A new church in Berba, Egypt

After five years of collaborative effort and patience, a new church has finally opened its doors in the village of Berba in rural Upper Egypt, where the Congregation of the Sisters of Sion have been present for 25 years. Sister Jackie Chenard, who lives in Berba, was joined for the occasion by Sr. Darlene De Mong and Sr. Victoria Nabil who is originally from the village.

Bishop Botros celebrated the first mass in the new church.

Bishop Botros of the Diocese of El Minya carried out the official inauguration, to the great applause of all those who had come to take part at the opening. Many people had embarked on a four-hour journey home from Cairo to be there.

Local people contributed to the new church’s construction in different ways. Some donated money, whilst others gave hands-on help with building works such as mixing cement. One woman gave the church her wedding ring to sell to raise funds for the project. She brushed off protests, saying it was all she and her husband had to give, and they would just get a cheap one to replace it.

Muslim neighbours were extremely patient and put up graciously with much disturbance while the site was under construction. They came to offer their congratulations on the afternoon of the opening, and were welcomed in to share food and drinks.

The week after the opening, Bishop Botros stayed in Berba for four days and he, the parish priest Abouna Ibrahim, and a man from the parish visited every Christian home in the village. Every day, different families invited them, along with Sr. Jackie, for lunch and dinner.

The church was full for the blessing.

As she walked to these houses with the bishop and priest, Sr. Jackie was moved by the priest’s warm interaction with the Muslims they met on the street. Interfaith relations have been cultivated in the village over the years, and are expressed in many ways, from simple gestures of good will to socially impactful initiatives. Christians and Muslims habitually exchange greetings on each other’s feast days. And they meet at a Developmental Centre run by the diocese with activities open to all local people, including six kindergarten classes, and trips to get to socialize with each other.

The following week was Holy Week in Egypt’s Coptic Church, and saw a continuous influx of people through the new church doors. Sr. Jackie and three other Sisters of Sion joined the celebrations and were delighted to hear the church bells once again sounding the presence of this strong and faithful Christian community.

 

Vocations gathering in Kansas City, USA

This April, three members of the Sisters of Sion Canada/US Vocations Team took part in a five-day initiative organized in collaboration with Notre Dame de Sion School in Kansas City. The purpose was to reflect on the charism of Sion and the theme of vocation: the many ways in which God calls us.

Sister Celia Deutsch and two Sion Associates, Alisha Pomazon and Stephanie Pino-Dressmann, worked with students, faculty, administrators and trustees of the school in an integrated programme of reflection, conversation and service projects.

 

A briefing session for “Project Uplift”.

Social action

In Project Uplift, the Vocations Team joined high school students in sorting clothes to be distributed, along with food, among the people who live under the city’s bridges. All workers on Project Uplift are volunteers and the materials are donations. Some volunteers serve as drivers who deliver cooked meals, clothing and other three nights a week, forming relationships with the people they serve.

 

 

 

“Giving the Basics” with the Kansas City Interfaith Youth Alliance.

On another day, the Sion people helped the Kansas City Interfaith Youth Alliance – of which Notre Dame de Sion School is a member – package several thousand laundry soap pods for Giving the Basics, an organisation founded by Sion parent Teresa Hamilton. Conscious of the dignity of each person, Giving the Basics serves the poor by supplying necessities such as shampoo, laundry soap and toilet paper to organizations working with the homeless.

 

 

 

 

Vocation stories

At Notre Dame de Sion School, Sister Celia and Alisha held sessions with all the theology classes to share the stories of how they were drawn to the Sion way of life.

Alisha grew up in the poorest neighborhood in Regina, Saskatchewan, in western Canada. She first learned the values of social justice through participating in her elementary school’s nutrition program. This awareness developed in high school, through fulfillment of the requirement for volunteer work. Alisha discovered her passion for teaching while she was a doctoral student.

