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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.


Notre Dame comes to Rome

My alma mater officially opened its new Rome Centre, one of a growing number of global gateways, in January, with some of the students moving their classes into the building for the spring semester and a weeklong meeting of the University Board of Trustees here in the Eternal City.

The first Catholic University from the States (perhaps the first at all) to enjoy a full private audience with Pope Francis, the bishop of Rome praised Notre Dame’s “outstanding contribution” to the U.S. Church, religious education, and serious scholarship “inspired by confidence in the harmony of faith and reason in the pursuit of truth and virtue.”

He later added something which has been spun, in some quarters, as a critique of the Catholic identity of Our Lady’s university. If you actually read what he said though, it becomes clear that this is not really the case:

It is my hope that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness. [emphasis mine]

Regardless, it was the highlight of a busy week: there was the granting of honorary doctorates to Cardinal Tauran of the PCID and Maria Voce of Focolare; mass with Cardinal Wuerl in his titular church of San Pietro in Vincoli; receptions at Villa Taverna and Villa Richardson with the Ambassadors to Italy and the Holy See, respectively (both part of the ND family); and a closing dinner that included ND alumni working in the Holy See and leadership of the local Alumni Club. All this on top of the usual schedule of meetings and tours of the city.

It was great to bring two of the great parts of my life together, and to even see some old friends. Notre Dame, long the pre-eminent Catholic university in North America, has made surprisingly little inroads into the European scene beyond study abroad programs. That is changing, and this visit is a sign of the things to come. I have to say I am looking forward to being  a part of it in some small way!

ND Club of Italy members with President John Jenkins, CSC

ND Club of Italy members with President John Jenkins, CSC

Pope Francis to the University of Notre Dame

“The Church has the right to teach her highest moral values, and her educational institutions are expected to uphold her teachings and defend her identity.” Pope Francis said this on Thursday morning, 30 January, in the Clementine Hall to the trustees of the University of Notre Dame – a Catholic university located in the United States. The following is the English text of the Holy Father’s address.


Pope Francis with Notre Dame President John Jenkins, CSC

Dear Friends,

I am pleased to greet the Trustees of Notre Dame University on the occasion of your meeting in Rome, which coincides with the inauguration of the University’s Rome Center. I am confident that the new Center will contribute to the University’s mission by exposing students to the unique historical, cultural and spiritual riches of the Eternal City, and by opening their minds and hearts to the impressive continuity between the faith of Saints Peter and Paul, and the confessors and martyrs of every age, and the Catholic faith passed down to them in their families, schools and parishes.

From its founding, Notre Dame University has made an outstanding contribution to the Church in your country through its commitment to the religious education of the young and to serious scholarship inspired by confidence in the harmony of faith and reason in the pursuit of truth and virtue. Conscious of the critical importance of this apostolate for the new evangelization, I express my gratitude for the commitment which Notre Dame University has shown over the years to supporting and strengthening Catholic elementary and secondary school education throughout the United States.

The vision which guided Father Edward Sorin and the first religious of the Congregation of Holy Cross in establishing the University of Notre Dame du Lac remains, in the changed circumstances of the twenty-first century, central to the University’s distinctive identity and its service to the Church and American society. In my Exhortation on the Joy of the Gospel, I stressed the missionary dimension of Christian discipleship, which needs to be evident in the lives of individuals and in the workings of each of the Church’s institutions. This commitment to “missionary discipleship” ought to be reflected in a special way in Catholic universities (cf.Evangelii Gaudium, 132-134), which by their very nature are committed to demonstrating the harmony of faith and reason and the relevance of the Christian message for a full and authentically human life. Essential in this regard is the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors. It is my hope that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness. And this is important: its identity, as it was intended from the beginning. To defend it, to preserve it and to advance it!

Dear friends, I ask you to pray for me as I strive to carry out the ministry which I have received in service to the Gospel, and I assure you of my prayers for you and for all associated with the educational mission of Notre Dame University. Upon you and your families, and in a particular way, upon the students, faculty and staff of this beloved University, I invoke the Lord’s gifts of wisdom, joy and peace, and cordially impart my Blessing.

Domers in Rome

Domers in Rome: Jill, Katie, AJ, Miguel, Marian, TJ, Russ

One of the University of Notre Dame’s greatest strengths is its alumni network. Even here in Italy, there are sons and daughters of Our Lady’s University. We had a gathering of about twenty at Villa Richardson, residence of the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Dr. Miguel Díaz, and his wife, Dr. Marian Díaz, both domers.

It was my first time at the residence, and one of the most striking pieces of art on the beautiful grounds is a large Chihuly, Ducale Tower, on what was once a fountain in the back garden. There’s a short article about it in Slate, with an image.

I have been asked to help form a small leadership group for the alumni club of Italy, to strengthen the club’s activities and in a small way, start paving the road for the new Notre Dame Center of Rome, which will open in a couple of years, we hope. (The building is purchased and being renovated, in Celio not far from the Lay Centre, in fact).

