Higher Learning

On a hilltop near Bethlehem, some deep thinking about religion is taking place.

Author: Jerry Reedy ’58

Editor’s Note: Celebrations will be held next week to mark the 50th anniversary of Notre Dame’s Tantur Ecumenical Institute. In 1995, Jerry Reedy ’58 reported on how the vision that Pope Paul VI proposed to Father Theodore Hesburgh had come to fruition at the University’s hilltop home in the Holy Land.

Driving from Jerusalem down to Bethlehem, a trip of 20 minutes or so, you could be forgiven if you failed to notice the Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies. Better known as Tantur, an Arabic word that means hilltop, the Notre Dame-administered facility reveals little of itself from its partially concealed perch above Bethlehem Road. Perhaps that’s as it should be — the business of Tantur is not to attract tourists or passersby but to offer a place where scholars of various faiths may gather to study theology.

Nonetheless, the most striking aspect of Tantur is its location. With the exception of heaven itself, it’s hard to imagine a better setting to talk about God. Directly north lies Jerusalem. To the south are the towers and minarets of Bethlehem. Drop your gaze a bit from the Bethlehem skyline and there, half a mile away, is Rachel’s tomb.

Beyond Bethlehem lie Beit Sa Hoor and Shepherds Field. When the shepherds came to Bethlehem, this is where they probably came from. To the east you can see the outlines of Beit Jala, an Arab Christian community. To the southeast you can easily make out the Herodium, the flattop mountain where King Herod had his fortress. On a clear day, through a little saddle in the mountains, you can often catch a glimpse of the Dead Sea.        

“This was a throughway for everything that was going on,” explains Shelagh Phillips, Tantur’s former vice rector. “Keep going south and you come to Hebron, turn right and you’re in Egypt. And although it’s not marked on any map, our southeastern wall is considered the boundary between Israel and Palestine.”

The idea of an ecumenical institute originated during the Second Vatican Council, when theologians representing many Christian groups were living and studying together in Rome. Pope Paul VI grew to like and respect many of them, but he knew that when the council was over they might never have such a forum for the exchange of ideas. There ought to be, the pope decided, a place where the dialogue could continue. 

Paul knew just the person to get it started: Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. In an April 1963 lunch at the Vatican, he asked the president of Notre Dame to put an ecumenical organization together and create a home for it. Jerusalem, Paul thought, would be just the place. 

When Hesburgh went there to scout out sites, he enlisted the aid of Pierre Duprey, a White Father, now a bishop. Hesburgh and Duprey didn’t care for any of the locations they visited until, as Hesburgh recalls in his autobiography God, Country, Notre Dame, “we came to a remote hilltop ringed with olive and pine trees. On the hill were some old, deserted buildings, the remains of a hospital and a school. Pierre explained that the site had been developed at least a hundred years before by some Austrian Knights of Malta . . . The Mediterranean sparkled off in the distance to the west. The road that Joseph and Mary took to Bethlehem was the new road between the two cities. We looked at a few other sites, but we knew that this was going to be the place.”

Photography by Matt Cashore ’94

The property still belonged to the Knights of Malta, but only a small group of Salesian Fathers was living on it. Hesburgh and Duprey surveyed the building. The old walls were several feet thick, but they were crumbling. The two priests concluded that there wasn’t much worth saving, but happily they spared the massive crusader gate with its turrets and battlements.    

The Vatican bought the land from the Knights and leased it to Notre Dame for 50 years at a dollar a year. Hesburgh set up an advisory council of 30 representatives of all Christian religious traditions. Notre Dame architecture professor Frank Montana designed the institute’s new building.        

The advisory council prepared a mission statement that began by rejecting conversion or “reunion by return,” calling such programs unacceptable because “they always entail someone’s unwarranted demand for the repudiation of the cherished and honored heritage of someone else.” And it continued: “For Christian reunion, the unity contained within the multiplicity of Christian traditions must be recaptured. The universality of the Word of God must also be rediscovered.”    

As envisioned by the founders, all activities at Tantur would share three characteristics: They would be academic, they would be international and they would be interdisciplinary. There would be a nucleus of five or six resident scholars who’d make the institute their home for two or three years. A second category of eight to 10 senior scholars would reside at Tantur for six to 12 months, and a third category of about 20 junior scholars would stay for shorter periods. The plan also called for “special visitors” to come to Tantur for a week or two of retreat and intellectual collaboration. The total community would represent many universities, disciplines, confessions and nations.

