon the investigations into religious orders and into the LCWR. I volunteered as a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur to an interview. The sister with whom I met wanted to know about my work at Xavier with the student-athletes. Then she asked about vocations to the Sisters of Notre Dame. I responded that I knew they were plentiful in Africa where we have a large number of sisters, but that there were few in the United States. She asked if this was a concern and directed my attention to data that indicated factors that seem to attract vocations to certain orders and that distinguishing dress was one of these factors. When I asked her what she was suggesting, she simply said to look at the data.

“From what I can discern, the LCWR is anxious to work out with the Church perceived problems that could be cultural since women in the United States have much more freedom than women have in other parts of the world. Because our order is international in scope, the Church’s observations of our order may be misunderstood on a global basis. Such cultural issues are resolvable.”

millerRosie Miller: “It’s too quick to really know what Pope Francis feels and thinks about this. I read his whole speech [to the international group of superiors] and I think he was very astute using traditional Vatican language, but he keeps using the term ‘feel,’ that sisters should feel their way, so I think he was walking a delicate dance. I think as a new pope, you would not normally go in and change things immediately. I’m still hopeful he might review this.”

Nancy Linenkugel: “Pope Francis certainly seems to be a pastoral individual who is interested less in the traditional ‘pomp’ of the Papacy and more in being a servant-leader. There’s no shortage of serious issues with which he must deal—financial problems, human justice, ultra-conservatism movement within the Church, the issue of women being disenfranchised by the male-dominated Church. While I personally don’t feel called to the ordained priesthood, I think there are many women who do. What a wonderful ministry to Catholics that could be. Just think of how many parishes have closed due to the shortage of priests, which only brings heartbreak and further alienation. So if the parish is still viable financially, and a woman priest could step in, wouldn’t that be a win/win, especially for the parishioners?”

Prayers for Prisoners

At 6:30 a.m. on a Friday in April, Virginia Hewan pulls up to the gate of the Dayton Correctional Institute with about 30 members of a prison ministry group. It’s time for their security screening.

Then come three days of programming during which they gather with about 20 incarcerated young women for home-cooked meals, singing and dancing, praying, Bible readings, testimonials and storytelling skits.

“Our goal is to let the women know that people care, and they are loved,” says Hewan. “Even if they’re at the lowest they’ve ever been, they’re not alone.”

Hewan is a volunteer with Epiphany Ministries of Ohio, a Christian ministry that sponsors three-day ecumenical programs for men and women serving time in Ohio’s prisons. Twice a year, Hewan heads from her home in Northern Kentucky for a long weekend away, delivering messages of hope to women who are serving time. The overriding themes of love and forgiveness are intended to help the women realize they can change their lives. Lessons on Christian living show how to do that and reinforce the idea of how much they are loved.

Hewan has been Xavier’s director for certification and licensure in the School of Education since 1991. She began as a secretary in the graduate programs office in 1984, earning four degrees along the way, including a master’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s degree in education with a concentration in agency and community counseling. Internships for both degrees gave her experience working with women coming out of prison, with delinquent teenage boys and as an advocate for parents of murdered children.

About seven years ago, the pastor of her church, Northern Hills United Methodist Church in the suburb of Finneytown, learned of the Epiphany prison ministry program. Hewan, wanting to put her pastoral counseling knowledge to use, signed up. She now spends one or two weekends a year at a pre-release center for women formerly in Columbus, Ohio. The last trip in April was to the new location in Dayton.

After three days of eight to 10-hour sessions, each woman is given her own Bible. Monthly follow-up visits reinforce the experience with music, song and prayer. Hewan says she’s always moved by the women, who she says are no different from the young college students she sees every day at Xavier.

“Often their faces remind me of our students,” she says. “We want to bring them hope so they will be able to face life’s challenges inside or outside the prison walls.”