Tempietto di San Pietro, di Bramante

Current ND alumni in Rome include not only the Ambassador and his wife, but Holy Cross priests and brothers, students at pontifical universities, a key staffer at the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, one of Rome’s leading catechetical guides, the director of the University of Mary’s Rome Program, and until recently, Charles Brown, now nuncio to Ireland.

On the way home from the gathering,  a few of us were walking by the Spanish Academy, and discovered that the Tempietto di Bramante (San Pietro in Montorio) was open, illuminated, and totally empty. Built as a mausoleum for Ferdinand and Isabel, it was never used for that purpose, but remains quite possibly the smallest church in Rome.

Notre Dame student dies in accident during football practice

This morning, the first email i read was the following from my friend and former dorm-mate, Michael McAllister, in what i thought was going to be his usual pre-game breifing. Please keep Declan, his family, and the entire Notre Dame community in your prayers.

Yesterday, the Notre Dame community was stunned and grief-stricken at the death of 20-year-old junior Declan Sullivan.  Sullivan, a native of the Chicago area, served as a video coordinator for the athletic department.  During the football team’s outdoor practice yesterday, held in winds that gusted above 50 miles per hour, Sullivan was killed when the tower he stood on was blown over by the wind.

 This weekend, several traditional aspects of the football weekend will be suspended in honor of Sullivan.  Some discussion in the hours following the student’s death centered on the university potentially postponing or canceling this weekend’s game.  ND last postponed a game the weekend immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when the Purdue game was moved to the end of the season.  ND has not canceled a game outright since its November 23, 1963 game at Iowa was canceled in the wake of the assassination of President John Kennedy.

Declan Sullivan, 20, Notre Dame Junior

Sviluppo (Update): On 21 November, Fr. Richard Warner, new Father General of the Congregation of Holy Cross presided at a memorial mass for Declan in Rome, at Santa Maria in Monterone with about 30 ND students and alumni celebrating.

Angelicum Quote of the Day


Thomas F. O'Meara, OP

One of my favorite professors from Notre Dame, an owlish Dominican ecclesiolgist named Tom O’Meara, published an autobiography a few years ago. I had noticed a copy for sale at the Angelicum bookstore the last couple weeks, but have not been inclined to buy too many extra books while here in Rome. Today, however, I discovered an entire table full of clearance priced texts as they get ready to wind down the academic year, including this paperback at about 85% off the previous price.

Randomly flipping through the book as I logged it into my library inventory, I came across this page describing his first days in Europe in the late summer of 1963:

“I spent my first days in Europe at the Angelicum, the Dominican graduate theological school and seminary. It was named after Thomas Aquinas but called the Angelicum because Aquinas’s theological acumen had resembled that of an angel. With a few eccentric scholars, some inedible meals, primitive toilets, officious porters and sacristans, the “Ange” lived up to what I had heard of it from my teachers who had studied there. A year or two before it had been an almost obligatory school to which Dominicans came from all over the world to gain expeditiously a doctorate. The study of dogmatic theology rarely ranged far from collecting passages from Aquinas on some major or minor topic and ignored other theologians from Origen to Maurice Blondel. Historical contexts and contemporary problems were neglected, for this was a citadel of a strict neo-Thomism where the salvation of Jesuit Suarezians was in only a little less doubt than that of Protestant Hussites. On the eve of the Council, one of the Dominican professors at a meeting of advisors to the Vatican had bemoaned the variety and looseness of theological opinions tolerated by the church, views held even in Rome, views such as those of the Redemptorists in moral theology or the Jesuits in the psychology of grace. He devoutly hoped that the Council would proclaim lists of clear positions on canon law and doctrine so that those vagaries opposed to the Dominican school of Thomism would end. Most of my teachers in the Midwest had received their doctorates from the Angelicum in philosophy, theology, and canon law. What soon amazed me was that American Dominicans had lived in Rome without becoming interested in history or art. Their graduate studies had been repetitive, boring, more memorized scholasticism, and the two years were physically and psychologically difficult, the life of prisoners whose goal was survival. Sadly, poverty, isolation, and rigidity of daily schedule – even in a cloister arranged around a fountain and palm trees and perched above the Roman forum- had for most blocked out the history and beauty around them.”

Thomas F. O’Meara, OP, A Theologian’s Journey, 70.

Fighting Irish in Rome; Vatican Communications

Sacred Heart Basilica and Main Building at Notre Dame

The Notre Dame Alumni Club of Italy is not particularly large, there are only about 60 people on the mailing list, and most are clustered around Rome or Milan. We had our first club gathering that I was able to attend tonight at the Holy Cross generalate, an apartment building owned by the order in a residential neighborhood just a few bus stops from the west end of the metro A line. There were about a dozen of us, a few Holy Cross priests including the superior general, Fr. Hugh Cleary, a couple of fellow Angelicum students, a couple of curial staff , and a young couple teaching at the American International School of Rome.

Conversation ranged from the usual introductions and getting to know you chatter to the challenges of life in Rome and obtaining the fabled Permesso di soggiorno or even Italian citizenship or a driver license. Given the state of the Church these days, however, one of the interesting topics was the clergy sex abuse/cover up scandal, the Holy Father’s role in cleaning up the Church, and mostly, the Church’s communication challenges.

