LOUDONVILLE N.Y. — In the late-1990s, Dennis Tamburello, OFM, began teaching a seminar on interfaith and ecumenical dialogue at Siena College, where he had already been a professor in the religious studies department for more than a decade. Unbeknownst to him at the time, the experience sowed the seeds for what has become a major part of his Franciscan ministry in the Capital District of Albany, N.Y., where he still teaches theology courses at Siena.
A few years later, Dennis was asked to participate in an interfaith initiative sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops – and since 2002, he has been a key contributor to advancing unity and dialogue among faith communities.
His interfaith work of the past 16 years was acknowledged recently by the Capital Area Council of Churches, which presented Dennis and two other recipients with the 2018 Rev. Carlyle Adams Interfaith Award.
The council, which consists of more than 85 faith communities in the Capital District, created the award to honor the memory of Adams, who was a regional leader of the Presbyterian Church and a central figure in spreading the message of unity and inclusivity among all religions in the Albany area.
Rev. James Kane, ecumenical and interfaith officer for the Diocese of Albany, presented the award at the council’s annual fall assembly dinner on Oct. 10 at Albany Country Club.
Dennis shrugs off the honor in true Franciscan humility.
“I am appreciative and grateful for this award, but I never thought of my interfaith and ecumenical work as worthy of this type of recognition. This is part of my ministerial work. I consider what I do as a blessing. It’s a privilege to be involved with other faith communities,” Dennis said in a telephone interview.
Several of his brother friars and Siena colleagues attended the event to celebrate the special honor with him – among them F. Edward Coughlin, OFM, Siena’s president; Mark Reamer, OFM, assistant to the president and guardian of the friary; Daniel Dwyer, OFM, associate professor of history, and Linh Hoang, OFM, associate professor of religious studies, as well as lay members of the religious studies department, including Holly Grieco, Merle Longwood, Fareed Munir and Peter Zaas.
“It was a pleasure to witness the warmth of the many friendships Dennis has formed with different faith leaders over the years during his deep involvement in interfaith and ecumenical dialogue projects in the Albany region,” said Edward. “There is significance that Dennis was honored this year, given his academic interest in Martin Luther, the anniversary of Luther’s publication of the ‘Disputation on the Power of Indulgence’ and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.”
Invite to the Table
It was his comprehensive studies of Luther and John Calvin, and a published dissertation about the latter Protestant reformer, that got Dennis invited to a 2002 national roundtable dialogue between the Catholic Church and reformed churches like Presbyterian USA, United Church of Christ, and Christian Reform Church of North America. It was the seventh formal round of discourse of an initiative that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops began in the 1960s.
The dialogue, which focused on the meaning of the sacraments, concluded in 2010, when the panel of participants collaborated on a report that was then presented to their respective churches, explained Dennis, who again participated as the Roman Catholic representative in the round that followed on the subject of the Church as an institution – covering such issues as ministry and church authority. That round began in 2012 and continued to 2017 before it was closed.
For Dennis, advancing acceptance, inclusiveness and unity among religions takes on greater significance in a world plagued by hatred and intolerance as witnessed in the barbaric attack last weekend on Jewish worshippers in a Pennsylvania synagogue.
“The world needs religious people to come together and address crucial issues of our time. Instead of trying to judge other religions, we need to understand their traditions,” said Dennis, who is looking forward to the ninth round of the interfaith dialogue initiative being planned for next year. “We have to respect the integrity and distinctiveness of each religion. Only then can we have a real dialogue and talk honestly about what we have in common.”
Dennis continued, “Vatican II opened up a serious dialogue with all religious communities, not just Reformed Christians, but also others such as Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim. We can find common ground even where we find difference. It’s an enriching experience to connect on a personal level because you become friends – and when someone is your friend, you can talk about your differences in a more sensitive, caring and diplomatic way.”
Trips to Israel
As Dennis was becoming deeply entrenched in Reformed-Catholic dialogue, a former student at Good Counsel High School in Wheaton, Md., where he had taught as a friar-intern, gave his name to the Anti-Defamation League when the organization, which fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, was seeking a chaplain to accompany a group of Catholic middle and high school teachers on a trip to Israel under the Bearing Witness program.
According to the Anti-Defamation League website, Bearing Witness – a joint effort with the National Catholic Educational Association, USCCB, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and other organizations – is designed to provide Catholic school educators with training and resources to assist in teaching students about the historical relationship between Jewish and Catholic communities and the impact of that relationship on Catholic teaching, catechesis and liturgy.
Dennis has become an important part of the program, accompanying groups of educators to Israel several times since the first trip in 2010.
“The trips venture deep into religious and political dialogue. We talk to Palestinians and Israeli Jews, and there are lectures from different groups that include Jews and Arabs working together,” Dennis explained. “We visit incredible Jewish and Christian sites such as Bethlehem, Galilee, Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial), and the Church of the Beatitudes where some believe Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount.”
His duties have also expanded beyond his chaplain role, as Dennis sometimes teaches the first phase of the program – a five-day workshop on Catholic-Jewish relations in the context of the modern State of Israel and historical events such as the Holocaust.
Ironically, he was introduced to Israel more than 30 years ago, as part of a group trip in 1982 organized by a Siena professor. At the time, Dennis had been teaching at the college.
“I tried to absorb everything because I figured it would be the only time I would visit Israel. Little did I know that it would be the first of many visits,” said Dennis, who will be accompanying another group of Catholic school educators next summer to the Jewish State.
