“The Earth is the Lord’s: Environmental Spirituality in Judaism and Christianity” is the title of a course to be led by Sion Sister Margaret Shepherd and Orthodox Jewish scholar Jonathan Gorsky at the Ammerdown Centre near Bath, UK, between 19 and 21 August.
The course will explore Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment in the light of Jewish and Christian spirituality. Topics include the Sabbath and Creation, the wilderness as an abiding presence, Franciscan spirituality and the vision of French philosopher and Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin.
The course is available on a residential or non-residential basis.
A delegation of sixteen Family of Sion members, including nine sisters, represented the Sion congregation at the annual conference of the ICCJ (International Council of Christians and Jews), in Lund, Sweden, whose theme was: “Transformations within and between: How does our new relationship affect Christian and Jewish self-understandings?”
Setting the tone
The opening event at Lund Cathedral.
At the opening event in Lund Cathedral, a moving performance of Klezmer (traditional Jewish folk) music set the tone for the conference, and was followed by speeches that invited participants to be mindful and brave in preparation for the sometimes thorny issues they were about to encounter.
“There are challenges in our world today that cause fear,” remarked Canadian Sion partner Barbara Goetz as she prepared herself for the following three days, “and then there is hope. We are embracing the hope.”
Learning together in dialogue and friendship
The speakers of the first day of academic proceedings recalled how, over the centuries, large numbers of Jews and Christians have had intertwined histories. Although Jews and Christians were suspicious, hostile and estranged from each other for a long time, more recently a new relationship of respect and solidarity has begun to develop.
The talks of the following days revolved around the positive effects of this new relationship, negative influences such as nationalism and anti-Semitism, and the Muslim contribution to interfaith dialogue today.
Plenary session “Muslims in the Dialogue”.
For the Sisters of Sion, who have missed few of the ICCJ’s annual appointments over the last half-century, the conference is always a source of learning and friendship, new friendships begun and old ones renewed. “It was a marvellous opportunity,” remarked Sr. Maureen Cusick of Sion’s UK/Ireland region, “to learn together in dialogue and friendship, with so many Jews, Christians and Muslims.”
The lectures and workshops provided ways for each individual and community to explore whether and how a transformation has, for them, taken place. They challenged participants to examine their own responses to the new waves of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and posed the question: how do we stand together in solidarity?
Turning theory into action
A Sion group of fourteen stayed in Lund for two days after the conference to work together on future challenges and opportunities and how to integrate what they had learnt at the ICCJ conference into their ministry.
Sion partners Tina Apostolopoulos and Rebecca Bennett of Australia said that the two days of reflection flew by as they committed to opening spaces for encounter and building bridges where all are accepted. It is important for them that those encounters are more than intellectual. “They need to touch us on a personal and emotional level” they commented.
Mark Walsh, Sr. Teresa Brittain, Sr. Kasia Kowalska and Alisha Pomazon at the post-conference Sion meeting.
The actions the group proposed included fostering ongoing biblical formation, maintaining a focus on Jewish-Christian dialogue and prioritising learning more about the Islamic tradition, as well as welcoming young people to partner with them.
“Much has been done and indeed we are different from 50 years ago in our relationships,” said Sr Maureen, “but we all agreed that still so much more needs to be explored, lived and experienced together.”
“We feel so privileged and honoured,” she concluded, “to be involved in this amazing ministry in the Church.”
From 13-26 June, two Sion sisters took their itinerant mission to Nairobi, Kenya, with the aim of helping seminarians of the Franciscan Missionaries of Hope deepen their appreciation of the Jewish people and their knowledge of the Scriptures. It turned out to be an enriching experience for all concerned.
Br. Emmanuel reads a passage from the Prophets.
Sr. Clare Jardine and Sr. Arlyne del Valle Casas reached out to brothers from Uganda, the Congo, Rwanda, Kenya and Nigeria. The sessions centred around the Jewish feast of Passover, Jewish culture, prophetic literature, Paul’s letters to the Romans and, tying in with the Franciscan brothers’ own mission statement, the topic of Hope, and its biblical foundation from a Jewish-Christian perspective.
The sisters varied the teaching techniques they used to bring the subjects to life. They interspersed projected presentations with discussions, video clips, groupwork and creative interaction.
Sr. Clare explains the Matzah cover to Br. Didas and Br. Expedito.
The brothers enjoyed seeing the Seder plate for Passover, the Tallit (prayer shawl), the Tefillin (small boxes containing the words of the Sh’ma which Jewish men place on their arm and head) and the Matzah cover that Sr. Clare brought with her, and sang Hebrew songs such us Shalom Chaverim, Oshe Shalom and Sh’ma with great enthusiasm.