Much has improved in the last decade, on one hand. You need only compare the responses of the curial leadership to the crisis in Europe in the last few months with the responses to the crisis in America in 2002 to see that Pope Ratzinger has had a positive effect on dealing with the problem realistically, but there is still a lot of work to be done – not just in the substance of solutions, but even more in the Vatican’s communication’s organs and “getting the word out” of the good work already done.

Vatican Radio building

Few people realize just how disjointed the Holy See’s communications systems really are, though that has been made painfully clear with some of the well-intentioned but misguided attempts to “defend” the pope by some church leaders recently. There is no Vatican communication plan, no central organizing body. Each was set up in response to the development of a new media. Guttenburg comes along and we get the Vatican press; then Marconi and Vatican Radio; TV, a web page, etc, etc.

There is a Pontifical Council for Social Communications, but without the juridical authority of a Congregation, they can only make suggestions and maintain good working relations with the other communications apparatus’, which include:

  • Vatican Information Service
  • L’Osservatore Romano (The Vatican Newspaper)
  • The Vatican Publishing House
  • Sala Stampa della Santa Sede (The Vatican Press Office)
  • Centro Televisivo Vaticano (Vatican TV)
  • Radio Vaticana
  • The Holy See’s Web page

Not only are each of these separate, but most are in different buildings, some in several (Vatican Radio, for instance, has three different locations, I believe). Moreover, some have their own web-presence that does not go directly through the Vatican web page. Some dicasteries have their own information services and bulletins, from the Acta Apostolica Sedes to the PCPCU Information Service, which are not always available electronically or in translation.

It seems like the time is ripe for a major restructuring. It would not be easy, no doubt, and the directive has to come from the top, but there is no shortage of skilled lay people in the Church who could create a more effective communications strategy. In fact, they do not have to look further than the sons and daughters of Our Lady’s University to find a gold mine of resources right here in the Eternal City!

Dr. Ralph McInerny

Professor Ralph McInerny, 1929-2010

Notre Dame Professor Ralph McInerny was called home to the Lord yesterday morning. He was 80, and had spent more than 50 years as a Philosophy professor there,  and became one of our nation’s leading Thomists. He was given an endowed chair the same year i was born. He directed the Jacques Maritain Center and the Medieval Institute, and served as a visiting professor for universities around the world, including here in Rome. In addition to his two dozen scholarly books, he has authored something like eighty novels. He co-founded Crisis magazine, the standard bearer of conservative Catholicism in the U.S. for years, and was still writing articles when President Obama gave the commencement address at Our Lady’s University last year.

Though he was teaching throughout my time under the Golden Dome, I never had him for a class. In part, this was because I paid more attention to my theology major than my philosophy major (by a ratio of 2:1), and he did not teach the required philosophy courses. Partially, it was because he was so popular with some of my Knights of Columbus colleagues and other philo majors, that I felt like I was taking a seminar with him anyway, just from our conversations! I did hear him speak on several occasions, and had a few conversations with him outside the lecture hall.

The most memorable was actually after I graduated from Notre Dame, and was a graduate student at The Catholic University of America. The Theology Students Association hosted a series of guest lecturers throughout the year, and Prof. McInerny was invited during my second year. As one of four or five officers – the only one not a priest or seminarian at that time – I was invited to dinner before the lecture with the Professor and the other officers. I do not recall the topic of his lecture, for what impressed me most was the conversation over dinner. He is a tribute to a different kind of Catholic, a different generation, “old school” in a positive way – a living reminder that a great man’s followers usually lack his balance.

Notre Dame's Basilica of the Sacred Heart and Main Building

One of the first questions asked by one of the seminarians was about Father Ted Hesburgh, CSC, who had served as president of Notre Dame for 35 years, starting just three years before Ralph McInerny was hired as an instructor in philosophy in 1955. They were practically salivating to get the “inside scoop” from this icon of neo-conservative Catholicism on the ‘archliberal’ priest-president who lead Notre Dame and much of American Catholicism through the civil rights movement and the Second Vatican Council. I had never before felt such palpable ill-will by Catholics to a priest, especially one of such prominence and accomplishment (yes, I was still a young and naïve 24!).

“We are good friends. We do not always agree, but he is a good priest, and I have nothing but respect for the man.”

Silence. Slack  jaws. And some little monster inside of me shouting “yes!” in a fit of indignant righteousness.

He offered such a contrast to my own generation, wherein the different schools of thought, philosophies, ecclesiologies, interpretations of tradition or scripture have hardened in such a way that the other is not only ‘other’ but has become the enemy – vile and to be despised. It is the oldest trick in the book, divide and conquer!  If we are really striving for continuity in tradition, why not embrace the idea that we can disagree without being disagreeable, like Ralph McInerny and Ted Hesburgh? Is that too passé?

Professor McInerny was a prolific researcher and teacher, and I have not agreed with everything I have heard from him or from those he has taught, but I have a profound respect for him, and was honored to have made his acquaintance. He was an important part of the spirit of Notre Dame.

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