Then, while she was a beginning professor at St. Thomas More College/University of Saskatchewan, a campus minister pointed out that her life was in teaching, and that the students needed her. The minister challenged Alisha to recognize that. Alisha told the Sion students, “I knew that God was speaking through her.”

Sr Celia and Alisha shared their vocation stories.

Celia grew up in Springfield, Illinois, USA. She was first attracted to religious life in elementary school by the example of one of the sisters who taught her. Gradually, she began to understand religious life as giving oneself to God in a way that is absolute. Celia comes from an interfaith family, with a Catholic mother and a Jewish father and so, when she learned of Sion’s vocation tounderstanding and reconciliation between Christians and Jews, and its focus on the Word of God, it seemed like a natural step to ask to enter the Congregation.

Celia lives Sion’s charism in Brooklyn, NY, in a neighborhood that includes large numbers of Jews, as well as immigrant Muslim and Catholic families. She combines grassroots and organizational interfaith work with research and writing, as research scholar at Barnard College/Columbia University.

 

Curiousity and reflection

After the presentations, the students and faculty asked thought-provoking questions: How do you respond to controversial issues, especially if you disagree with official Church teaching? Both of you wear symbols (Celia’s NDS cross and Alisha’s moon necklace); what do these mean? What is the content of Alisha’s course on Monsters and how does this relate to her vocation? Why does Celia like studying and writing about Philo of Alexandria? How does that reflect her vocation?

One of the teachers pointed out that, even though he had been at most of the eight sessions, the talks had been different each time. Alisha explained the reason for this: “Every presentation,” she said, “helped us see ourselves from new angles, every question helped us go a little deeper. ”

 

An inspiring experience

The Vocations Team came away inspired by the passion for Sion’s mission evident during their five-day stay, and buoyed by the ways in which the Kansas City Sion family had taught them more about the gift of vocation and Sion’s charism.

From left to right: Alisha Pomazan, Stephanie Pino-Dressmann and Celia Deutsch.

 

Reappraising the Pharisees

The May 7-9 conference at the Gregorian University, entitled “Jesus and the Pharisees: an interdisciplinary reappraisal,” aimed to challenge negative stereotypes that have built up over the centuries about the Pharisees, inviting Christians to take a more appreciative look based on the results of modern Biblical scholarship.

The conference featured scholars from both the Jewish and Christian traditions from Argentina, Austria, Canada, Colombia, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, and the United States, and Sister Clare Jardine of the Sion Congregational Leadership Team participated in all three days.

The Pharisees were an ancient Jewish religious movement that more or less disappeared almost 2,000 years ago, and are seen today as having laid the intellectual, legal and ritual basis for modern Judaism.

Carmelite Father Craig Morrison opened the academic proceedings.

The conference first dealt with the possible origins and meanings of the name “Pharisee” in different languages. It then examined the various ancient sources about the Pharisees: Josephus, Qumran, archaeological data, the New Testament, and Rabbinic literature.

After a round table discussion of the results concerning the “historical” Pharisees, the second part of the conference was devoted to the history of interpretation and its effects, from Patristic literature, to Medieval Jewish interpretations, to passion plays, films, religion text books, and homiletics.

Although the word “Pharisee” means “one who is separated for a life of purity” (derived from the Hebrew: פרוש parush), the term is commonly used derogatively to denote a self-righteous or hypocritical person. In his presentation, Carmelite Father Craig Morrison said “Often in preaching and teaching, we’re unaware of the caricature we create about this most interesting group of religious people.” The academic proceedings concluded by looking at possible ways to represent the Pharisees less inadequately in the future.

Sister Clare Jardine met Pope Francis during a private audience.

Sister Clare said that it was very stimulating to listen to in-depth research on this important topic, and hoped that “bringing together international scholarship of Jews and Christians will give an impetus to revising the current general portrayal of the Pharisees.”

