December 08, 2016

Vatican conference, Urbano’s resolve lead to Jewish-Catholic series 

Rabbi Peter Stein and Dr. Arthur P. Urbano, associate professor of theology

By Madeline Parmenter

Dr. Arthur P. Urbano, Jr., associate professor of theology, can point to the day that significantly impacted his professional life. It was in 2007, when a Cranston rabbi named Peter Stein contacted Providence College’s Department of Theology about doing some interfaith work. Urbano had joined the theology faculty in 2005; his specialty then, as it is now, is the early Church.

Rabbi Stein’s request eventually made its way to Urbano, who had no previous background in interfaith work. The next thing he knew, Urbano was in charge of a new project: promoting Jewish-Catholic dialogue. In hindsight, he says he can see how studying the interactions between Christians and other religious groups in the distant past had prepared him for this type of work.

In 2007, Urbano and Rabbi Stein traveled together to Rome to participate in the First Lay Conference on Catholic-Jewish Relations at the North American College at the Vatican. It had been organized by the New York-based Interreligious Information Center in conjunction with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. Urbano attended as a representative of the Diocese of Providence. One of the goals of the conference was to look at the state of Jewish-Catholic relations overall and figure out a way to foster cooperation and understanding among Jews and Catholics in local communities.

The Jewish-Catholic Theological Exchange (JCTE) committee was established by the theology department in 2007. It has continued to extend opportunities for Jews and Christians to pursue “mutual understanding and respect, which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies, as well as of fraternal dialogues.” (Nostra Aetate 4) Reflecting on the common spiritual heritage as well as the unique identities of Jews and Christians, the committee’s mission is to foster interreligious learning, understanding, and friendship.

“It was an inspiring moment because I never imagined myself doing this. It was kind of a whole different field of work,” said Urbano.

Urbano learned that a continuing challenge for those involved in interreligious relations was getting the message from the upper levels to the community level. In other words, the work being done by Catholic and Jewish leaders was not being effectively imparted to those “in the pews.” Most Catholics and Jews weren’t aware of the conversations and how teachings had shifted.

In fact, there was little general knowledge that Catholics and Jews had been convening since the Second Vatican Council in the mid 1960s. Urbano found that it wasn’t trickling down to the faithful. The Vatican II document Nostra Aetate called for Catholics and Jews to engage in friendly dialogue and biblical and theological discussions to better understand each other’s faith. It was approved by the council’s leaders and Pope Paul VI in Rome on Oct. 28, 1965, yet most Catholics and Jews had never heard of it. Urbano and Rabbi Stein agreed that more effort was needed on the ground in Rhode Island.

The pair decided that they would co-teach adult education classes at their respective congregations, Temple Sinai and Holy Apostles Church, both in Cranston. Topics they discussed included Judaism and Christianity, and Easter and Passover.

Urbano also proposed that the theology department take a role in larger-scale interfaith work on campus.

“We wanted to do a lecture series because a presentation and discussion in the classroom are limited only to the people who take that particular class,” Urbano said.

The pilot program began in fall 2008 with a presentation by Rev. Dennis McManus, adviser to the U.S. bishops on Jewish-Catholic relations. This was followed in the spring of 2009 by a Jewish speaker, Rabbi Jack Bemporad, a leading figure in Jewish-Christian dialogue. About 50 people attended the first lectures at the College. The theology department was encouraged by the response and decided to continue the presentations.

In fall 2009, the lecture series was inaugurated under the title of Theological Exchange Between Catholics and Jews, with a presentation offered during the fall and spring semesters. Presenters are local and national experts in Jewish-Christian relations and speak on the historical and theological issues that have characterized the long and difficult history between the two faiths. The program is funded largely through gifts by alumni and friends of the College.

Currently, the program is in the third year of a focus on the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. The first year looked at Jewish-Christian relations prior to Vatican II. The second year focused on Nostra Aetate itself. In this third year, academic year 2016-17, the future of Jewish-Catholic relations is being examined. In the fall, Cardinal Timothy Dolan was the featured speaker. [Watch his lecture in St. Dominic Chapel.]

Since its founding in 1917, Providence College has actively promoted Catholic and Jewish engagement. From the beginning, the school’s charter was clear that PC welcomed students who were not of the Catholic faith. The first Jewish students arrived at the College in the late 1920s. The number of Jewish students increased in the 1930s and into the pre-World War II era, when the percentage of entering freshmen who were Jewish reached double digits.

Urbano, who continues to research the history of the Jewish student population at PC with colleague Dr. Jennifer Illuzzi of the Department of History, is hopeful that the awareness of and sensitivity to Jewish-Catholic relations at PC will continue to grow through initiatives like the Theological Exchange Between Catholics and Jews.

“This series has had a significant impact on the campus and the larger community,” he said.

For more information on the Theological Exchange, go to: