Contributed by Stan Zygmunt, Director of News and Media Relations, The University of Scranton
A travel course meant to engage students in the present-day lives of Christians living in the Holy Land has led to a new perspective regarding the ancient religious texts researched by The University of Scranton Theology Associate Professor Michael G. Azar, Ph.D. Here, he shares how his course, Christianity in the Middle East, deepened his theological scholarship in unexpected ways.
“The focus of my scholarly work has mostly been the Biblical and patristic periods, but I started this travel course because I was also interested in current Jewish-Christian relations in the Holy Land,” Dr. Azar said. “Now, the contemporary experience informs my scholarship in ways I didn’t really expect. The book I am currently writing on Orthodox Christianity and Jewish-Christian relations focuses not just on ancient theological sources, but also incorporates contemporary Christian-Jewish interaction in the Holy Land.” He never thought he’d be doing both in the same project.
Dr. Azar’s early research focused on the New Testament and the way Christians and Jews interacted with one another in the first few centuries after Jesus.
His first book, “Exegeting the Jews: The Early Reception of the Johannine ‘Jews’” (Brill, 2016), examined Greek patristic readings of the “Jews” of St. John’s Gospel.
Through his research, Dr. Azar began to realize that much scholarly work has focused on Jewish-Christian relations from Western perspectives. What he found missing was the interaction that has existed in the Holy Land for the past 1,500 years.
“I am focusing on ways Orthodox Christians in the region continue to interact with or speak about Jews in the period between the early church to the founding of the State of Israel,” Dr. Azar said. “Since the 600s, Christians and Jews in the Eastern Mediterranean region have generally shared the experience of living as subjected communities. In Western civilization, Christians were the dominant community. When you shift the focus to that of Eastern Christians living with Jews as subjected communities, that changes your perspective. With the State of Israel, Jews, for the first time in centuries, are the dominant community.”
Dr. Azar is a deacon in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and a National Endowment for the Humanities Faculty Fellow at the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University. He also is among the organizers planning the 11th bilateral dialogue between Orthodox Christians and Jews planned for late 2022.
Dr. Azar’s parents are from Lebanon, so the Christian communities in the Middle East have always been part of his background, but not part of his scholarly work. During his dissertation research as a doctoral student at Fordham, Dr. Azar spent some time in Jerusalem. There for a few months, he had the opportunity to interact with local Christian communities. He also noticed that most tours of the Holy Land lacked this interaction and did not benefit these communities. That planted a seed in his mind for a travel course.
“The pilgrimages focused on Jesus, but not the people living there who bear his name,” he said, noting that the tour groups “treat the Holy Land as a museum, visit the prominent sites only and do not interact with the local Christians who live there.”
Dr. Azar designed the travel course at Scranton to overcome that critical missing piece.
“The travel course, Christianity in the Middle East, does take students to the holy sites, but the main focus is to allow the students to get to know the local Christian communities,” Dr. Azar said. Not only their history and statistics, he adds, but also their everyday lives. “We visit with Christians operating nonprofits,” he explained. “We also visit a Christian-founded brewery. By doing this, we introduce ourselves not only to local Christians but more broadly to Palestinian culture as well, because the vast majority of Christians living there are Palestinian.”
Dr. Azar notes that until he started the course a few years after arriving at Scranton, his research focused on ancient texts. Through this course, though, he began to realize that contemporary relationships have a tremendous effect on the way scholars understand the ancient world.
His current project, “Orthodox Christianity and the Reframing of Christian-Jewish Relations,” examines the ways in which Orthodox Christianity’s history, hermeneutics and contemporary expression in Palestine and Israel can redefine the academic field of Christian-Jewish relations. His research is supported through a Faculty Fellowship at the Gail and Francis Slattery Center for the Ignatian Humanities at The University of Scranton and through a Confraternity of Christian Doctrine Grant from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Biblical Association.
Dr. Azar’s travel course is also having a ripple effect with his students. Sofia Zingone, a philosophy major at Scranton and a student fellow at Scranton’s Gail and Francis Slattery Center for the Ignatian Humanities, participated in the travel course in January of 2020. Now a junior, she is working on a project to explore ways to incorporate the Christian community into tours of Bethlehem.