The conference reached a crescendo on Thursday with a private audience with Pope Francis. The event also marked the 110th anniversary of the founding of the Pontifical Biblical Institute by Pope Pius X in 1909.

Education for Action: the urgency of interreligious leadership for global good

The power of interfaith leadership in bringing about positive change in global challenges was the focus of the panel Sister Lucy Thorson from Canada took part in at the international Education for Action conference in Rome.

The interactive panel at the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue.

The event, attended by over 150 people, marked the 10th anniversary of the Interreligious Program at the John Paul II Center of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. It involved leaders on interreligious dialogue from the USA, Canada, Palestine, Holland, and Rome, whose interfaith experience spans Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, among others.

Sister Lucy was on an interactive panel that debated how interfaith leaders can move from study to practice, activate networks, and instigate impactful actions that address current global challenges.

Alongside Lucy were: Huda Abuarquob, Regional Director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace; Aart Bos, CEO of MasterPeace; and Joyce Dubensky, CEO of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, who also acted as moderator.

The speakers: Joyce Dubensky, Aart Bos, Huda Abuarquob and Lucy Thorson.

The panel explored the question: how can knowledge about different belief traditions be translated into mutual collaborative action to resolve conflicts in a peaceful way? The speakers drew from their experiences in the Middle East and with refugees and immigrants. The bottom-up approach of grassroots peace movements was given due credit, based on the assertion that everyone has a contribution to make.

Ways of involving young adults in the world’s contemporary conflicts were also confronted. The panel reflected on the role of education and awareness-raising in schools, to create a new generation of interfaith leaders, and ensure that interfaith dialogue becomes and remains standard practice in the global arena.

Lucy stressed that today interfaith dialogue and collaborative action are a necessity, not a luxury.

Sister Lucy brought to the table her many years of experience in ministry as a Sion Sister in Israel and Rome. During her seventeen years in Jerusalem, she served as President of the Ecumenical Theological Fraternity in Israel. And in Rome, she was Director of SIDIC – an International Centre for Jewish-Christian relations established in 1965 at the request of the Second Vatican Council Fathers.

Lucy spoke about the Sion vision of interfaith relations and, in concrete terms, the social and cultural initiatives carried out in Sion schools and adult study centres all over the world. She said that education must give future leaders a solid grounding in interreligious action, for the greater common good. “I am convinced,” said Sister Lucy, “that today interfaith dialogue and collaborative action are a necessity, not a luxury.”

Participants networked at the “marketplace of ideas”.

As well as a series of panels, a “marketplace of ideas” with twenty stands was a lively hive of discussion. During these informal exchanges, alumni, religious and lay participants alike echoed the importance of education as the basis for action in interreligious relations.

Dialogue and justice: it’s the relationship that matters

On 29 April Sister Therese Fitzgerald, Irish Sion member, gave a talk on how right relationships lie at the core of both dialogue and justice, at the annual conference of SEDOS (Service of Documentation and Studies on Global Mission) in Ariccia, Italy.

The five-day event on “Mission in a Pluralisitic World” involved speakers with experience and knowledge on missionary challenges from Egypt, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Ireland. The main themes treated were Freedom and Islam, Charity and Buddhism, and Justice and Judaism.

Sister Therese spoke about her experiences in Dublin, Ireland, where she is engaged in dialogue through the Council of Christians and Jews. She also leads biblical reflections using Jewish sources in parishes and works as a councellor.

Her presentation started by looking at Austrian-born Israeli Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s definition of dialogue as “the ground of self-realisation”. By entering into dialogue, she explained, you can grow more fully into your own identity, whilst at the same time becoming more open to developments and difference. This takes awareness and listening skills, as well as an attitude of openness towards the people involved and what may emerge as the dialogue progresses.

Sister Therese Fitzgerald argued the importance of “right relationships” at SEDOS.

