My Life in Jerusalem
Recently friend and Paulist classmate Tom Ryan invited me to Koinonia’s pages to write about my life and work at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. Noting that many people (including Paulists) do not have a “feel“ for the life and ministry of the Institute, Tom suggested that I share, even superficially, some of Tantur’s many dimensions. He suggested a number of reference points for such a reflection, and so I am happy to follow his direction. They include: what were your expectations in coming to Jerusalem and what has your ministry turned out to be? What has been the effect of political hostilities in the area on your ministry? But first some background…
Amidst the deliberations, both formal and informal, around ecumenical issues at the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI initiated a plan for a research center where scholars from all parts of the Christian family, but working primarily in English and French, might find a sanctuary for their work and, in the process, form an ongoing and always revolving community of prayer and study. From the many parts of the Christian family – Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox – participants would come to Tantur to follow their respective projects and, in dialogue with members of the ongoing community, be inspired and recommitted to enfleshing Jesus’ prayer: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21)
So in 1972, with both the incredibly generous support of the University of Notre Dame, through its president Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C, and the guidance of an international ecumenical advisory board, the institute opened its doors. Many years later, having added continuing education programs and an undergraduate program, the Institute has seen a variety of rectors from different parts of the Christian family (my immediate predecessor is former Paulist President Tom Stransky who had been involved in the original visioning of the institute during his years working for the Vatican’s department on ecumenism); I have been here since 1999.
My own background, supported and framed by my Paulist vocation (including studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), focused primarily on Jewish-Christian relations, in addition to a variety of ecumenical ventures through my now-thirty-four years as a Paulist priest.
Day-to-Day Life at Tantur
What do I do on a daily basis here? Let me answer that question first on the macro level and then on the micro level. First and foremost I believe Tantur’s rector must maintain the vision of the Institute, building on Paul VI’s original dream. That vision is to provide a place and impetus for working for the unity of the Church. At the same time, the extraordinary physical resources of the Institute – its wonderful library, extensive grounds (45 acres) and large physical plant – constantly beckon the leadership to go deeper and dream farther. So, in addition to our resident, occasional scholars, Tantur organizes a variety of Continuing Education Programs for which I am responsible (in varying lengths: Three Weeks [Laity Retreat Programs], Four Weeks, Six Weeks, and Three Months) which introduce the seeker both to the sacred sites in the land – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim – and to the peoples of the land, the “living stones,” as the local phrase has it.
We seek to make our programs ecumenical both in make up (that is, to invite persons from all places on Christianity’s spectrum and from northern and southern hemispheres) and in interest (that is, to engage the local communities, the peoples of the land: Jews, Muslims and other parts of the Christian family). Much of my time is taken up in designing these programs (still drawing on the wisdom of my predecessor, to be sure!) and in teaching in them. I teach courses on “Living in the Middle East,” ”Jesus in His Cultural Milieu,” and I do some of the guiding to the holy places. Foremost in my guiding is to suggest, both to the most skeptical and to the most credulous, that engaging the holy places is to engage one’s faith, to seek to be a pilgrim more than a tourist (the difference? Tourists go through the land; pilgrims allow the land to go through them).
I try to be a bridge between (usually) Catholics and Protestants, suggesting ways of recognizing the beauty and limitations of the other. Practically, such bridge-building may be as simple as urging each side, in our shared prayer, to remember that the other does not know the code words of one’s own community. Fine-tuning these programs, as well as (too much) administrative oversight, takes up a lot of my energy and time, but I find it tremendously satisfying.
Engaging the Local Community
Tantur, however, does not only serve those who come to its programs. We also engage the local community, and this both ecumenically and interreligiously. Ecumenically, I serve on the board of the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel which provides a regular forum for Christians to come together to address issues of our history and theology. Or in Jerusalem's equivalent of a clergy forum, I regularly attend the Ecumenical Circle of Friends – Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Baptist, Anglican, and different parts of the Catholic families and more – which addresses local Christian concerns. Interreligiously, I serve as secretary to the Latin (Roman Catholic) Patriarch on his commission on relations with the Jewish People and work with Jewish, Muslim and other Christian colleagues on the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. Furthermore, I write about ecumenical and interreligious matters, often occasioned by my taking part in international symposia and conferences. For example, a year ago, I presented a lecture at the Gregorian University in Rome (later published) entitled “One Christian Perspective On Land and the State of Israel.”
On the more “micro-level,” and as any pastor knows, much of my day-to-day energy is drawn into local administration. With the global and local economies in freefall, we at Tantur seek to steward our limited resources and, at the same time, provide consistent employment for our workers. This latter is certainly not an aspect of my work that I gave much thought to before I came. But when one is immersed in the local community, one realizes the precarious situation for the local Christian community, many of whom are emigrating because of the quite un-promising economic future.
So while being an employer of local Palestinians (all from the West Bank) is not Tantur’s purpose, I am keenly aware of my responsibility to be a fair employer for them so that they can stay in the land and rear their families. So the hostilities between the Palestinians and Israelis have real, not simply theoretical, consequences on my work: that is, my work involves negotiating issues of work permits, visas, checkpoints, and closures—both to keep our people employed (in order to feed their families) and to oversee the smooth running of this international institute. Truth be told, however, my very competent and dedicated colleagues (vice-rector Sr. Bridget Tighe, FMDM, and Deputy Administrative Officer Mr. Issa Da'boub) share in this complicated dimension of the Institute’s work. And this brings me to my final reflections about expectations and realities.
My Heart Grew Bigger
When I first came to Israel in 1985, studying at the Hebrew University, my heart and my interests were on the “Jewish side.” For years, I had studied the Shoah (Holocaust), and I knew the bleak history of Christian mistreatment of Jews. So I sought to educate seminarians and the American clergy on how to preach without being anti-Semitic. When I returned to the Holy Land in 1999, my awareness expanded. I learned more of the Palestinian experience. And my heart grew bigger. I discovered one of the many local games, but I refused to play it. The game is, “If you are going to be my friend, hate the people I hate.” Tantur’s privileged location – on a hilltop between Bethlehem and Jerusalem – gives me easy and daily access to both sides and so I have come to appreciate both sides’ pains and deep insecurities…which are certainly not equal. Sadly, with the coming of the Second Intifada in 2000, my heart seemed to break on a daily basis as I saw the stress and despair of our Palestinian friends, both Christian and Muslim, and the existential insecurity of our Jewish friends who believed, through excruciating experience, that their world could collapse in an instant. Real or imagined, these are the realities people live with.
So the mission of Tantur – on the macro level in its uniquely-positioned quest for the Unity of Christ’s church to the micro level of working the labyrinth of laws and challenges that threaten our workers and our property – evermore seeks to be a place of welcome to all, whether they wear a kipa (yarmulke), keffiyeh, or cross. It is a “place of sane discourse” (as Tom Stransky aptly put it) for persons courageous enough to work for peace and to talk (and listen!) to the other to do so.
I feel particularly blessed, with the support of my Paulist superiors, to have held this post for ten years, exercising this simultaneously unique and typically Paulist ministry of reconciliation and ecumenism.
As of this writing, I anticipate returning to the United States in summer 2010 to take up another Paulist assignment.
Michael B. McGarry, CSP, is the rector,of Tantur Ecumenical Institutein Jerusalem