“The course Christianity in the Middle East, which included my travel to Jerusalem with Fr. Azar, was the inspiration for my project,” Zingone said. “The most touching part of the trip was when Fr. Azar took us to a Greek Orthodox Mass spoken completely in Arabic. Connecting with the community of this church was very moving, and after Mass, we spoke with members of the community over coffee. It was truly amazing to spend time with a Christian community in the Holy Land, a place so important to the Christian traditions. Being able to talk and relate to Christians from a very different part of the world was a unique and genuine experience.”
Contributed by the Office of University Marketing and Communications at Saint Louis University
In July 2003, fine art photographer Tom Kiefer started working part-time as a janitor and groundskeeper at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility near Ajo, Arizona. In mid-2007, he was given permission to collect food confiscated from migrants and asylum seekers and donate it to a local food pantry. He was deeply moved at finding personal belongings in the trash bins along with the food. These items, necessary for hygiene, comfort and survival, were deemed “non-essential” or “potentially lethal” and seized and discarded by officials. Kiefer began to quietly rescue what items he could, and he resigned from his job in August 2014 to focus on photographing and documenting them in an ongoing project titled El Sueño Americano / The American Dream.
Kiefer approaches the objects he photographs without pretense. The people who carried these items to the Mexico-U.S. border are bodily absent, but their stories are encoded in the objects, so that Kiefer’s “portraits” of individual objects prompt viewers to imagine the lives and journeys of the people who carried them. Meanwhile, his “mass assemblies” evoke both the great numbers of people arriving from diverse points of origin and the failure of convoluted immigration policies and systems.
Pertenencias / Belongings places Kiefer’s photographs within a broader consideration of the human need to migrate, driven by the need not only to survive, but to flourish in body, mind and spirit. This human drive often draws on the power of hope and faith, which are reflected and manifested in many of the objects Kiefer documents. The exhibition invites reflection on what it means to possess and what it means to lose, and what it means to belong: how we define who is included and who is excluded, how we distinguish between the sacred and the ordinary, and how those boundaries are enforced.
Pertenencias / Belongings features 80 photographs, many newly created for the exhibition, and 6 mantas bordadas (embroidered textiles) selected from among the dozens of handcrafted cloths Kiefer recovered at the CBP facility. A significant feature of the exhibition is a series of photographs of backpacks that evoke the Christian devotional practice of the Stations of the Cross. Backpacks are an essential element of the migrant journey, and Kiefer found a compelling connection between Jesus carrying his cross and migrants carrying all their worldly possessions on their backs across the desert. As visitors walk the perimeter of the gallery—which was originally a chapel—contemplating each backpack, they will engage a rhythm of movement and meditation similar to the traditional Stations of the Cross.
About the Artist: Tom Kiefer (b. 1959, Wichita, KS) is an artist based in Ajo, Arizona. Kiefer’s photographic projects explore the infrastructure and cultural landscapes of the United States, blending fine art and documentary modes. His previous project Journey West Exhibit (2007) chronicled the landscape, structures, and cultural markers connecting the Arizona cities of Phoenix, Tucson, and Ajo. Kiefer’s work has been exhibited across the US, including the Fuller Craft Museum (Boston, MA); the Saugatuck Center for the Arts (Saugatuck, MI); the Northlight Gallery at Arizona State University (Phoenix, AZ); ArtsXchange (St. Petersburg, FL); and ArtPrize 2018 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In 2015, Kiefer was included in LensCulture’s Top 50 Emerging Photographers and Photolucida’s Top 50 Critical Mass lists, and has been featured in news publications nationally and internationally.
This article was originally published on slu.edu.
Contributed by Taylor Ha, Senior Staff Writer and Videographer, Fordham University
In her new book, “Kindred Spirits: Friendship and Resistance at the Edges of Modern Catholicism,” Brenna Moore, Ph.D., professor of theology at Fordham University, explores an international network of “20th-century Catholic movers and shakers” who resisted forms of oppression and sustained their work through friendship.
