LET ETERNAL LIGHT SHINE UPON THEM
Oh, oh you are probably saying to yourself reading the above caption. Yet another, third priest has died! Not so. Last Wednesday night I was honored to participate in the latest Eternal Light Award Dinner sponsored by the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies located at St. Leo University. The center which has now been in existence for longer than a decade was originally the brainchild of a Jewish Rabbi, James A. Rudin, for many years deeply involved in the intricacies of interreligious dialogue. He approached me to inquire if I thought that St. Leo (“College” then, but on the cusp of becoming a “University”) would be a good home for a deep Southern center for extending the dialogue between Jews and Catholics. I told him that the future of St. Leo was not all that certain at that moment but that I felt that the new University President, Dr. Arthur Kirk, Jr. would be receptive. Rabbi Rudin had been referred to me by Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore who has no equal in American Catholic history to date for his engagement in Jewish-Catholic relations. Rabbi Rudin, often a colleague of Cardinal Keeler’s in those dicey moments of the early dialogue (the Auschwitz convent, Vatican recognition of Israel, etc.) had developed a reputation with Bishop John Nevins, Bishop Emeritus of Venice to our south, who had begun an annual dinner of Jews and Catholics in his diocese.
Over the years, the Center has grown but Jewish-Catholic understanding in this area has grown by leaps and bounds. Going out on a limb somewhat, I would say that my closest non-Catholic minister friend in this area is Rabbi Jacob Lusky and his wife JoAnn who have made me welcome in their synagogue, their home for Passover, and their family life. His synagogue is hundreds of feet from my Cathedral and he was present for my ordination, on a Friday and almost stretching into his own sacred time. Jacob has educated me to the intense feelings which our Jewish brothers and sisters feel when they feel slighted or worse by people who they identify as Catholics. And I have shared with Jacob and his congregants my uneasiness that they of all people should be more with us as we decry abortion-on-request in the United States and attempt, like they, an increasingly expensive private, religious school system. At the personal and ministerial level, I have come to a deeper understand and love of my Jewish sisters and brothers through my meetings and dialogues with religious leaders in this area. But it is not always easy when dealing with the Jewish faith to calculate and understand the differences in their three distinct representations. They probably find it significantly easier to deal with one Catholic bishop than I do on occasion with reformed, conservative and orthodox. I have learned not to be daunted by the challenges of the dialogue but to embrace them.
On Wednesday night, the Center gave their “Eternal Light” award to two parishioners of Christ the King parish in Tampa and to Doctor Kirk. Paul and Gail Whiting give much back to the community in which they live and Gail was one of the first Catholic directors on the Board of the Center when it began, at my “ask.” Paul, when he had retired from his very successful business life came to see me to ask what he might do to help me and I recommended that a new initiative seeking grounding in Tampa which I had a hand in establishing in Pinellas could use his wisdom and insight. He remains today as the first and only Chairman of the Board of Academy Prep in Tampa which takes in at-risk African-American children and works educational wonders with them. Whether it is their work in their parish, their community, or the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies, this couple allows the light of their faith to illuminate the faith, fate and hope of others.
The same can be said of Dr. Kirk who made a home for the center at St. Leo, now on firmer ground under his leadership as an educational institution of higher learning. Commitment counts and Art Kirk has remained committed to this interreligious center for dialogue and greater understanding. Dr. Kirk and Deacon William Dietweg noted that this year’s awards were being given on the exact 45th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s incredible document entitled Nostra Aetate which moved our Church to recognize the fundamental reality that all religions which lead to God have a role and place to play in the salvation story.
Congratulations Gail, Paul and Art and to you, Rabbi Rudin and to those who participate in this worthy endeavor. May eternal light always shine upon you.