May DeCastro, center, assists two girls at the Bethlehem site. (photo: George Martin)
A group of boys prepare their homework. (photo: George Martin)
Maria Luisa helps two students with their research at the Pontifical Mission Library in Jerusalem. (photo: George Martin)
A Muslim girl takes a quiet moment to read. (photo: George Martin)
Ana Garcia, a 1995 graduate of the University of Notre Dame, tutors a few students. (photo: George Martin)
In the course of leading pilgrimages I take groups of North American Catholics through the narrow and winding streets of the Old City of Jerusalem. We usually pass the office of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine and I am often asked to describe the work of this papal agency. I try to list some of its many projects: the Ephpheta institute for the hearing impaired in Bethlehem, training village health workers in the West Bank, supporting seminarians at the Greek and Latin seminaries, and running the libraries in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and Amman.
The libraries, it must be explained, are not reference libraries for the staff of the Pontifical Mission. They are for the benefit of those who would not otherwise have access to the resources of a library.
There is no public library to serve Bethlehems population of 50,000, nor is there a library close to any of the nearby villages. Only recently has a public library been started in Arab East Jerusalem. And most of the primary and secondary schools that serve Palestinians lack adequate library facilities.
Recognizing the need, the Pontifical Mission began a library in a back room of its office in 1960 with a mere 300 books. Today it has grown to a collection of more than 30,000 books, now housed in a building on the grounds of the Holy Sees Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center. The library has materials in Arabic, English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, geared to the needs of adults and children alike.
I have heard the Pontifical Mission Library in Jerusalem called, the best Palestinian library in Jerusalem.
Those using the Jerusalem library come from Jerusalem or the surrounding areas. Many are students in public and private schools and colleges. Teachers find it a particularly valuable resource for their own continuing education, since the library has an extensive collection of teacher-training materials in Arabic.
The Pontifical Mission began its Bethlehem library in 1970. Since 1977, it has been housed in its own wing of the Bethlehem University library. This building was donated by the Catholic bishops of Germany, on the condition that it also serve the people of Bethlehem. The Pontifical Mission Library carries out this function and serves those living in the nearby villages and refugee camps, as well as the students and faculty of the university.
A third Pontifical Mission library was started in Nazareth in 1972. In Jordan, the Pontifical Mission has a central library in Amman and, just recently, opened a satellite library near Kerak, in the south.
This investment in library resources is an index to the importance the Pontifical Mission places on education. Education is a need in any developing nation, but a particular need for Palestinians today. The forced closing of schools during the intifada disrupted the education of many, and there is a lot of catching up to be done. Palestinian schools are only now developing their own curricula. The libraries have collected materials pertaining to Palestinian history and culture, so that they may serve as resources in the development of Palestinian education.
This is only half the story. The resource materials are not the only valuable assets; the librarians are an integral component of these centers.
In 1961 the Pontifical Mission entrusted the operation of its Jerusalem library to the Teresian Association, an international association of lay people committed to a religious life and to transforming society through various cultural and educational endeavors. If there was ever a happy fit between mission and opportunity, it was in the Teresians undertaking the administration of the Pontifical Mission libraries, first in Jerusalem and then in Bethlehem, Nazareth and Amman.
Founded in Spain in 1911, this association, which is under the Pontifical Council for the Laity, now numbers 5,000 members worldwide in 28 countries, most heavily in Spain and the Philippines. About half the members of the Teresian Association are lay women committed totally to its mission; the other half includes married couples and professionals from all walks of life.
The pillars supporting the Teresian Association are faith and culture, expressed in lifelong commitment to prayer and study. Their spirituality and corporate mission agree with the purpose of the Pontifical Mission libraries.
I absorbed some of this mingling of missions one afternoon during a recent visit to Jerusalem. My particular interest lay in skimming through some periodicals not available in the United States; I was looking for articles that might help one of my daughters with a graduate school paper. The library was filled with students, quietly studying or working together in hushed groups. They were a mix of boys and girls, ranging from middle school children to college students. Some of the girls wore veils, indicating they were Muslim; others dressed according to Western styles.
Maria Luisa Montesinos, the Spanish head librarian, later told me that library card holders were 58 percent Christian and 42 percent Muslim. This simple act of studying together is one more stone in the foundation of Muslim-Christian harmony.
Not far from where I was sitting, Begona Telleria, who is also from Spain, was helping a young student track down just the right book for a project. Across the way, Maria Luisa checked books in and out at the front desk. A mother and two daughters entered; the mother and younger daughter read magazines while the elder daughter conducted her research for a homework assignment.
Just one more afternoon in the life of the library. But where would these people go if this library was not here?
The Teresian focus on faith and culture is expressed in the way these women operate the library. It is not merely a repository for books; it is a learning center with a great assortment of programs.
The Teresians meet with teenagers in small groups to help them build healthy personal relationships. They conduct field trips to enable Palestinian youth to learn more about their culture. There is a sharing group for Spanish-speaking wives of Palestinian husbands, focusing on self-development and parent-child relations. The library sponsors lectures and forums on a variety of topics. And Christian feasts are marked by activities and celebrations.
The Pontifical Mission libraries also offer tutorial services. In both the Jerusalem and Bethlehem libraries I met recent graduates of the University of Notre Dame who volunteered to work a year in the Holy Land through the sponsorship of the Accord Foundation. I watched as one of them helped young girls learn English and Spanish.
The libraries offer other services as well, all of which express the mission and purpose of the Teresian Association.
The task of a library is to promote human development, Maria Luisa told me.
The founder of the Teresians, Blessed Pedro Poveda, believed strongly in the transforming power of education. The mission of the Teresians is to provide an education rooted in the values of the Gospel, which embrace all that is truly human. Such education is not limited to the classroom. Hence, Maria Luisa, who spent much of her life as a teacher, now finds it perfectly fitting to work in the Pontifical Mission Library.
The library in Bethlehem is staffed by two Teresians, Mellie Brodeth and May DeCastro, both from the Philippines. Before coming to the Pontifical Mission Library in 1991, Mellie administered the library of Bethlehem University. May told me students from the refugee camps who use the library have a particular interest in books on democracy, hence the staff there is trying to increase the library collection in this area.
Maria Luisa summed up her vision of the Pontifical Mission Library, which is not only a resource center, but a place to form a family that cuts across lines of age, sex, culture and religion.
We try to make those we serve feel like they are being treated as persons. The library is a vehicle for personal contact as well as a place where people may come and learn. The libraries feed the spirit of the people they serve.
George Martin visits the Holy Land regularly.