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.
An Interfaith Perspective
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.
“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.”
An Ecumenical Perspective
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.
When 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.”
An Abrahamic Perspective
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.
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.”
A Jesuit Perspective
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.”
Preparing 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.”