But the benefits of dialogue reach far beyond self-realisation. Therese went on to show how, from a broader perspective, awareness and listening are key to achieving justice for all people and our planet in the long term. She examined how the relational aspects of justice and the pathways towards embracing them are rooted in the Bible, and considered the importance of “right relationships” with reference to the phrase “righteousness and justice” in Genesis 18:19. This, she explained, provides a basis around which justice, as a way of being in the world, can be explored.

The talk concluded that dialogue and justice both need to be based on a desire to be in right relationships with others: with God, oneself, other people and the environment. And right relationships assume a way of relating that respects and supports human rights and protects the dignity of all creation.

In a final call-to-action, Therese urged: “For a vision of right relationships to exist, where all people and the planet have their needs met, we must create and develop just structures that ensure long-term results for a better world.”

Sister Clare Jardine and Sister Nayeli Mendez Serrano discussed the impact of dialogue in their ministry during an interval.

Therese’s approach to the debate on religious pluralism provoked interesting questions and comments from conference participants. Marist Sister Nayeli Mendez Serrano, who meets people from different backgrounds in her ministry as a nurse in Mexico, said that she felt motivated to engage more in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue in the hospital where she works. “I am going to listen more,” she said, “and try to create an atmosphere of respect and openness to others.”

Another participant, Sister Maria Hornung, has worked with Interfaith Philadelphia for fourteen years, and is involved in a programme called “Growing Spiritually Together” in a shelter for homeless and substance-dependent women. She said that Therese’s presentation was the perfect backdrop for the life of engagement of the four panelists who spoke of their being drawn into the mission of interfaith relations and how this ministry had changed them, as it had changed her. She took away with her from the SEDOS conference a sense of hope and a notion of how blessed she and all participants are “to be a part of this aspect of Christ’s universal presence”.

Father Peter Baekelmans, Director of SEDOS, said he hoped that the seminar would encourage missionary congregations in the Church to be actively involved in interreligious dialogue.

A heartfelt goodbye and a move to new horizons in justice and reconciliation in Canada

The house where Sister Bernadette and Sister Margaret lived for 38 of their 40 years in Winnipeg

After four decades of opening their hearts and home to neighbours in Winnipeg, Canada, Sister Bernadette O’Reilly and Sister Margaret Hughes made a 800-kilometre journey at the end of April, to join the Saskatoon community of the Sion Congregation.

For 40 years the Sisters were actively involved in Rossbrook House, a Winnipeg neighbourhood drop-in centre for children and youth located in a former church. Sister Bernadette served as Co-Director for more than 20 years and Sister Margaret taught at its Indigenous alternative schools.

The congregation first established a presence in Winnipeg in 1979 because they wanted to live and work in solidarity with people deprived of basic human rights. A group of sisters immediately joined the work at Rossbrook House, which had begun three years earlier under a simple mission: “No child who does not want to be alone, should ever have to be”.

Phil Chiappetta, Executive Director of Rossbrook House, said that the sisters leave a huge legacy, having mentored thousands of children. “There was always a crowd of children and youth around them, because they reflected all the preciousness of each child back at them.”

As those children grew up, some stayed as volunteers or staff and worked alongside the sisters. Property co-ordinator Lloyd Michaud studied with Sister Bernadette at Rising Sun, an alternative high school, and was first hired at Rossbrook at the age of 15. “If it wasn’t for them,” he said, “I don’t know where I would be today.”

After half a lifetime in Winnipeg, both sisters are convinced their legacy will not be the programmes and schools they have started, but the relationships they have nurtured. They are confident that the work at Rossbrook will continue in its own way.

“It’s been a blessing to be here,” said Sister Bernadette. “I think the thing that makes (leaving) easy is nothing we’ve started is going to end when we leave.”

Neither sister is retiring, saying they will look for new opportunities to work for justice and reconciliation in Saskatoon.

“We love what we do,” said Sister Bernadette. “As long as we can, we will.”

Adapted from an article by Brenda Suderman in the Winnipeg Free Press.

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