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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Tantur: Dialogue on the Road to Jerusalem

An institute of learning in the Holy Land provides a haven for Christian unity.

The official Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox delegates to the Second Vatican Council told Pope Paul VI that “someone, somewhere,” should establish an institute where Christian scholars and teachers could experience a community life of prayer, study and dialogue. Following this suggestion the Council issued the Decree on Ecumenism, the watershed document for the positive Catholic stance and participation in the movement for the “restoration of unity among all Christians.”

In January 1964, the pope went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On the Mount of Olives, he and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras, embraced as the initial kindred gesture towards healing the tragic 1000-year-old schism separating the Body of Christ.

When Paul VI returned to Rome, he promptly acted upon those suggestions for an ecumenical institute. “It should be in Jerusalem,” he said, “where Christ founded the one, undivided Church, and where today Christians of all Communions, one yet sadly divided, find other ‘peoples of the book,’ Jews and Muslims.” The Vatican purchased the Tantur property, but an interconfessional advisory board authorizes the Institute’s programs and personnel.

The Ecumenical Institute of Tantur, Arabic for “hilltop,” sits atop a hill that overlooks the road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, the road “from the womb to the tomb.”

Since Tantur’s opening in 1971, over 2,500 Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic scholars from all six continents have participated in its programs.

I became rector almost two years ago, and remain enthusiastically committed to Tantur’s mission. We help each other to reflect on God’s past and present works in history, as revealed through the Scriptures and the teachings of the early church. Tantur’s programs continue the search for Christian unity and interchurch harmony through a deeper and more respectful understanding of each other’s faith and traditions, ethics and social witness, liturgies and spiritualities.

Tantur welcomes scholars, priests, religious, educators and other church members. They come for three-month refresher programs, continuing education and spiritual renewal. They share their experiences, visit local parishes, synagogues and mosques and live in a community of prayer and study. They explore biblical spiritualities and the foundations on which ecumenism is based. They become immersed in the social, political and religious situation in the Holy Land.

Students of theology come. Last winter 20 German university students, Catholic and Protestant, spent six weeks at Tantur. Last autumn, eight Catholics from Saint Paul’s Seminary in Minnesota spent a semester studying ecumenical theology and visiting biblical sites. They also studied Judaism at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.

At Tantur our teaching principles are these: we describe and explain our own faith-community: Jews, Judaism; Muslims, Islam; Orthodox Christians, Orthodoxy; Catholics, Catholicism. We try to instill mutual respect for each other’s faith traditions. Then we try to humbly evaluate others’ religious traditions in light of our own. Such principles apply to everyone, everywhere.

The academic staff includes, among others, a Presbyterian biblical scholar who has spent 35 years in the Middle East and offers us the cultural background to the acts and sayings of Jesus; an Orthodox Jew who is active in the religious peace movement; a Muslim historian of Islam; a scholar-nun from the Ethiopian Church who specializes in the Eastern churches; a clinical psychologist who works with refugee camp families in situations of violence, and conducts our seminars on personal and communal peace; a Franciscan and Dominican who relate the Bible to pulpit and classroom; and a Mennonite archeologist who conducts our field trips to biblical sites. I teach ecumenical theology and practices, and bring in local Arab clergy and laity for seminars.

Of the bewildering variety of “Tantur experiences” last year, these memories and images stand out:

• Orthodox rabbis who agonized with Palestinian Muslims and Christians over the ambiguous meaning of “freedom of the Jews in Israel” while their Palestinian neighbors are not so free.

• Two hundred Muslim and Christian parents who spent one full day in intense discussion on the psychological, educational, economic and family effects of the intifada (uprising) on Palestinian children.

• Two hundred and fifty Christian, Jewish and Muslim neighbors, young and old, who, accompanied by Peter Yarrow of “Peter, Paul and Mary,” sang in an unpublicized “peace concert” at Tantur.

• Jewish and Arab psychologists who share experiences in counseling those who are seriously disturbed by attitudes and actions of violence in themselves and in others.

Tantur’s household staff are Palestinian Christians and Muslims who live in nearby refugee camps and in the West Bank communities of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahur. They keep our community aware of family life and village life in the midst of the intifada.

In many ways, Tantur stands in the midst of political and religious strife. We try to be neutral, though not indifferent, a place where people of different faiths can “speak the truth in charity.” Tantur provides all who come with their own ministries of healing.

Notre Dame University provides funds to cover the expenses in running our Institute. The Pontifical Mission for Palestine also provides additional funding, primarily for the maintenance of the library. On any day, one can find Tantur residents, faculty and students from nearby universities and institutes in the library’s reading room.

The Pontifical Mission contributes to the Tantur Scholarship Fund, a restricted fund that provides two- to four-month residencies for university and seminary teachers in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Last year the household was visited by the head of the women’s department in a Church of South India college; a Methodist scholar at a Nigerian seminary; an Ursuline nun and philosophy professor from Poland; and a Chinese biblicist who is writing popular Old Testament commentaries for Christians in mainland China. None of these could have come to Tantur without at least a partial scholarship.

At Pentecost, the disciples of Jesus were filled with the Holy Spirit. Filled with this Spirit, they scattered to the ends of the earth to spread the Good News.

Twenty centuries later, Christians come to Tantur, and then scatter to their parishes and families; to their classrooms and hospitals; to social service centers and their communities of work and recreation.

If this unique experience in the land where Jesus walked, spoke and healed, helps gather scattered Christians to grow in faith, hope and love, then Tantur is fulfilling Pope Paul’s dream.

Rev. Thomas F. Stransky, C.S.P., rector of Tantur, was an original member of the Vatican Secretariat of Christian Unity.

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