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Three Months at Tantur, Jerusalem

The Ottoman-era gate at Tantur

The Ottoman-era gate at Tantur

Summer has come and gone, and I find myself checking off something that has been on my “Bucket List” for nearly two decades: Living and research at Notre Dame’s Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem.

I arrived in the Jerusalem late Sunday night, after what felt like a week in transit via Seattle, Vancouver, Minneapolis, Amsterdam and Rome. My first thought, as the Nesher shuttle drove under Montefiore Windmill, is that time flies and I can hardly believe it has already been 5 years since my first visit to the Holy Land. That was a 9-day seminar with the Russell Berrie Fellowship, at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Today, I embark on a 3-month dissertation writing fellowship at Tantur. It has taken three years of working multiple part time jobs (university teaching, research assistant, study abroad residence manager, spiritual advisor, international program staff) to get to the point I could take a few months ‘off’ and actually work full time on my dissertation. I am looking forward to it, but I confess it takes a couple days to adjust to having so much time to work on the one thing I never seem to have time for!

Thankfully, Tantur has a library of about 60,000-70,000 volumes on hand, with emphasis on ecumenism and patristics. [By comparison, the Centro Pro Unione in Rome has about 24,000; the World Council of Churches library at Bossey has about 100,000.] The library resources suffered some during the Second Intifada (c2000-2005), and is in the midst of updating its collection – a project I have been asked to help with while I am here, as part of my Fellowship.

The roots of the institute go back to the Second Vatican Council and encounters between Paul VI and ecumenical observers, who dreamed of an international theological institute for ecumenical research and life. The famous 1964 meeting of Paul VI and Athenagoras in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives sparked the notion that this would be the obvious place for such an institute to be established.

Before long, Paul VI entrusted the vision to none other than Notre Dame’s president, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC. As he looked around Jerusalem, he seemed to find the perfect spot.

Tantur is located on 36 acres of hilltop olive trees, vineyards, and pine. Overlooking Bethlehem, Gilo, and Bayt Jala, a short drive south of Jerusalem and with the mountains of Jordan visible on a clear day, the location has been understandably described as “strategic”. Prior to the 1967 Six Day War, this was Jordanian territory, and is ‘east’ of the Green Line but west of the border fence surrounding Bethlehem.

The property itself belonged to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, at least since 1869, when it was administered by the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire’s branch of the SMOM. During the Ottoman era, they operated a hospital on this site. Apparently, though, there are ties to this land with the order dating back to their first arrival here – in 1099, with the first crusade.

Fr. Hesburgh convinced Paul VI to purchase the property from the Order in 1966, for $300,000, just a few months shy of the Six Day War. The initial cost of building the center was estimated at $1 million, for which Fr. Ted looked to the generosity of I. A. O’Shaughnessy (known on campus for having donated the funds for the Arts and Letters College). Notre Dame leased the property from the Vatican in 1967, but building had to wait during the conflict, after which Israel now controlled the territory. By the time the center was constructed in 1971, the cost had doubled. The first year of operation was 1972.

Anticipating the renewal of the Vatican lease of Tantur to Notre Dame for another 50 years, starting next year, the University has approved a strategic plan that would propel the Institute to its next phase. The original vision of a resident community of scholars has ebbed and flowed, and most of the people who come through do so either for sabbatical or short term programs, in addition to ND’s study abroad programs in the spring. There are currently three of us considered resident Fellows or Scholars: A Church of England priest, a Jewish biblical scholar, and myself. There is also one seminarian intern/program assistant. There are about twenty people here on a three-month sabbatical/continuing education program, mostly Catholic priests (with two Anglicans). It is easy to envision something like the Lay Centre in Rome as a model for the community life here, with a more explicit focus on ecumenical dialogue.

***

I had finished most of this post at the end of my first full day here; this morning (Yom Kippur/ Eid al-Adha) I heard the news of the shooting death of a 19-year old university freshman at a security checkpoint from a Mennonite peace worker. It is a somber reminder that even as I am here to get away from the distractions of the world to write and research, and as quiet and peaceful as things appear from this hilltop retreat, the complexities of the situation here, and the tragedies, require our prayer for peaceful resolution. And deeper understanding. I am no expert, and I hope the next three months bring me to a deeper understanding and solidarity with my brothers and sisters here – Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, Druze, and Christian.

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