Tantur today is not quite the place it started out to be. The size of the in-house community of scholars has never exceeded 15 or 20 at a time, due both to indifference on the part of some religious groups and to Tantur’s inability to subsidize the scholars. Also dampening the mission were concerns about safety in the region and suspicion on the part of eastern churches that the Roman Church might use ecumenism as a cover for proselytizing. 

Crunch time arrived in the mid-’80s. “There was a sense that Tantur’s original purpose wasn’t working,” recalls Father William Beauchamp, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s executive vice president and a member of Tantur’s administrative board. “At the same time, there was never any question of keeping Tantur going.”

The annual operating budget was running close to a million dollars a year, and income from an endowment Hesburgh had raised wasn’t enough to keep the books in the black. With Notre Dame kicking in an additional $300,00 to $400,000 a year, Hesburgh asked the Vatican if they would be interested in buying the building. They weren’t.

The usage problem was solved by enlarging Tantur’s mission. Besides live-in scholars doing research, programs were added in adult education and clergy renewal, and there were retreats, conferences and a program for Notre Dame undergraduates. Today, Tantur’s clientele includes not only scholars but also priests, nuns, missionaries, lay church workers, religious education teachers and 15 or so students. As of last January, 68 people were living there, close to maximum capacity.

Tantur offers a nearly ideal environment for serious scholarship. The low limestone hilltop building boasts the largest Christian library in the Middle East, a 56,000-volume collection that includes many writings of the early Church Fathers. Small offices near the stacks provide scholars with all the privacy and quiet they could possibly require.

Most of the residents live in small private rooms; apartments are available for scholars who bring their families. Outside is a beautifully landscaped courtyard, towering cedar trees and a rose garden the size of a tennis court. In this oasis, the traffic noises of Bethlehem Road are hardly noticeable. 

An astonishing variety of people gather to address relationships not only among Christian denominations but also between Christians and Jews, between Christians and Muslims, and between Jews and Muslims. Relations between Jews and Muslims are especially complicated because something more than religion is at stake — peace.

Tantur’s financial crunch has been eased in part by the increase in people and programs at Tantur. According to Father Richard Warner, C.S.C., counselor to the president at Notre Dame and another member of Tantur’s administrative board, the annual operating deficit is now down to a more manageable $180,000 to $200,000, and that amount is infused from an unrestricted gift from the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Foundation.

Much of the credit for the reinvigorated, financially viable Tantur has to go to the current rector, Father Tom Stransky, a 63-year-old Paulist priest, a former president of his order, and a true believer in ecumenism if there ever was one. He served on the original staff of the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity in the 1960s and has participated in international dialogues between the Roman Catholic Church and Anglicans, Methodists, Conservative Evangelicals and Southern Baptists. “Under Tom Stransky,” says Warner, “Tantur has blossomed. He has far exceeded anything we could have hoped for.”

A large part of what’s going on at Tantur is a mind-boggling array of conferences. The largest is the annual Tantur Conference on Religion and Culture, held for three days each spring. The first, in 1993, was entitled “Religious and Cultural Components in Israeli-Palestinian Relations”; it dealt with such highly-charged subjects as Arab-Jewish relations in Hebrew literature, media coverage of the Arab/Jewish Conflict, and the crises of Christians in the Holy Land. With the exception of Stransky, all the speakers and panel members were Arabs and Jews, among them an Israeli editor, top executives from both Arab and Israeli broadcasting, an Arab novelist and poet, and a scholar from Hebrew University. 

The 1994 conference dealt with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim fundamentalism, another subject fraught with peril. Protestant theologian Martin Marty delivered the keynote address. Other speakers came from Hebrew University, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Notre Dame; the ND contingent included Rev. Edward A. Malloy, C.S.C., president of the university; Lawrence Cunningham, chairman of the theology department; Nathan Hatch, dean of the graduate school; Michael Signer, Abrams professor of Jewish Thought in the theology department, and Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism.

In all, Tantur played host to 39 conferences, seminars and special groups last year. They ranged from a study program for a Mennonite College in Kansas to a group of Palestinians studying liberation theology to an elite gathering of Jewish and Christian scholars studying the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

The 1995 calendar is similarly crowded, and another hot topic has been chosen for this year’s annual conference: Religious Women in Society — Jewish, Chiristian and Muslim. “That topic seems old hat back in the states,” Stransky says, “but it will be a first in the Middle East.”

