Tantur Ecumenical Institute and Spirit of Vatican II

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I am sitting outside at Tantur Ecumenical Institute. As I look to the southwest, I can see the crane standing over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Apparently, the crane has been there for months repairing the church’s roof. As I look to the northeast, if I could see past the buildings and the ridge, I would be able to see Jerusalem. Tantur is situated between these two historic places. I will call Tantur home for the next month.

Tantur has a fascinating origin. It perpetuates the spirit of Vatican II, the famous Roman Catholic Council from 1962-1965 which sought to modernize the Roman Catholic Church. Prior to that Council, the Roman Catholic Church still abided by canon laws such as Canon Law 1258 of 1917: “It is absolutely forbidden for Catholics to be present or to take part in any non-Catholic religious service.”

Pope John XXIII called for the third Church council in the last 500 years in 1958. Scholars have discussed his motives. As a priest in Turkey prior and during WWII, he developed friendship with both Muslims and Jews and helped many Jews escape. His spontaneous expression to a group of visiting Jews while he was Pope in 1960 expresses his friendship to Jews: “I, Joseph (his proper name), am your brother.” Pope John XXIII’s calling for a council did not emerge out of thin air. He began to authorize interaction of Church officials with the World Council of Churches. Although the Roman Catholic Church did not formally join other churches in the 1948 creation of the World Council of Churches, he enabled Roman Catholic leaders and scholars to increase their contact with Protestant and Anglican counterparts. Not only did the Archbishop of Canterbury meet the Pope in Rome in 1960, later in that same year others began to meet. In St. Andrews, Scotland, and then, in 1961 in New Delhi, Roman Catholic observers officially attended World Council of Churches meetings. Although John XXIII died within months of calling the council, his successor, Pope Paul VI continued along the same path. One of the most dramatic and historic moments in church history occurred on January 5, 1964, Pope Paul VI met Patriarch Athenagoras I on the Mount of Olives which was the first face-to-face meeting in centuries between a Roman Catholic Pope and the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. The Roman Catholic Church was opening itself to the rest of the world.

Vatican II expressed this modern spirit in many ways. Pope John XXIII created a new unit called the Secretariat for Promotion of Christian Unity. Although not using the word ecumenical because it might become a lightning rod to conservative Catholics, this unit became crucial. It coordinated the famous document Nostra Aetate, which like all Vatican documents took its name from the first Latin words of the document.

The spirit of ecumenism took shape in this document. The document’s preamble begins with the words (translation by Thomas F. Stransky, CSP):

“In our time, when day by day humankind is being drawn closer together and the ties between different peoples are being strengthened, the Church examines with greater care her relation to non-Christian religions. In her ask of fostering unity and love among individuals, indeed among peoples, she considers above all in this Declaration what human beings have in common and what draws them to live together their destiny….One expects from the various religions answers to the profound enigmas of the human condition, which today, even as of old, deeply stir human hearts: What is the human being? What is the meaning, the purpose of our life? What is moral good, and what is sin? Which is the way to genuine happiness? What are death, judgment, and retribution after death? What, finally, is the ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?”

These words reflect a shift from “either-or,” binary contrasts to “more-or-less,” or scalar terms in the words of Michael Root. These words allowed Catholics to understand rather than simply condemn other Christians and other non-Christian religious communities.

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In an audience with Pope Paul VI, Protestant observers of Vatican II shared a dream “of an international ecumenical institute for advanced theological research and pastoral studies.” The Pope mentioned that possibly a new institution might be created. Questions arose: How to establish a place for ecumenical reflection? Where to establish such a place? Who would be responsible for such a place? Paul VI asked Father Thomas Hesburgh, President of the International Federation of Catholic Universities and President of Notre Dame University, to tackle these questions. Eventually, through the generosity of I. A. O’Shaughnessy of Minnesota, the Vatican bought the land from Jordan. On June 4, 1967, there was a groundbreaking ceremony. Unfortunately, the next day on June 5th, 1967, the Six Day War began. After the war, the Vatican had to renegotiate with Israel the land’s purchase. Finally, in September 1972, Tantur officially opened.

Tantur has existed for almost fifty years. Ecumenism is still alive. At Tantur, I have met a group of British Methodists who were followed by a group of Roman Catholics from Australia and Switzerland. I have met Father Jan from Belgium, Friar Andy from Poland, Sister Bridgett from Ireland, Sister Rebecca from Bangladesh, John and Tessy Menz from a New York Bruderhof community, Hayley a Presbyterian from New England, and Kamal a Palestinian Greek Orthodox. I’ve met Raanan, an Israeli training for to be a Rabbi, Jared, a learned and articulate guide to the Jerusalem environs, and Hamel a Muslim scholar. I’ve met Ibrahim, Sandy, Dayan, Sammy- all Palestinian Christians and staff at Tantur.

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Tantur’s local neighborhood knows violence. In my walks this past week to Bethlehem, I must pass through the Bethlehem checkpoint. It is not as innocent as walking through an airport security checkpoint. The checkpoint is a place of potential violence as a young Israeli soldier was killed at a checkpoint earlier this week. Certainly, the checkpoint and the Wall are reminders of the violence that Palestinians have had to endure since the Wall’s creation in 2002.

Tantur has been for almost fifty years a place which sought to be a bridge between people of different religious, ethnic, and political backgrounds. The bridge isn’t simply in a seminar room; the bridge is in the dining room while eating hummus or in the chapel while participating in evening prayer. There need to be miracles in our world of separation and violence to overcome dark realities. Both the creation and the continued existence of Tantur attest to those miracles.

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