Profile: Sr. Kate O’Leary

Sr. Kate O’Leary

Bachelor of Science in Nursing, 2007

Franciscan Novice in formation

Chicago

West Side Story | “I was working as a nurse at Loyola Medical Center in a surgical trauma unit, the ICU,” says the 27-year-old. “I had met Fr. Bob [Lombardo] on a retreat in the summer of 2006, while I was still at Xavier. I started volunteering at his mission one day a week. By 2009, he saw there was this need for a religious community here. There was a need for people to live and work here in the neighborhood (West Humboldt Park).”

A Desperate Neighborhood | Glance at a list of the poorest places in America, and Humboldt Park is often among the most downtrodden pockets. “Cardinal Francis George asked Fr. Bob to come and rebuild and maintain a Catholic presence at Our Lady of the Angels. It had been a huge thriving parish at one time, one of the largest of five parishes in Chicago. Mainly Italian and Irish.”

Two Lives | O’Leary became one of the first aspirants to move into the restored convent at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels. “There were five of us at the time. Because of our interest in religious life, and his seeing the needs, Fr. Bob invited us to move in and spend a year in discernment. I entered in 2009, but I still worked as a nurse for a year.”

Entering the Religious Life | “It’s hard to describe or explain my decision. I think of it as God prompting me, pulling me toward Him. In a moment of peace, I was finally able to notice people in great need, especially kids who are 10 years old and younger. When they are young, we still have a chance to help kids make smart decisions, away from drugs and gangs.”

Growth | “The number of those we serve continues to grow. We now serve 700 families with food and clothing. There are more than 900 kids in the afterschool programs. It’s incredible how much people need basic assistance.”

Mean Streets | The church is surrounded by at-risk youth, violent gangs and drug trafficking. “We try to get them off the streets, to stay out of drugs and the gangs, so maybe we can stop this cycle of violence and crime.”

Horrific Tragedy | For just about anyone from Greater Chicago, the mention of Our Lady also brings a sorrowful memory: A devastating fire at the parish elementary school in 1958 consumed the lives of 55 girls, 37 boys and three nuns. “You mention Our Lady of Angels here in Chicagoland, and everyone still thinks of the fire. Somebody knew somebody who passed away in the fire, or somebody who was injured.” Making sense out of the tragedy, the deaths of 92 children and three religious sisters in mere moments, is part of O’Leary’s mission today.

A Reflective Thought | “It’s really quite humbling to be spearheading a new religious community in the inner city.”

Of God and Grizzly

We’re halfway up the hillside when we first see the footprints. Grizzly bear. The dirt around the edges of the prints is still loose, not compacted by the recent rain, meaning the tracks are fresh. Meaning the bear is here. Somewhere. Somewhere close.

Your senses tend to sharpen in the wilderness.  Your vision gets clearer.  You smell the pines, the mud, the decaying leaves.  You hear sounds that otherwise wouldn’t register. Your senses tend to sharpen even more when there’s a grizzly bear nearby.  Your heart also tends to beat just a little bit faster.

“The Forest Service says you should wear a bell or talk or make noise so a bear will hear you and run away,” says Leon Chartrand, our group’s leader. “That’s exactly what we’re not going to do.”

We continue up the hill, slowly, stopping frequently to search for other signs—broken twigs, snagged fur, scat. As we emerge from the woods into a clearing, Chartrand puts an end to the search. We have, he determines, reached our classroom. Priorities prevail.

[lightbox link=”http://xtra.xavier.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/41.jpg”]41[/lightbox]Chartrand is a visiting professor of theology and is leading 12 of us—10 undergraduate and two graduate students—in a theology course through the wilds of Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. The course’s focus is on experiencing nature as primary sacred and sacramental reality, something that isn’t going to happen sitting in Alter Hall.

He pulls the group together and explains the day’s lesson, then sends us out to private spots in the area to craft a daily reflection paper. In more Jesuit terms, we are trying to find God in all things, and for the moment, at least for me, that thing remains the grizzly bear.

