The Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at Saint John’s University serves the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University community and also hosts events open to the general public. The center has a collaborative relationship with the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and Minneapolis, with which it shares the common mission to foster understanding, cooperation, and friendship among people of diverse religious identities through academic study and civic engagement. Both centers do this by sponsoring a host of interfaith activities, including artistic performances, lectures, panels, conferences, retreats, and service programs.
By promoting interfaith learning, friendship, and service, the Jay Phillips Center is carrying out a mandate of the Vatican Council II (1962-1965) and subsequent official Roman Catholic teaching, and it is thereby supporting the Catholic identity of its host universities.
Since Vatican II the importance of interfaith dialogue has been emphasized by many church leaders, especially Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. The council document Nostra Aetate (from its opening Latin words meaning "In our time"), issued in 1965 and also known as "The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions," calls upon Catholics to engage in "dialogue and collaboration with followers of other religions."
Nostra Aetate claims that the Church is "ever aware of its duty to foster unity and charity among individuals, and even among nations," and it challenges Christians to "acknowledge, preserve, and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians" while at the same time "witnessing to their own faith and way of life."
The Jay Phillips Center has its roots in the Jay Phillips Chair in Jewish Studies, established at SJU in 1969. Remaining deeply committed to the promotion to Jewish studies and the enhancement of Jewish-Christian relations, the center is now equally committed to its expanded mission of carrying out the wider interfaith mandate of Vatican II as an essential feature of Catholic identity — and therefore SJU’s identity — and as an indispensable means of strengthening the fabric of community.
The Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at Saint John’s University has its roots in the university’s Jay Phillips Chair in Jewish Studies, established in 1969 upon the recommendation of SJU president Fr. Colman Barry and named after the Jewish philanthropist who endowed it. Rabbi Nahum Schulman served as the chair's first occupant until 1983, followed by Rabbi Michael Goldberg (from 1983 to 1985), Rabbi Mark Verman (from 1987 to 1993), and Rabbi Barry D. Cytron (from 1996 to 2009).
The Jay Phillips Center, first called the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning, was established in 1996 upon the recommendation of SJU president Br. Dietrich Reinhart OSB and Fr. Dennis Dease, president of the University of St. Thomas, as a joint SJU/UST enterprise by bringing together SJU’s Jay Phillips Chair in Jewish Studies and UST’s Center for Jewish-Christian Learning, to which Jay Phillips had also contributed endowment funds. Rabbi Cytron served as the newly configured center’s director while also holding the chair in Jewish studies until his retirement in 2009. Throughout Rabbi Cytron’s tenure at the center, Dr. John Merkle, professor of theology at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, and Karen Schierman, based at UST, served as the center’s associated directors.
In 2009, at the request of Edward Phillips and Dean Phillips, grandson and great grandson of Jay Phillips, and upon the recommendation of UST president Fr. Dease and SJU president Fr. Robert Koopmann OSB, the center’s mission was expanded beyond the promotion of Jewish-Christian learning to interfaith learning in general and it was given its new name to reflect that expanded mission. Dr. Merkle was appointed the center’s director while Karen Schierman continued in her role as associate director until her retirement in 2010. In 2011 Hans Gustafson was appointed the center’s new associate director.
In 2017, at the suggestion of Dr. Merkle and upon the recommendation of SJU president Dr. Michael Hemesath and UST president Dr. Julie Sullivan, the center was divided into two partner centers. Dr. Merkle was appointed the director of the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at Saint John’s University and Dr. Gustafson was appointed the director of the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at the University of St. Thomas.