MINNEAPOLIS – Asked to describe the events that drew him to lifelong support of Jewish and Catholic relationships, Dr. Richard Lux had just one word: “Serendipity,” he laughed.
But in listening to his story, it’s clear more than good fortune and happenstance were at play. Lux, the founder and former director of the Lux Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at the Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Franklin, has made facilitating relationships between these communities his life’s work.
‘My entire professional life’
Raised Catholic in Columbus, Nebraska, a small town about 90 miles west of Omaha, Lux grew up with little knowledge of the Jewish community.
“In our town I think there were two Jewish families,” Lux said. “And so, I really had no experience or contact with Jews.”
Lux pursued academic interests in theology and scripture, eventually obtaining his doctoral degree in Biblical Studies. In 1973, “through a sort of fluke,” as he describes it, Lux began teaching at Sacred Heart Seminary in the School of Theology. He was later invited to join a Catholic-Jewish Dialogue Committee as part of efforts by the Milwaukee Archbishop to improve the Catholic Church’s relations with the Jewish community.
“It ultimately became the passion and the guiding direction for my entire professional life,” Lux said.
But the road to dialogue was rocky. As Lux describes it, Jews had good reason to be wary of Catholics; some feared a reach-out was an effort to convert them to Christianity. Lux said he witnessed Christian prejudice against Judaism firsthand while attending a meeting organized by the evangelical group Campus Crusade for Christ, now known as CRU. At that time, the organization was trying to persuade Christian groups to participate in what turned out to be a campaign of conversion.
“I was absolutely appalled at what they were doing,” he said. “They had census figures; they knew where Jews were living in the Milwaukee area. They had all these materials to give to Jews to prove to them how their faith was all wrong.”
Lux took the group’s materials to Milwaukee Jewish Federation. From then on, the tone of the conversation between local Catholics and Jews changed, he said.
“This was really the catalyst. Over 40 years now, we’ve had a dialogue that’s still really vibrant and active in Milwaukee,” he said.
Achieving that dialogue has been Lux’s central goal. “The purpose of dialogue is mutual understanding and respect, and mutual support,” he said. “And it was in that dialogue than that I really learned what was important for the Jewish community.”
Local Center is unique
Lux’s focus on dialogue led to a joint Catholic-Jewish celebration dinner in 1978 commemorating the 30th anniversary of Israel’s establishment, the only event of its kind at the time. And after 37 years of workshops organized, papers published, and students taught, Lux found himself at the helm of another interfaith first, with the creation of the Lux Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at Sacred Heart Seminary in 2010.
“When I decided to retire, they said, well what you’ve done has been a great contribution to the school and we really appreciate it. And we want to figure out a way to continue this.”
The center is a manifestation of Lux’s long teaching tenure at Sacred Heart, where he required all students to attend a synagogue service in addition to in-class discussions of Jewish traditions. In this same spirit, the Center provides seminary scholars and the public with resources to foster positive Catholic-Jewish relationships. It’s also the only center of its kind in North America that exists within a Catholic seminary.
“Its purpose is to instill an understanding and appreciation of the Jewish tradition and to prepare our students to carry on dialogue when they leave the seminary,” said Lux.
This dialogue is alive and well. One former student, now a priest, told Lux about an incident where he had been invited to a Catholic-Protestant clergy meeting that excluded Jews.
“If Jews are not welcome in this group, I am not welcome,” Lux recalled the priest saying before walking out. Organizers later apologized and made a point to invite the local rabbi to future meetings. “That’s the sort of thing that I would have hoped would happen with my students,” Lux said.
Lux said he is hopeful that lessons from interfaith relations can be applied to other situations, such as the breakdown of trust between the Black community and the police.
“One of the takeaways from dialogue is you become a better listener. You need to try to walk in others’ shoes and understand them.”
Though he retired as the director of the Lux Center in 2015, Lux’s docket is anything but empty. He still works on projects with the center and the Milwaukee Catholic Jewish Conference and is currently writing a new book on Christian Zionism. He also spends time with family in Minneapolis as the pandemic allows.
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About this story
The Lux Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at Sacred Heart Seminary teaches the Catholic priests and leaders of tomorrow about Judaism, with assistance from some in the local Jewish community. It was named for Richard Lux, who has retired from the Center.