After a few minutes of trying to focus on the day’s lesson, my eyes and mind begin to wander up the still-uncharted hillside to the top of a ridge, where the bear is. I have to know what’s beyond it, so that’s where I go. I put down my notebook, pick up my backpack and begin walking up the hill.

The ridge, I discover, opens up to a large, open field dotted with patches of trees. Fresh bear scat litters the ground. Nothing stands between me and the woods that continue about 100 yards to the north. I stand there at the edge of the field, alone. I feel open, exposed, vulnerable. I look around but can’t see anything. But I can sense it. The bear is here. Somewhere. Watching. Watching me.

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Grizzly bears have a notoriously ruthless and arguably unfair reputation. They tolerate wolves (and are mutually tolerated) but otherwise have no real enemies except for man. Mostly, they are solitary creatures that avoid contact with humans. The occasions where bears attack people are almost always for defensive purposes, either of themselves, their cubs or food. Our failed relationship came about not because bears started infringing upon our territory, but because we infiltrated theirs.

In the early 1900s, nearly 100,000 grizzly bears roamed the lower 48 states. Today, the number is reduced to less than 1,000.  The 2.6-million acre Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park corridor in Wyoming’s northwest corner is as far south as the bear now roams. The numbers are higher and healthier in Alaska and the mountainous areas of  Western Canada, but even those numbers—estimated at 30,000—are only a fraction of what they once were.

[lightbox link=″http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtFuj6Jn0GI&feature=player_embedded″]fleming1[/lightbox]

Seeking solitude or pursuing profit, we started building homes in the woods or at the edges of mountains, which brought with it an open invitation for unwelcome encounters. And encounters have happened. Chartrand can bear witness to that. While researching his doctoral dissertation, he served as bear biologist for five years for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, trapping, relocating or—in the case of those bears who became conditioned to believe that food could be found near humans—euthanizing them.

At one point, as we drove through Grand Teton National Park, he pointed out a home that a bear broke into and caused extensive damage as it rummaged for food. Among its take, he says, was a bowl of Jolly Rancher candy. After trapping the bear, the homeowners started feeling remorse, knowing the animal was facing death. They started questioning if it was the right bear, hoping Chartrand would relocate it instead of kill it. Knowing bears don’t change their habits and can be dangerous if they no longer fear humans, Chartrand had to wait another 12 hours until the bear emptied its bowels, at which point he positively identified it by the undigested plastic candy wrappers in its scat. The proof was in the pooping.

For those like Chartrand, though, the bear isn’t something to be feared, but to be respected and, in some ways, awed. That’s how he felt after his first encounter with a bear while backpacking in Glacier National Park. There was no confrontation, just a revelation. “Things made sense to me,” he says. “My place in the world. My sense of connectedness to the land. The sense that the world is much bigger than my ability to understand. It was a transformative moment.”

Now, his goal is to share that same feeling with others, to show the correlation between ecology and theology. So he teaches.

“To put it into a theological perspective, consider that we’ve long identified the notion of The Holy,” he says. “Two characteristics associated with The Holy are fear and fascination. Interestingly, there’s a correlation between the fact that people are drawn toward bears because of fear and fascination.”

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While my classmates continue to spend their time reflecting, I stand silently, still searching for the bear. There’s something inexplicable about its presence that has captured me, beyond, even, all of the other experiences the course has brought.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins back in 1918. To most, the phrase is a piece of poetry. To the Jesuits, it is a mantra. To those of us trekking through the Tetons and wilds of Yellowstone, it is a self-evident truth.

Throughout the week we paused for times of meaning and reflection alongside rushing rivers, at the shores of glacier-fed lakes and atop mountains. We encountered bald eagles, bison and blue heron. We watched carefully as a coyote strode past just a few feet away. We examined the skeletal remains of two young elk that offered a reminder that peril and beauty live side by side in nature. We saw towering waterfalls and boiling mud pits and snow-covered woods.

