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Spring 2012

CATHOLIC & catholic: Mismatched Strands or Complementary Colors?
by Patricia J. Thomas (pthomas@marywood.edu)

Spools of Thread

So there’s a priest, a minister, and a rabbi…

It’s such a classic joke set-up that it instantly appears in prompts of popular internet searches. Google the line and you’ll get somewhere around 175,000 hits. It’s Americana folklore that has a category of its own. True, a sad percentage of such jokes should never be allowed to see the light of day, let alone be repeated. Typically though, they tend to be tongue-in-cheek, good-natured jabs at religious differences that both define and divide us.

Because what’s funny is funniest when there’s an element of truth to it. Underlying the humor of those gags is the significant question: if there are differences in our religious beliefs, how much do those differences matter? One’s religion, after all, is intensely personal and deeply meaningful. Theologies of the world’s religions are vastly different. Wars have been waged over those differences. Extraordinary suffering has been inflicted; lives have been—and are—lost over those differences.

But how different are we, really?

 If, for the moment, we look beyond the vast complexity of relationships between nations...if we go one-on-one, so to speak...like, say, a priest, a minister, and a rabbi—what are our differences?

There’s a big “C” Catholic/little “c” catholic aspect to this question.

Marywood is, of course, founded and grounded in Catholic tradition and theology. Sponsored by the Congregation of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, its mission is a mission of Roman Catholic higher education. Its Core Values are set in that context. Yet underlying the context are broad catholic principles that advance universal standards of action.  

Because this is an institution with a true university’s commitment to diversity and inclusiveness, every student who attends here, every person who works here is not of the Roman Catholic faith. Within the Marywood community one might predictably find people of many different religious persuasions—including some who reject the whole idea of a religious persuasion. How do those of differing beliefs relate to Marywood’s Catholic—and catholic values? Is it problematic for them to live, work, and study within a Catholic milieu? Or do Marywood’s ecumenical catholic values speak to all people?

As might be expected, members of Protestant denominations tend to find the differences imperceptible—indeed, enriching. “Our differences are in procedure; our ideals are universal,” says Kristie Congdon, a devout Methodist, who works as an Information Specialist in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. Her job itself often supports and complements her personal commitment to living Marywood’s enfolding catholic value of service, she says.

That strong sense of common principle and purpose is expressed by Dr. Michael Foley, also a Methodist, Professor of Philosophy and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who will retire this spring after more than 35 years on Marywood’s faculty. “The Sisters express so often their devotion to their calling,” he says. “Teaching has been my calling. For me, teaching is not just a way of making a living. It is my way of living.”

Dr. Foley had come to Marywood as an interim instructor. Road signs he’d encountered in Pennsylvania enroute had seemed oddly familiar to this native of Illinois. “I saw ‘Danville’; then ‘Carbondale.’ I thought I must be driving in circles,” he recalls laughing. “But maybe I was guided here. I didn’t even know this was a Catholic institution,” he adds, “but Marywood was always welcoming. I’ve never felt like an outsider...the little c leads to the big C…learning about others enriches us.”

Dr. Clayton Pheasant, Vice President for University Advancement, who holds his doctoral degree as a minister for the Church of the Brethren—a sect of German origin with strong service orientation and pacifist beliefs—also feels the bonds of shared values. Ingrained with a desire to serve, he’d become a youth worker, eventually undertaking fundraising for the YMCA. He applied his expertise to the field of higher education, accepting a post at Juniata College, an institution associated with his church. Then he learned of Marywood’s need to undertake major capital expansion. “I had no idea of the structure of a Catholic institution,” he says, “but our values connected immediately.”

It’s easy enough, of course, to recognize the catholic nature of Christian philosophies. But, one might ask, what of non-Christian theologies?  

For some in the Marywood family of faiths other than Christian, catholic and Catholic have intersected easily, through interfaith relationships that began in childhood.

Rebecca Schwalb, a sophomore majoring in Spanish Education, is Jewish, though part of her family is Catholic. It’s the best of two worlds, she maintains with a smile–a chance to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah. More seriously, she notes, there is also the blessing of observing Mitzah, which, she explains, is a day to go out into the community to do good works—and practicing Tzedakah, in essence, a commitment to be one’s “brother’s keeper.” “Marywood,” she says, “has led me to grow in my own faith.”

Deirdre Spelman, Director of Field Education in the School of Social Work, is the daughter of a Jewish mother and Catholic father. She sums up the catholic values of her interfaith family as Tikkun olam—the responsibility to improve the world in which we live. “For me, ‘Catholic Identity’ doesn’t mean you have to be Catholic,” she says. “The values are the same. I am a Jew and a social worker. The things Marywood stands for are the things I stand for. It is not so much belief as a respect for one another.”