They also appreciated having time for discussions and being able to elaborate their thinking about Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations in a group situation. The line between formal study and personal growth blurred as on some days discussions continued after class and into breaks and mealtimes.
Br. Expedito and Br. Giido reflect on the Prophets.
The brothers found the sisters to be “well-informed”, “open” and “prepared”, and they recognised the value of the time the sisters spent in Jerusalem. They were happy to have learnt about the Jewishness of Jesus and St Paul. As one brother, Julian, commented: “It is important to know the historical context of their time.”
The success of the training was summed up by another participant, Br. Deoson, who affirmed “It helped us to understand our roots in Judaism”, and described the Jews as “our elder brothers”. For the sisters, it was a joy to see the brothers quoting verses from the Scriptures to support their reflections. The brothers were keen to study the hand-outs the sisters had given them and are looking forward to receiving more guidance in the future.
Discussions continue over tea.
The sisters were grateful for the warm hospitality they received. Studying and sharing mealtimes with the priests and brothers gave them the opportunity to live a brief intercultural experience. Sr. Arlyne described it as “an enriching time to share our charism with the brothers, who invited us not to simply come to teach, but also to pitch our tents in Kenya”. Amidst the multi-way exchange, they learned about the different cultures in Africa, as well as the presence of conflict in other parts of the continent.
During their stay, the sisters attended the 175th anniversary of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Mary (SFIC), and heard of the courage and faith of the three SFIC sisters who started a community in Kenya.
Clare and Arlyne left Kenya with a feeling of hope on two fronts. First, a quiet trust in the seminarians’ growing appreciation and respect for other religious traditions. And, regarding the growth of their own congregation, hope, as they discern establishing a community in Africa.
“An interesting and challenging read that provides insights into our experience of Trinity that allow us to develop our understanding.”
This is how Sr Therese Fitzgerald describes the book entitled The Unity of the Trinity: Listening to the Tradition of Israel by Br. Pierre Lenhardt of the Brothers of Sion.
To support their reading of the book, the UK/Ireland Sisters of Sion organised a day in London with Rabbi Mark Solomon who guided them through the ideas and complexities within the book.
As well as highlighting significant new ideas introduced by Br. Pierre’s approach, Rabbi Solomon provided a critique which looked at Br. Pierre’s thoughts from other perspectives, bringing a further dimension to the reader’s experience.
Watch the video of Rabbi Mark Solomon conducting the workshop here:
The Pauline Letters were the theme of the Sisters of Sion’s itinerant training program held in June for seminarians and lay people at ITEPES (Instituto de Teologia, Pastoral e Ensino Superior da Amazônia) in Manaus, capital city of the state of Amazonas in the North Region of Brazil.
Sister Ivete teaching.
Since 2015 the Sisters of Sion have been coming to the area twice a year to carry out two-week biblical teaching at ITEPES, which welcomes students from nine Amazonian Dioceses and sorely needs Bible teachers.
Sister Ivete Holthmann was accompanied by Father Videlson Tele de Meneses, specialist in the Pauline Letters, from the Diocese of Aracaju. This was their second mission to the Amazonas. This time the Institute asked them for a one-week intensive course.
They taught a group of 40 students, seminarians of theology and interested local people at ITEPES. The college also carries out courses in Liturgy, the Bible, formation for the Diaconate and Pastoral Theology.
Sr Ivete’s dream is to offer intensive weeks for catechists during vacation periods. In the mean time she was satisfied with the job done and believes the program has had positive effects in the Amazon. Fr Ricardo Gonçalves Castro, Director of ITEPES, agreed with her. He said that since the project started four years ago, the level of biblical knowledge of teachers who have attended the courses has improved.
Sr Ivete and Fr Videlson in Cacau Pirêra, where flooding is a growing problem.
Sr Ivete commented: “I feel the seminarians thirsting for knowledge.” Many of them come from indigenous tribes. They are formed in Manaus, and then return to their Dioceses. Ivete had the opportunity to visit the missionary area of Cacau Pirêra with Fr Cândido Cocaveli, Administrative Director of ITEPES. The people of this area live in extreme poverty and in recent years the Rio Negro river has risen, flooding houses, with increasing frequency.
During their stay, Sr Ivete and Fr Videlson sat down to discuss the future with Fr Ricardo and Fr Cândido. The ITEPES representatives expressed their appreciation of the training program and voiced their wish for longer similar initiatives of one month or a whole semester, and even for establishment of a permanent community in the Amazonas.
In terms of calendar planning, the group began to schedule a National Bible Congress that ITEPES, the Brothers of Sion and the Sisters of Sion are organizing collaboratively, to be held at the Institute in July 2020.
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.