Amid all the disparate activities, one aspect of life at Tantur remains constant — the 6 p.m. prayer service — although it, too, can take almost any form depending upon which member of the ecumenical community is leading it. “This is one of the great joys of Tantur,” vice rector Shelagh Phillip says. “We may have some California Baptist leading the service one evening, a very strict Anglo Catholic from England the next, and some souped-up Australian nun the night after that.”

Stransky doesn’t worry about playing host to occasional meetings that appear to have little or nothing to do with ecumenism or peace; any subject that brings adversaries together is all to the good, he believes. As a result, Arabs and Israelis have met at Tantur to discuss topics like alcoholism among the elderly, kids dropping out of school, even illegal drugs, which Stransky says are distributed by an Arab-Israeli mafia. Arab and Israeli lawyers have met at Tantur to hash out common concerns. So have Arab and Israeli psychiatrists.

“When you bring Arabs and Israelis together, they cannot help but reveal their ethical and religious values,” says Stransky. “You can talk about geopolitics and all, but there’s a human face behind the soldier’s uniform, behind the screams of a mother. We have to save the human from being dehumanized, from being bestialized, demonized. All these things are, in a way, doing this.”

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Tantur has been the place for meetings of this sort because it’s the only neutral ground in the Holy Land. “We’re kind of a religious Switzerland, neutral but not indifferent to the religious convictions of one another, especially as they’re being played out negatively and positively on the local scene,” Stransky says.

Despite the recent accords between Israel and Jordan and between Israel and Syria, Stransky describes peace in the region as very fragile: “The strongest faculty here is memory. The past dominates. Centuries do not succeed one another, they coexist. The crusader period of the 12th century is just as strong in memory as the 19th century missionary period or the 1967 Six Day War.”

Another reason for the fragility of peace is the inseparability of religion and politics in the Middle East. Religion and politics influence almost everything. Even the choice of a soft drink to serve guests can get a host into trouble: Everyone knows that Coke is bottled in Israel, Pepsi in Arab lands. 

For the Notre Dame students at Tantur, living in the midst of these age-old tensions is an important part of the educational experience. The program includes courses in Arabic, local politics, geography, archaeology and peace. Sometimes visiting scholars teach specialized courses, and there are field trips to biblical sites. The director of the undergraduate program is Father Denis Madden, a priest from the Baltimore archdiocese who holds a Notre Dame Ph.D. When he’s not busy with the undergraduates, he runs programs for the victims of torture in Palestinian refugee camps.

Madden is assisted by Jimmy Venza ’92, a graduate of the Tantur program. Their dedication had a pronounced effect on students. Says Kristin Brantman, a theology major who graduated last spring, “Father Madden is one of the individuals that I most respect in the world. The course he taught with Jimmy Venza on Middle Eastern politics was just great. It incorporated the ideas of Martin Luther King on nonviolence and at the same time utilized the resources we had in Jerusalem. He and Jimmy could have said O.K., we’ll all work on your program from upstairs and if you have any questions, you know, send us a note. But they didn’t do that. They were actively involved with us.”

Brantman is equally enthusiastic about the way Madden and Venza brought the New Testament alive on field trips. “Now when I’m reading about Galilee, there’s nothing abstract about it. I can picture Galilee.”

Says Bret Lewis, an accounting and theology major who spent the spring 1994 semester at Tantur, “The most incredible thing was being able to walk where Jesus walked, to read the Scriptures where the events actually occurred.”

Despite a two-year suspension of the student program because of the Intifada and the Gulf War, it has survived and prospered. “The scholars come not only to accept our students but to welcome them,” says Father Beauchamp. “This is an experience that you can’t buy.” Beauchamp calls Tantur “the most powerful of all Notre Dame’s overseas programs.”

Stransky agrees: “The students live in a community of unpressured equality at table, at prayer, and on the many trips they take together. The community is multinational, multicultural, multidenominational and especially multigenerational. It’s a new experience for them to dine with professors, pastors, senior pastors and nuns who are presidents of colleges, and to do so as equals.”

Stransky remained at Tantur during periods when a lot of people left town — when the Arab uprising began and during the Gulf War. “I’m committed to living here,” he declares. “I love the land. I love the people. They know that for better or for worse, I am one of them.”

As for how much longer he’ll stay, Stransky is unequivocal. “I intend to die here,” he says. “But not right away.”

Jerry Reedy, a Chicago freelance writer, is co-author of Father Hesburgh’s autobiography, God Country, Notre Dame, and editor of his travel memoirs, Travels with Ted and Ned.