On our first day we paused in a clearing littered by the still-charred trunks of lodgepole pines felled by a forest fire in 1988. Lodgepole pines are an interesting species. Their seeds can only be opened by extreme heat, meaning the only way the trees regenerate is if the previous generation is destroyed by fire. Its life, in other words, can only be revealed through death. Grandeur, indeed.[lightbox link=”http://xtra.xavier.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/25.jpg”]25[/lightbox]

Consider the tree, we were told as we sat among the pines. What do you see when you look at a tree? Its leaves, its branches, its bark. What don’t you see? Its roots, the nutrients flowing through its trunk, the fact that it takes in carbon dioxide and gives off oxygen. Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there or not vital to its existence.

Cannot the same argument be made for the existence of God?

To be conscious about something is to be aware of it, no matter if it’s the inner workings of a tree, the fragility of the wildflowers or, really, the existence of God. Must we always see to believe? Might being in the presence of something be sacred enough?

[lightbox link=”http://xtra.xavier.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/10.jpg”]10[/lightbox] Thomas Berry, a Passionate priest and one of the most brilliant minds in the field of eco-theology, once wrote about a similar revelation he had about nature and religion—not with the mountains or woods of  Yellowstone but of a simple Midwestern meadow. “Religion, it seems to me, takes its origin here in the deep mystery of this setting,” he says. “The more a person thinks of the infinite number of interrelated activities that take place here, the more mysterious it all becomes. The more meaning a person finds in the Maytime blooming of the lilies, the more awestruck a person might be in simply looking out over this little patch of meadowland.”

The problem, he says, is that we are cast into our urban jungles where towering buildings create concrete canyons. We are overwhelmed by eye pollution generated by neon signs, by ear pollution caused by screaming cars and by nose pollution caused by the belching smokestacks of industry. We live in many different worlds and, unfortunately, none of them teach us how to read the book of nature. It’s become a lost skill.[lightbox link=”http://xtra.xavier.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/46.jpg”]46[/lightbox]

“We live in a political world, a nation, a business world, an economic order, a cultural tradition, a Disney dreamland,” Berry says. “We live in cities, in a world of concrete and steel, of wheels and wires, a world of unending work. We seldom see the stars at night or the planets or the moon. Even in the day we do not experience the sun in any immediate or meaningful manner.

“We have silenced too many of those wonderful voices of the universe that spoke to us of the grand mysteries of existence. We no longer hear the voices of the rivers, the mountains or the sea. The trees and meadows are no longer intimate modes of spirit presence. The world about us has become an ‘it’ rather than a ‘thou.’”

[divider]•••[/divider]

Time is turning and the sun isn’t far from setting. Dusk and dawn are the two most active times for bears, and despite our previous disregard for Forest Service recommendations about making noise, leading a group of college students down the side of a mountain after dark with bears in the area is fraught with too many liabilities. Wiser heads prevail.

As the others start back down the hill and onto the next lesson, I turn back one last time, giving the area a final scan, hoping—praying—that I might see the bear. Still, nothing. Disappointed and perhaps a little disheartened, I slowly rejoin the group and head back down the hill as well.

One of the funny things about life that I’ve learned, though, is that the obvious isn’t always obvious at the moment. Often time is needed to reveal what isn’t seen in the moment. Sometimes reflection. Perhaps prayer.

As the night comes upon us and the next day dawns, the openness of the field and the presence of the bear keeps replaying in my mind. Where was the bear? Why didn’t it reveal itself?

Then the revelation hits:  The time spent tracking the bear up the hillside and searching for it in the open field wasn’t at all a disappointment. In fact, it was just the opposite. It was perhaps the most meaningful and educationally enlightening part of the entire journey. It pulled together all the elements of the class—man and nature, fear and fascination, God and grizzly. Nothing, in fact, could have been more theological.

