Cambridge, MA. During the recent day set aside for prospective students at Harvard Divinity School where I teach, several visitors asked me what it was like to be a Catholic priest at HDS; one at least was implying, Why would a Catholic priest be here? I’ve been here now for nearly 15 years, after 21 years at Boston College, but there is still no simple answer to the question: yes, Harvard is a wonderful and stimulating intellectual environment; yes, it is good for priests to get outside the enclosures of Catholic education; yes, we’ve never restricted priests to Catholic-only settings; and yes, Jesuits tend to pop up everywhere. One could write a long essay on the topic, I suppose, but a vivid short answer came to me when I pondered several closely timed events of last week, November 3 and 4, in two of which I had a direct part. Let me work backwards:
On November 4 in the evening, I was the moderator of a splendid conversation at HDS, on the theme, “On Being a Hindu Monastic: Personal Journeys.” This event enabled a packed Common Room at the Center for the Study of World Religions to hear from Swami Sarvapriyananda (Ramakrishna Mission), Brahmacharini Shweta Chaitanya (Chinmaya Mission), and Sadhak Akshar (BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha). They spoke lucidly of the communities to which they belong, and movingly of their own spiritual journeys. Only half jokingly did I remark that young people in the room would surely be drawn to Hindu religious life. I was happy to preside at the event, but in that position, while I benefited from their stories of vocation, my role was rather to listen, not to add comments; likewise, the Catholic nun who is a student at HDS listened with fascination, but did not explicitly raised the obvious parallels with Catholic religious life. You can view the whole event here.
Earlier that same day of November 4, in mid-afternoon, HDS hosted a preview showing of the film, The Two Popes. This is a biographical drama, directed by Fernando Meirelles, starring Jonathan Pryce (Francis) and Anthony Hopkins (Benedict). It shows, as the ads explain, how behind Vatican walls, the conservative Pope Benedict and the liberal future Pope Francis sought to find common ground to forge a new path for the Catholic Church. After the showing, Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister of the Memorial Church at Harvard, conversed with producer and Harvard College alum Jonathan Eirich, '03. I am sorry to have missed it, but was glad that it was being shown at Harvard, in this era when, despite all its troubles, the Catholic Church is blessed with growing pains that are a sign of life – between the era of the retired Bishop of Rome, former pope Benedict, and the era of the reigning Holy Father, Francis. This is a Church in transition, which needs to be more vigorously among the poor, with the marginalized, in communion even with nature, and indeed, in conversation with every faithful Catholic — and which needs to keep venturing beyond, intellectuallly and interreligiously. beyond. Harvard is a place where we can think across the range of issues even shaping our future.
And finally, completing my backward motion, on the preceding day, November 3, I had ventured down to New York City to speak at the Vedanta Center on the upper West Side. Polie were everywhere; it was Marathon Day, after all.
Swami Sarvapriyananda, one of this year’s monastic visitors mentioned above, is the Minister, swami in charge. I had been invited to speak on "Learning from Sri Ramanuja." This great medieval theologian (1017-1137) of the south Indian Srivaisnava tradition, offers us so many insights into theological and spiritual reflection on God. I have read a good bit of his writings, and last year taught a seminar on him. This event, somewhere between lecture and sermon, was a chance for me, as a priest, to speak of my learning from one great person of faith in Hindu tradition, and how in his writings and in the stories about him, we see a brilliant and edifying overlap of theology and spirituality, theory and practice, the mind’s inquiry and heart-deep devotion. As is my custom on such occasions, I wore my Roman collar (a contrast with Swami’s ochre robes), to emphasize that I am not hyphenated — as if a priest some days, scholar other days — but seeking ever to be integral in my learning and teaching, particularly interreligiously: I read Ramanuja as a scholar and Harvard professor, as a Catholic priest and Jesuit.
So there it is: three monastics, two popes, one priest, all in two days, grounded in the HDS and Harvard realities of today. Such events are outside the rightfully ordinary mainstream of Catholic community and ministry, to be sure, but it is good that they occur, and good for me as priest to be witness to them, part of this great and unpredictable flow of academic and spiritual energies.