From M.D. to OFM
Although education has been part of his entire ministerial life, religious vocation and teaching would not have been on his radar – at least if it were up to his parents.
“They had other plans. They wanted me to be a doctor,” said Dennis, who played the role of the obedient son and enrolled in the pre-med program at Jesuit-run Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y.
Thoughts of religious life had crossed his mind when he taught a religious education class as a teenager and served as a youth lector at his parish, St. Pius X, in Montville N.J.
Then in his senior year of high school at Neumann Prep in Wayne, N.J., he attended a Franciscan retreat – which he remembers as boosting his personal relationship with God – although he admits that religious vocation still wasn’t crystal clear.
Midway through his pre-med studies at Fordham, thoughts of discernment were serious enough to lead to his transfer to Siena College to be closer to the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province.
“It wasn’t easy telling my parents that I was dropping my biology major for modern languages, and that I was changing schools. Off to Siena I went – which was an unknown because, frankly, I had never even heard of Siena College until then,” said Dennis, adding, “and I still wasn’t sold on becoming a friar. Religious vocation wasn’t a foregone conclusion for me at that point.”
Dennis, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., called his experience at Siena the best two years of his life. After graduating in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in French and a minor degree in philosophy (Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, was in his graduating class), he spent the summer on the campus of St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y., before heading to novitiate at St. Francis Friary in Brookline, Mass., where he professed his first vows in 1976.
Three years later, he professed his solemn vows at St. Francis of Assisi Church on 31st Street in New York City, and in 1980, he was ordained at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Md.
Spirituality and Mysticism
Dennis returned to Siena in 1979 as a campus minister, and shortly after was assigned to a teaching internship (1980 to 1982). He then moved to Chicago, where he studied from 1982 to 1986 at the divinity school at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, where he received a doctorate degree in historical theology.
A consortium course he took at the WTU stoked his interest in the comparison of Martin Luther to philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, and Luther’s connection to mysticism and spirituality.
“There wasn’t much more to [write about Luther than what was already written], so I decided to study Calvin and mysticism – and that’s when I realized the Reformation had a connection to mysticism,” said Dennis, who went on to author a book called “Ordinary Mysticism” that focuses on experiencing the presence and love of God in our lives.
“Mysticism is any spiritual experience with God – [spirituality] is a mystical experience. It isn’t something we conjure up, create or concoct – but rather something that we experience,” said Dennis, whose comprehensive studies and writings of the Protestant religion led to his selection and participation in Reformed-Catholic dialogue and other interfaith initiatives.
When Dennis returned to Siena in 1986, he spent the next 12 months working on his dissertation. It wasn’t until spring 1987 that he began teaching full time a course on the Reformation. It was the start of his current 30-plus-year teaching career at Siena, where he has taught courses on American Catholicism, introduction to religion in western culture, and the modern search for Jesus, as well as seminars on interfaith and ecumenical dialogue.
In addition to teaching theology classes, Dennis is now teaching a German language course outside of his department, as well as a multi-disciplinary course for first-year students that introduces them to Franciscan tradition and the impact of technology on society.
“It goes beyond cell phones and Blu-ray. We discuss the pitfalls of technology – such as the loss of privacy and cyber warfare and bullying,” he said, “and we dive into classic texts of Franciscan tradition.”
Weekend Job at Prisons
The award for his work in interfaith and ecumenical dialogue was not the first time Dennis was recognized for his ministerial work in the Capital District. In fact, as if his teaching responsibilities and interfaith/ecumenical commitments aren’t enough, Dennis has a weekend job.
He rotates at five area prisons (two are maximum security) as a part-time chaplain and sacramental minister, celebrating Mass and visiting those in solitary confinement and the facilities’ hospitals.
In 2012, Dennis received the volunteer of the year award from Mount McGregor Correctional Facility, where he voluntarily taught religion courses, as well as an introductory German language class, to the incarcerated.
“Being at Siena provides the flexibility to do all of these things. I am blessed and grateful for these opportunities,” said Dennis, who, for the more than 30 years at Siena, has resided in one of the residence halls, where live music can often be heard coming from his room.
Dennis plays the drums and electric guitar and is the percussionist for Psalm 150, the campus ministry music group, at the school’s Sunday 7:00 p.m. Mass. “I’m not Buddy Rich or Eric Clapton, but I fake it pretty well. Music has been a long-time avocation,” he said.
Living among the students has enabled him to help in their spiritual growth, as he has planned and chaperoned service trips to the Province’s St. Francis Inn soup kitchen in Philadelphia, Penn., and to Haiti, where college students teach young Haitian children at a school built by a Siena graduate.
As he awaits the next round of interfaith dialogue with his religious cohorts, Dennis ponders the impact of these important exercises within the spirit of the unity and inclusiveness that the ecumenical/interfaith award represents.
“This award calls attention to what [all religious institutions] must do. We need to fix the wounds that only reconciliation and dialogue can heal. [The narrative must be changed] – from condemning to listening and cooperating,” Dennis said. “We need to come together for the sake of healing and peace that [only] religions can bring about.”
– Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y.
- “Gregory Jakubowicz Recognized by Hillery Foundation” – Oct. 3, 2018, HNP Today
- “Dennis Tamburello Honored by Correctional Facility” – Dec. 5, 2012, HNP Today
- “Siena College Celebrates 80th Anniversary” – Sept. 26, 2017, HNP Today
- Friars at Siena page of Siena website
- “Siena Students Spend Spring Break Serving St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia” – March 11, 2015, Siena website