Like the bear, God leaves his footprints everywhere for us to follow. It’s up to us to awaken our senses, to look for the signs, to see them. And they always lead us to a place where He is. But, like with the bear, that doesn’t always mean we will recognize the encounter or receive our visual desire. We can stand there, open, exposed, looking—praying—that we will see God. But, all too often, nothing. So, disappointed and perhaps a little disheartened, we move on, missing the mystery and meaning of the moment. That God is there. Somewhere. Watching. Watching us.

Open Windows

In 1965, the Catholic Church concluded its revolutionary Second Vatican Council in which it “threw open the windows of the Church” and let in some fresh air. Among its changes was a well-known document calledNostra Aetate that revolutionized the Church’s policies and theologies regarding world religions, moving from a strong exclusivist view to a more open, inclusivist view that acknowledged the beliefs of other Christian and non-Christian religions. While Xavier has a long history of welcoming students from other religions, and it views the study of different religious perspectives as a meaningful form of education, it is opening its own windows a little wider by creating new ecumenical and interreligious centers and programs that meet the needs and desires of its growing—and increasingly diverse—student population.

[divider]An Interfaith Perspective [/divider]

On most rainy days, Rabbi Abie Ingber grabs his two-headed umbrella and walks outside. His goal: to catch students. As they come scurrying out of buildings, he approaches them with an offer of respite from the pelting drops._GER9582

“Care to come under?” he asks.

Ingber’s crinkly eyes and wide, inviting smile exude warmth and compassion, and students rarely say no. They look at Ingber, then at the funny black umbrella, smile and step under. Then the conversation begins: Who are you? Where are you from? What are you made of? Often they become so engrossed in their discussion that they walk past their destination.

This is Ingber at his best. Ingber is a pillar of Cincinnati’s Jewish community and former director of the Hillel Jewish Center at the University of Cincinnati. After helping Xavier create “A Blessing To One Another” exhibit celebrating Pope John Paul II’s connection to the Jewish people, Ingber was invited by University President Michael J. Graham, S.J., to sit on a discernment group to study what it means for Xavier to be Jesuit. To prepare, Ingber researched the Jesuits and even practiced the Spiritual Exercises created by Ignatius Loyola. In short, he did his homework. So impressed with his work, three years ago Graham invited him to take the next step and come work for Xavier. After some thought, Ingber resigned from Hillel, wrote a proposal to start the Office of Interfaith Community Engagement and was given free rein.

“Fr. Graham’s understanding was there was room for the Jesuit mission to include the genuineness to serve people of many faiths,” he says. “If we are to be transformative on campus and model what it means to engage our campus, then you have to bring everyone to the table.”

Xavier’s resident Rabbi was not the sort of full-time employee you’d expect to find on a Jesuit, Catholic campus. But he would argue he’s a good fit. “I’m doing Jesuit work,” he says.

“I’m making sure every person here at Xavier will have their whole being affirmed, not just through book learning but also through their spiritual growth and affirmation. I’m here to do that serious work.”

Officially, the mission of Ingber’s office is “to create and strengthen a sense of community among individuals of diverse faiths.” Unofficially, it’s more humane.

“We collect people,” Ingber says. “It’s an honorable pastime.”

To fulfill his mission, Ingber reaches deep into his creative well and comes up with a number of unusual events each semester, such as:

  • The Wall of Hate, which allows students to write hateful phrases on a wall that is subsequently burned to support freedom from prejudice, bigotry and oppression.
  • Different Foods, Different Faiths, which brings ethnic restaurants to campus to expose students to various cultural food traditions.
  • A Quran reading on the day a Florida pastor burned a copy.
  • A 24-hour, non-stop Bible reading in different languages.
  • A Day Without Shoes in which students went barefoot as a means of solidarity with the poor.

The most recent—and most spectacular—was a mock interfaith wedding in the center of campus designed to expose students to different traditions of Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Muslim marriage cultures. The ceremony was stitched together with a string of various ethnic foods, clothing, headdress, henna tattoos and even a groomsman arriving on a white horse.