Respect for individuals is a value passionately shared by Dr. Shamshad Ahmed, Associate Professor of Psychology/Counseling, who has, perhaps, an even broader multicultural perspective. A native of India whose family is Muslim, she lived in a Hindu neighborhood, attended Catholic school and played with schoolmates who were both Catholic and Protestant. She came to the United State to study for her doctoral degree—just before the tragic events of 9/11. She could scarcely have picked a period more filled with tension and apprehension, but she earned her degree and subsequently was interviewed for a faculty position by the late Sister Patricia Ann Matthews, IHM, Ph.D.

“She asked me what I would bring to Marywood and what Marywood could give me,” Dr. Ahmed recalls. “I told her I would bring diversity. What Marywood gave me was love and warmth—what Christ teaches.”

Graduate student Erkan Acar (soon to add Ph.D. to his name) is also a Muslim who came from Turkey to pursue graduate study in the U.S. His deliberate search for a variety of experiences gave him a unique perspective, he says—a chance to compare how religious diversity is viewed in other institutions. His conclusion was that Marywood was different—special. He found that people were genuinely interested in hearing about his beliefs. “They wanted to know. They wanted to share. They invited me to go to Mass. I learned that we pray to the same God,” he says.

One insight he was especially delighted to share with his Marywood friends was that “Mary is the most respected lady in Islam. She has a separate chapter in the Koran and is mentioned 49 times—more than in the Bible.”  

Like Erkan Acar, Dr. Vijay Ramachandra, Associate Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, a Hindu, has been gratified with the opportunity to share his faith with the Marywood community—and, he says, to address some misconceptions. “People think Hindus have millions of gods, but there is only one supreme God. For us, God is everywhere, in everything. Karma, our duty, is to do good without selfish motives, to be humble, to respect all living beings.”   

A similar tenet—“to cherish all people”—is also a guiding principle in the Taoist philosophy of Librarian Hong Miao, who had not found her faith immediately or easily. She grew up in China, under the dark shadow of Mao Tse Tung’s “cultural revolution.” Her parents were academics, persecuted as “intellectuals.” She had little chance to give much thought to religion. It was friends at Marywood, she says, who encouraged her to explore and study, and then grow in her family’s Taoist philosophy—of which she had only a rudimentary knowledge. What she found was wonderful harmony with the catholic principles of her Catholic colleagues.  

But what of those who eschew any religious affiliation? What of individuals who question the existence of a supreme power? Gene Kelly, graduate student and residence hall RA is an affirmed atheist. Nonetheless, he says, he prizes the understanding and freedom accorded him by the University in seeking satisfying guidelines for his life. And he embraces Marywood’s catholic values as worthy goals for anyone who is simply committed to leading a life of integrity and consideration for others.

Around three millennia ago, the prophet Micah wrote, “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”

In the interest of full disclosure (as news reporters say), the writer of this article is not Catholic. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—a Mormon. For more than 25 years, I have been writing (with innate respect, I might add) of the catholic and Catholic ideals of this institution.

We sometimes differ—as when I quote my beloved King James Bible (which I just did) rather than the Catholic scriptures or one of the modern translations. But the great truth within their pages does not differ. God’s plan for humankind is perfect. God’s love for all of us is constant, unchanging, unequivocal, eternal.

God is—and requires us to be catholic.  
Differences?
You bet.
Fascinating? Enlightening? Sometimes plain funny?
That, too.

So how about we go with...there’s a priest, a minister, a rabbi, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Mormon, an atheist....



President’s Community Breakfast: Bridging Differences through Dialogue and Service

People of all faiths gathered on IHM Founders’ Day (November 10) for the President’s Community Breakfast, which featured five panelists, each representing a different faith tradition. The goal was to share common values, showing how differences can be bridged through ongoing dialogue and community service efforts.
Panelists included: Most Reverend Joseph C. Bambera, D.D., J.C.L., Bishop of Scranton; Rabbi Joseph Mendelsohn, Temple Israel, Scranton; Shamshad Ahmed, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Counseling and Psychology, Marywood University; Hong Miao, M.L.I.S., M.A., Research and Instruction Librarian, Marywood University (pictured); and Vijayachandra Ramachandra, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Communication Sciences and Disorders, Marywood University.

Table discussions, which included people from the regional community paired with students, faculty, and staff, focused on converting insights into action. Many expressed the desire to continue the conversation beyond the forum and to collaborate on community service initiatives. One participant observed, “Each one of us has a common goal to sustain our world through serving others. I admire the passion that the panelist had for their respective faiths. If we learn from the passion of one another, we can more fully recognize the best ways to implement service in our community and world.”



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