April 21, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

My studies at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem

John F. FinkMy previous two columns were about the time I was in the Holy Land during Holy Week in 1997—20 years ago. Perhaps I should explain what I was doing there.

After my retirement as editor of The Criterion, I spent three months on a sabbatical program at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies in Jerusalem. The institute was founded by Holy Cross Father Theodore “Ted” Hesburgh at the request of Pope Paul VI in 1967, and it is still operated today by the University of Notre Dame. Father Ted sponsored my attendance.

Tantur is located right on the border between Jerusalem and the start of the West Bank. Bethlehem is just on the other side of Tantur’s walls. Today that gigantic wall is there, but it wasn’t while I was there.

Every day, Palestinians climbed over Tantur’s walls to get into Jerusalem. Buses in Tantur’s parking lot took them to work in Jewish businesses in the morning, and returned them to Tantur at night. Then they climbed over the wall to get back to Bethlehem. My classmates and I also climbed over that wall when we wanted to go to Bethlehem. That’s impossible now.

There were 43 of us in my continuing education program—29 men and 14 women. We came from 13 countries. Most were Catholic, but there were some Protestants, including two married Anglican priests. There were several nuns from Ireland and one from the United States. Most of the males were Catholic priests, and I was one of only two Catholic lay men.

We had regular classes in Judaism, Islamism, Eastern Christian religions, ecumenism, Scripture, biblical geography and archaeology, all taught by renowned teachers. We also had field trips to places throughout the Holy Land, to many places that the average tourist never gets to visit. I came away with a much better understanding of the Holy Land.

Tantur was also only a short distance from a large wooded hill in East Jerusalem that became part of the Israeli‑Palestinian difficulties while I was there. The Israelis decided to bulldoze the trees on the hill to build more Jewish settlements. The dispute over this land ended the peace talks that had been going on and resulted in violence.

There was also violence around Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, the only thing Jewish in Bethlehem. Rachel’s Tomb was about a half-mile from Tantur, and we were able to watch some of the demonstrations from Tantur’s roof.

It’s interesting that many of my classmates at Tantur arrived with prejudices against the Palestinians and in favor of the Israelis. It wasn’t long before they realized what the true situation is in Israel and changed their viewpoint.

Part of the Tantur experience was participating in ecumenical prayer services, including Evening Prayer every night before dinner. There was an adoration chapel and the regular chapel where we had Mass or a Protestant service every day except Sunday. On Sundays, we were bused for Masses in some of the many sacred shrines in the Holy Land, and that, too, was a great experience. †

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