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By Arlene Edmonds
Special to the CS&T

Philip Cunningham believes that there are many advantages to interreligious dialogue. As director of Saint Joseph University’s Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations and a professor of Catholic and Jewish Relations, he sees opening the channels of communications between the two faiths as all positive. Consequently, the institute periodically holds open forums where the community is invited to hear this exchange.

“A Public Dialogue: Contemporary Questions about Covenant(s) and Conversion” brought Cambridge University’s Edward Kessler to the institute recently. Cunningham sat down with Kessler for two hours in Mandeville Hall Room 103 to discuss sometimes controversial issues.

They explored whether Catholics should pray for the conversion of Jews, whether the purpose of interreligious dialogue is to lead others to Christianity, and whether Catholics should undertake non-coercive “missions” to Jews. They also touched on how the Biblical concept of “covenant” is understood in the Jewish and Catholic traditions and in terms of their interrelationship.

“I think the conversation went very well,” said Cunningham. “I was pleased that Dr. Kessler gave a presentation on many of the issues surrounding covenant. He gave a good understanding of the things that happen in Catholic conversion. Ever since the Second Vatican Council it has opened the way to improve relations between Jews and Catholics. We realize that we are both interested in the same challenging questions. There’s a lot of maturity in this regard, and as a Catholic university we are proud we are moving forward in this (dialogue).”

Kessler is a leading thinker in interfaith relations, primarily contemporary Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations. He is the founding director of the Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths and a fellow at St. Edmund’s College in Cambridge. In this capacity he also serves as the executive director of the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations and the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Muslim Relations. He is the author or editor of nine books and some 26 articles. He is the co-editor of “A dictionary of Jewish-Christian Relations.”

The Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at St. Joseph’s University was founded in 1967. Its mission flows from the Catholic and Ignatian identity of the Jesuit university. The institute seeks to increase knowledge and deepen understanding between the Jewish and Catholic communities. In keeping with the contemporary Ignatian vision of “educating men and women for others,” the institute is guided by the university’s commitment to spirit, intellect and purpose.

“Many people are not aware that this institute has been in existence for over 40 years,” said Cunningham. “We are the second largest institute of this kind that I know of, and it was Father Donald Clifford who shepherded this program It came at a time when there were positive changes happening as far as interreligious dialogue. The institute allows for both resources and curricular that helps facilitate the networking with interfaith centers around the country and overseas. This has a great impact on this campus.”

Cunningham said that he hopes more come to realize that interfaith dialogue only increases awareness of one’s own faith. He said that it goes beyond ecumenical dialogue among Christians to embrace the other faiths, particularly Judaism, that has much comparability with the Catholic faith. “Both communities are trying to fulfill their responsibility towards God,” Cunningham said. “There is no need to be estranged form each other. In fact, we can collaborate offering each other assistance and mutual encouragement.”

To view the Sunday, Jan. 11, discourse between Cunningham and Kessler online visit http://www.sju.edu/academics/centers/ijcr/archives/index.html.

Arlene Edmonds is a freelance writer and St. Raymond of Penafort parishioner. She may be reached at ArleneEdmonds@aol.com.