These Catholic historians, theologians, poets and activists fought against issues in the early to mid-1900s that still exist today, said Moore, including European xenophobia and racism in the United States. Among them are Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay and Gabriela Mistral, the first Nobel prize laureate from Latin America. Their friendships with like-minded colleagues took place not only in person, but also in other forms of consciousness, like memory, imagination and prayer. In this Q&A, Moore describes how these spiritual friendships fueled their activism and how today’s activists can learn from their predecessors who lived more than a century ago.
How is your book relevant to today’s world?
The people in my book took stands on many issues that are still with us today. For example, poet Claude McKay was a Black Catholic who wrote prolifically about police brutality and white “friends” who are sympathetic with their Black friends, yet do nothing to help. He wrote about this more than 80 years ago in ways that are remarkably descriptive of our own time. Another example is in chapter three, where I write about a group of activists who countered anti-Islamic sentiment among Catholics and tried to come up with a more humane and sophisticated way of understanding Islam. Many of these issues continue to assail us today, but they were engaged very creatively by this early generation of activists and thinkers. As we work today to create a more inclusive world, we don’t have to start from scratch. We should look at some of the experiments that took place in the earlier part of the last century and learn from their mistakes and successes.
What can they teach us about navigating today’s politics?
It’s really tough to engage in today’s politics. But the Catholic activists were very clear and convinced that to do the difficult work of political solidarity and making a change in the world, you have to be energized and animated by feelings of love, support, joy, pleasure and interpersonal connection. They were very explicit that friendship was the fuel for their work. Their political organizations included the word amitié, which means friendship in French. Their political work, art and writing, and even their religious lives were sustained by what they called “spiritual friendship.” There was no way to do their work without that.
Do they have any advice about negotiating one’s faith?
There are those of us—myself included—who have a complicated relationship with Roman Catholicism. We are members of the Catholic church, yet we are disappointed by the church hierarchy and clerical culture, especially in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis. But these Catholic artists and activists also felt, at times, incredible disappointment and frustration with their church leadership. They often spoke out against racism, European colonialism and anti-Semitism, in contrast to a church leadership that too often stayed silent, advocated obedience or upheld violent societal structures. They reclaimed our Catholic heritage and made it more multicultural and just, and they point a way forward for people who might feel similarly today.
Spiritual friendship was an important part of the activists’ lives. How did they maintain those relationships? And how did they enhance their work?
I discovered this world of friendship while reviewing some historical archives. I found some of the activists’ files, and I could see and touch all the letters that they wrote to their friends. But they weren’t simply letters. Many had sacred objects tucked inside: holy medallions, little crosses made of twigs, pictures that they painted or drew. There was a sacred materiality to both the letters and objects. Letters to friends weren’t just a casual thing—this was how holiness was communicated to one another, in these things that were touched, felt, and mailed back and forth, sometimes across the Atlantic.
One friendship I might highlight is the friendship between Gabriela Mistral, a poet who became the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and Jacques Maritain, a Catholic philosopher. They first met in Paris, where people gathered from all over the world. Gabriela was a writer who was seeking intellectual collaboration in the interwar period. She became friends with Jacques, who shared similar values, including rejecting typical heterosexual matrimony and having children. Jacques was married to a woman, but they shared a vow of celibacy and never had children. Gabriela was a gay woman who never married and raised the son of a family member who had died. They both lived their lives in disjunction from the mainstream family norms at the time.
Gabriela was very involved in bringing Jacques’ ideas about democracy and antifascism for Catholics into Latin America. She ensured that his publications were translated into Spanish and disseminated in Chilean universities, seminaries and bookstores and helped to develop a more liberal Catholicism during this period. Her name is hidden in the history of Catholic thought, whereas Jacques is very famous. But it is through their friendship, especially their long-distance correspondence, that his ideas became internationalized.
How does your book connect to Fordham and its Jesuit mission?
I believe the women and men in my book model the kind of Catholicism that Fordham would be proud of. They shared a passion for connecting with the long roots of the Catholic heritage, but in a way that cultivated openness to difference and courage to disrupt the status quo. These men and women took personal risks to live lives of solidarity with those who were vulnerable in the 20th century. This is the kind of faith we talk about a lot at Fordham.
You’ve said that these friendships were sustained over long distances and long periods of time. Did that remind you of our attempts to stay connected during the pandemic?