“We want more people to see how something is celebrated in other people’s lives,” Ingber says. “Our program goal is to reach a point of celebrating with each other and being affirmed first in our spiritual identity. We try to say wherever and whoever you are, we commit that we will deepen that with you, and only when your feet are firmly planted are you able to build bridges with others. That’s what our office is all about.”

[divider]An Ecumenical Perspective [/divider]

In April, Bellarmine Chapel was rocking. Gospel and contemporary praise music whirled through the packed house. People were dancing, singing, clapping hands. God was being praised. It was exactly what Andrea Bardelmeier had in mind.

final religion_bw copyWhen Bardelmeier became the University’s first ecumenical and multi-faith minister last fall, one of her ideas was to revise “Rock the Chapel,” the “one-night, one-body, one-praise” event put on in collaboration with a variety of Christian-based student groups. “It was a pretty big event and it’s a really nice representation of the unity on campus, of Christian unity,” she says.

Which is precisely her task. While Catholics still represent the majority religious affiliation on campus at an estimated 60 percent, another 30 percent fall into the category of other Christian denominations, which include Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans and other Protestant religions. “By having my position we can do programming that’s uniquely Protestant, as well as do things that are specifically for Catholics,” Bardelmeier says. Or mixed.

Bardelmeier’s position—officially the assistant director for ecumenical and multi-faith in the Center for Faith and Justice—came to be as a result of the merger of the Office of Campus Ministry and Peace and Justice Programs last summer.

In addition, Bardelmeier has reached out to help unite Xavier’s non-Christian students by shepherding the creation of Xavier’s first Muslim Student Association and first, formal Jewish Student Organization.

“Promoting pluralism means we are able to enter into dialog with people who are different, while standing in our own truth,” says Bardelmeier. “The notion of pluralism rests on the ability to step into the shoes of another, to have empathy, and to learn from that experience without losing one’s own identity.”

[divider]An Abrahamic Perspective [/divider]

Waleed El-Ansary seems the perfect person for an intercultural, interfaith campus discourse. A dual citizen of Egypt and the United States, he peppers his speech with Arabic phrases like “Alhamdulillah” (thanks be to God) and “inshallah” (God-willing), but his childhood hero was Archie Griffin, the two-time Heisman Trophy running back at Ohio State.waleed

He graduated from a secular public high school in Washington, D.C., but went on to marry the daughter of the Grand Mufti of Egypt, the second-highest religious office in Sunni Islam.

“I feel almost like I’m a living bridge,” he says. “I’m American on the one hand, and on the other I feel very comfortable as a Muslim. I’ve been able to integrate those two identities without much tension.”

This fall, El-Ansary joins the faculty as Xavier’s first full-time Islamic scholar where he’s tasked with creating an Islamic studies program within the Department of Theology. The Abrahamic faiths of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, which share the same God and whose texts include many of the same stories, have much to share, says El-Ansary. Muslims consider Jews and Christians as “ahl al-kitab” (people of the book), and they consider Jesus Christ a prophet. St. Thomas Aquinas often quoted his Muslim contemporary, Mohammed Al-Ghazzali.

El-Ansary is finishing a five-year stint as a professor of Islamic studies and comparative religion at the University of South Carolina. He has devised a series of courses from the Hadith of Gabriel, a parable in which the Angel Gabriel visits the Prophet Mohammed and asks him about the essence of Islam. The series comprises five courses on the basics of Islam, the Quran and Hadith (the sayings of Mohammed), Islamic law, theology and mysticism. He also hopes to teach interdisciplinary courses on Islamic economics and civilization.

And he can’t wait to get started. Although the world is more interconnected than ever, he says, “In a way, we just talk more and more about less and less. A lot of the information we have about one another is really superficial. I very much look forward to collaborating with my Jewish and Christian colleagues. Having a Muslim scholar at a Catholic institution is the perfect environment for that type of deeper conversation.”

