Learning that Seton Hall University School of Law is a Catholic institution, prospective law students who are not Catholic may wonder what sort of welcome they might receive here. This may be particularly true for non-Christian students.
Every year at orientation, as Chaplain, I welcome all of our newly arrived students by quoting from a pivotal church document promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, or The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. October 28, 2015, marked the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. I offer the following excerpt:
“Men and women look to their different religions for an answer to the unsolved riddles of human existence. The problems that weigh heavily on the human heart are the same today as in the past. What is man? What is the meaning and purpose of life? What is upright behavior, and what is sinful? Where does suffering originate, and what does it serve? How can genuine happiness be found? What happens at death? What is judgment? What reward follows death? And finally, what is the ultimate mystery, beyond human explanation, which embraces our entire existence, from which we take our origin and toward which we tend?” (No. 1. a.)
“The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in [other] religions.” (No. 2. b.)
Before delivering the invocation for the day, I reassure the assembly:
“While this institution is proud of its Catholic identity, please know that women and men of all faiths are valued members of the Law School community. Mutual respect tends toward unity and unity is what this world so sorely needs.”
I have by now welcomed 17 new classes to Seton Hall.
Sometimes I hear reactions to my words immediately, and sometimes not until long after. One evening I was walking to my car in the parking garage when a student whom I recognized but whose name I didn’t know, stopped me near the elevator.
“Father Nick,” he said, “I want to thank you for the message you gave on orientation day. I’m Jewish and, frankly, I was a little nervous that day about starting at a Catholic law school. What you said immediately relieved the tension, and I’ve felt at home ever since.”
It was springtime. I assumed this student was concluding his first year, so I asked, “How has your first year gone?”
A second of incomprehension passed and he corrected, “Oh no, Father. I’m a 3L. I’m graduating in May. That’s why I’m glad we bumped into to each other. I wanted you to know how grateful I was, before I leave.”
Life is like that sometimes. In spite of the delay, I certainly was no less appreciative to hear this Jewish student’s reaction. As a priest, I learned a long time ago that mostly I will have no idea when or how something I said or did in ministry helped or – God, forbid – hurt another human being. Nonetheless, it’s a blessing to get some indication one is on the right track.
Of course, recent decades have seen momentous examples of interreligious respect and dialogue, for instance, in the first ever-recorded visit of a pope to a synagogue by St. John Paul II on April 13, 1986, at the Great Synagogue of Rome. Chief Rabbi, Elio Toaff, called it a ''gesture destined to go down in history'' and a ''true turning point in the policy of the church.'' ''The heart opens itself,'' Rabbi Toaff declared, ''to the hope that the misfortunes of the past will be replaced by fruitful dialogue.''
In October 1986, and again in 1993 and 2002, Pope John Paul gathered religious leaders in Assisi for a World Day of Prayer for Peace. Some 200 leaders were present, including Roman Catholic cardinals, Muslim clerics, Jewish rabbis, Buddhists, Sikhs, Bahais, Hindus, Jains, Zoroastrians and members of African traditional religions.
More recently, on May 26, 2014, Pope Francis prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem with Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Imam Omar Abboud, two long-time friends of his from Argentina where each heads the Buenos Aires Jewish and Muslim communities respectively. Earlier that day the pope had toured the Dome of the Rock, a site sacred to Muslims, and addressed Muslim leaders, calling them “brothers.” On January 17, 2016, Pope Francis repeated Pope John Paul’s visit to Rome’s Great Synagogue, following Pope Benedict’s visit on the same date in 2010.
The point of these examples is to show what we do at Seton Hall Law School is not the exception but the rule in the Catholic Church. We welcome to these halls of study individuals of all faiths and all people of good will to learn and grow and thrive in an atmosphere of mutual respect and dignity.
We affirm diversity.
Speaking once to Bishops from Iran, Pope John Paul II remarked:
"The Second Vatican Council's declaration Nostra Aetate gives clear indications that inspire the Church for its interreligious dialogue. They are mainly: respect for one's personal conscience, rejecting all forms of coercion or discrimination with regard to faith, freedom to practice one's religion and give witness to it, as well as appreciation and esteem for all genuine religious traditions."
The Dalai Lama was asked, considering all the wars fought in history in the name of religion, whether he thought on balance religion had been good or bad for humanity. Any religion worth the label, he said, teaches its adherents compassion and loving kindness. In that way religion has surely been good for the world.
I’ll end with the observation of one of our law school alumni while he was a student participating in a discussion about religion, fundamentalism and radicalization. “There would be no problem with radicalization if, for instance, ‘radically Christian’ meant radically loving the other as one would want to be loved.”
Pictured above: Father Nick addresses new students at Orientation, August 2015.