Many of my characters had close friendships, but they spent years apart. Some were sent into exile in Brazil; others returned to Harlem during World War II. Yet they sustained friendships over long periods of time through the realm of memory, imagination and correspondence. It was possible for them to sustain friendships that weren’t face to face, the way many of us did during the pandemic, and that was comforting to me.
What is a key takeaway from your book, especially for a non-religious audience?
The people in this past world, although chronologically distant from us, address many issues that face us today. They were often critical of the church, state and racist institutions, but they experimented with other modes of belonging, connection and solidarity.
Some of their utopian experiments failed, and they didn’t always live up to the ideals they had for themselves. One example is Maison Simone Weil, founded in 1962 by Nazi resistor Marie-Magdeleine Davy. It was a utopian international dormitory and summer community where students from all over the world would gather in rural France to discuss many of the pressing ideas of the 1960s: peace, war, global spirituality, existentialism. The goal was to forge relationships among international students and contribute to peacemaking. It was a successful project while it lasted, but shuttered its doors after only a few years.
Yet the activists in my book constantly experimented with alternative modes of living, in connection to one another and to God. These are people who attempted to change the world because they were dissatisfied with the status quo—the way many of us still are today.
This article was originally published in Fordham News.
Contributed by Jeannine Carolan Graf, ‘87, Fairfield University
Fairfield University President Mark R. Nemec, Ph.D., offered the welcoming address at an international conference in November that commemorated the life and work of St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J., the University’s patron saint. During this time, he also met with Rev. Arturo Sosa, S.J., superior general of the Society of Jesus.
The Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome was the co-sponsor with Fairfield for this theological colloquium.
Entitled “Rethinking Bellarmine Between Theology, Philosophy and History,” the three-day conference, held from November 17 to 19, commemorated the 400th anniversary of the death of St. Bellarmine (1621-2021), a professor and rector-president of the Jesuit’s Roman College—forerunner of the Gregorian—in the century after the death of St. Ignatius. Bellarmine was an Italian Jesuit and cardinal of the Catholic Church and a notable figure during the Counter-Reformation. He was canonized in 1930.
In his welcoming remarks to the assembly of scholars from around the globe, Dr. Nemec shared his vision of a Jesuit and Catholic university, drawing on the tradition of St. Bellarmine.
“I would suggest one important lesson we take from the life and work of St. Robert Bellarmine is the duality of a higher education: that it is ever-evolving and ever-true,” Dr. Nemec said. “It is value-based, student-centric and outcomes-focused, preparing young men and women of purpose ad majorem Dei gloriam.”
The colloquium concluded with the celebration of vespers at the Church of Sant’Ignazio and the incensing of the altar, where the relics of St. Bellarmine are held.
During the trip, Dr. Nemec met with Rev. Douglas W. Marcouiller, S.J., general counselor and U.S. regional assistant at the Jesuit Curia in Rome, and Rev. Arturo Sosa, S.J., superior general of the Society of Jesus. Dr. Nemec was accompanied on the trip by Rev. Gerry Blaszczak, S.J., assistant to the president and alumni chaplain. While there, they also toured the Church of the Gesù where St. Ignatius of Loyola’s remains are preserved, and were granted special access to the private rooms where St. Ignatius lived during his decades in Rome.
In their meetings, Fr. Marcouiller and Fr. Sosa discussed with Dr. Nemec how the Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus have been incorporated into Fairfield’s Magis Core Curriculum, as well as programs offered by the Murphy Center for Ignatian Spirituality. Also discussed were Fairfield’s plan for a new academic unit that would serve students from low-income and under-represented families, primarily in the surrounding Bridgeport region, Fr. Blaszczak said.
This article was originally published on www.fairfield.edu.
By Jenny Smulson, Vice President of Government Relations, AJCU
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” says a popular Christmas song. For many, it is! In their personal lives, people are happily busy—celebrating holidays with lights and candles, decorating homes, trimming trees, searching for meaningful gifts…much of it in anticipation of the upcoming holiday or on the heels of one. Our Jesuit colleges and universities are marking Advent with choral concerts and festivities in anticipation of the joyful Christmas holiday season.