[divider]A Jesuit Perspective [/divider]

Ask a Jesuit priest why a Catholic university should be enthusiastic about having Hindu nuptials, Jewish ceremonies, readings from the Islamic Quran or any other interreligious activity take place on campus, and James Riordan, S.J., doesn’t hesitate: “It’s not only kosher, it’s absolutely the right thing to do.”

“The days of Catholic ghettos are gone,” says Riordan, the assistant director for the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice. “We can’t put up walls around the Church like a fiefdom anymore. After all, our students will, one day, go out into the world and work side-by-side with others of other faiths.”

_GER9644Preparing students for the real world is just part of the equation, Riordan says. Fostering an open interchange of discussions and beliefs is critical to mutual understanding and peace, not to mention that it fits perfectly within the role of higher education. “Like my mother always said, the truth always comes to the light,” he says.

When it comes to an active interfaith exchange, a willingness to explore diverse viewpoints can strengthen all those involved. An obvious benefit of interchange is the potential of engaging newcomers.

The question of interreligious dialogue is no mere academic pondering to Riordan. “Jesuits are an interesting species,” he says, noting that members of the Society of Jesus were once dispatched as missionaries to new frontiers. “Now, those frontiers are right here in the United States, on our own multicultural campuses.”

When it comes to outreach—especially in the context of campus ministry—universities of all stripes should offer a safe, supportive place for frank discussion and exploration, he says. From a Jesuit standpoint, this pluralistic perspective becomes particularly relevant.

“The University is not here to stifle, but to encourage expressions of truth,” Riordan says. “Yes, it’s always important that we represent the Catholic faith in its fullest, [but] if you are truly unafraid about being Catholic, there’s no reason to fear other faiths.”

Riordan, who works with Bardelmeier’s ecumenical team that creates prayer opportunities for the entire student body, also oversees a multi-faith area that serves as a resource center for various communities of practice. And, all this is balanced with Riordan’s own vocation group that offers students the opportunity to mull the possibility of a religious vocation within the Catholic Church, as well as a Catholic identity team that reflects on the tenets of the faith and spiritual navigation.

“The Catholic Church continues to pray for unity between other Christian faiths and hopes for a day when we will all be one Catholic Church,” he says. “A significant part of such a hope is to create a place for dialogue and trust. It is in trust and dialogue that the Catholic Church and those of other faiths can find a voice and a place to listen and learn from one another.”

Help for Humans

Tammy Wynn was driving to a crematorium to retrieve her father’s remains in 2004. En route, she was praying and reflecting on her father’s life when her thoughts shifted to her beloved cat, Cagney, who died a year earlier. While she found plenty of support during her father’s death, she had to suffer through Cagney’s death all alone. Pet owners, she thought, could benefit from the same kind of hospice-style care provided to humans and the families of their terminally ill loved ones.

“Home hospice on the human side was so amazing,” she says. “I realized how amazing it would be to have the same service for pets and their owners.”

Wynn, a licensed social worker with a master’s degree in hospital and health administration from Xavier, soon took a job at Hospice of Cincinnati to learn more about the end-of-life care business for humans and also began taking classes to become a registered veterinary technician. With that knowledge, she opened Angel’s Paws, a hospice-style pet loss counseling and cremation business in Cincinnati, last year.

Wynn serves any type of animal-—her most exotic pet clients have included a monkey and an African gray parrot. No matter what the animal, she admits it’s tough when they die.

To help, she offers some helpful tips:

1. Cuddle something furry.

2. Cry.

3. Do something. Focus on a task so you don’t dwell on the loss.

4. Count your blessings. Good things are still happening in your life.

5. Eat something. Grief burns energy and you need fuel.

6. Avoid irrevocable decisions. If you can’t stand the sight of your pet’s toys, don’t throw them away. Put them in a box out of sight.

7. Think of the special moments shared with your pet, not its final moments.

8. Be honest with yourself. Losing a beloved pet is a big loss. You’re not weak, crazy or overly sentimental to feel sad.

9. Make a decision to work through your grief. You can’t control whether or not you grieve, but you can decide whether you let grief control you.