There is great anticipation on Capitol Hill too, but of a different kind—the hold-your-breath, maybe-not-the-most-wonderful-time-of-the-year kind for those working in the Capitol. If you follow Congress, then you know that members of the House and Senate are also busy. Their work is more stressful and less joy-filled. In a high-stakes, high-pressure environment, they are trying to advance must-pass legislation before the New Year.
Fiscal Year 2022 funding: The federal fiscal year expired on September 30th. As in years past, the House and Senate did not complete action on the fiscal year 2022 (FY’22) legislation and instead passed a “continuing resolution” (CR), thus keeping the government open and funded at the current fiscal year funding levels through December 3rd.
At the end of last week, Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate had yet to come to the table to resolve the FY’22 funding differences. (The House Democrats have passed their appropriations bills, and the Senate Democrats have released draft legislation. Republicans in the House and Senate have not put forward any counterproposals to date). To avoid a government shutdown, Congress passed a second CR extending government funding through February 18th. Passing the CRs keeps the government functioning, but the CRs extend the funding levels proposed by the Trump administration.
What’s included in the FY’22 education funding bill? That legislation includes a $400 increase in the maximum Pell Grant along with other key investments in federal education programs. Significantly, the 13 appropriations bills are must-pass legislation. These bills keep our federal government operating. If the appropriations bills are not passed by February 18th, then Congress must pass another CR, or the government will shut down.
Build Back Better (BBB): What else is keeping Congress busy? Democrats in the House and Senate continue to negotiate a FY’22 budget reconciliation bill. Build Back Better (BBB) is a human infrastructure investment proposal that provides resources for childcare, universal pre-K, Pell Grants (a proposed $550 increase to the Pell maximum) and other policy areas intended to support people/families in their effort to get back on track in our near post-pandemic world.
The House Democrats passed a $1.7 trillion proposal and sent that package to the Senate. In the Senate, Democrats continue to debate specific provisions and overall funding levels. Because no Republicans support BBB, the Democrats need to assure that every single member of their party is on board, in full support of the bill…or it cannot pass.
Is budget reconciliation a must-pass bill? Not exactly. The government will stay open whether or not BBB passes, but the Democrats have a lot at stake in this bill—and it’s a must-pass for them in terms of advancing President Biden’s agenda and fulfilling his vision for our national recovery.
Both these bills include significant plus-ups for valuable programs that, if passed and signed into law, would make post-secondary study more accessible and affordable and would ensure greater completion. The increases to Pell, both of which we hope to see enacted this year, would be a down payment on a Biden administration campaign “promise” and a higher education community goal of doubling the maximum federal Pell Grant from $6,495 to $13,000.
Debt ceiling: You have likely heard the term “debt ceiling” in the news lately. According to a White House white paper, “the debt limit is a ceiling imposed by Congress on the amount of debt that the U.S. Federal government can have outstanding. Once the debt limit is hit, the Federal government cannot increase the amount of outstanding debt; therefore, it can only draw from any cash on hand and spend its incoming revenues. Because the United States has never defaulted on its obligations, the scope of the negative repercussions of not satisfying all Federal obligations due to the debt limit are unknown; it is expected to be widespread and catastrophic for the U.S. (and global) economy.”
What are the real-life impacts of breaching the debt ceiling? Financial crisis, credit downgrade, interest penalties, recession, unemployment and non-payment of safety net programs like Social Security. According to the Congressional Research Service, since World War II, Congress has enacted 98 debt limit modifications. These have mostly been bipartisan votes. With the debt ceiling projected to be reached around mid-December, this is another critical must-pass piece of legislation that Congress must resolve as soon as possible.
The Senate is currently debating the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2022. The NDAA provides the framework for spending at the Department of Defense. While not an education bill, it includes some provisions that will have an impact on colleges and universities. The NDAA is first in line to advance (it is pending Senate business), and the other legislation mentioned will follow the NDAA. While it does not have to be passed by the end of the year, it traditionally has been.
Passing one bill can be a challenge, especially in a charged, political environment. Passing all these bills by the deadlines that are internally or externally imposed—well, that might require a miracle. The Jesuit Global website describes Advent as a season of waiting with hopeful expectation. It serves as a good description of our longing for Congress to come together and advance legislation that will direct resources to students with demonstrated economic need, putting us on a path towards equity and opportunity.