John Paul II Foundation / Magazine / Knowing to Reconcile: Paul VI, the Tantur Institute and Bethlehem University

Knowing to Reconcile: Paul VI, the Tantur Institute and Bethlehem University

by Riccardo Burigana

One of the fruits of Paul VI's "pilgrimage" to the Holy Land was the commitment to create realities capable of fostering a dialogue based on knowledge and promoting an ever better understanding of one's own identity precisely in the confrontation with other religious traditions, beginning with the different Christian denominations, especially those that enrich the Catholic Church. It was a matter of reviving one of the central ideas of the Second Vatican Council, namely the need to build a dialogue that would go beyond the sharing of daily experiences, aiming at a knowledge of the complexity of the religious universe, which would take its starting point from the sharing of the plurality of Christian denominations, overcoming the climate of opposition and prejudice that had marked, at least at the official level, Christianity.

In the Holy Land, this idea took on a very special significance for the region's past and present, with a peculiar element being relations with Judaism, on which weighed the memory of the tragedy of the Shoah, on which, even in Israel, there was a struggle to initiate a process of historicization, as was also evident from the reactions to the council debate for the drafting of an outline that would address the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people in an ecumenical horizon.

It was precisely with a view to defining and deepening ecumenical dialogue in the Holy Land so as to offer elements for the understanding of the Christian universe, to foster a dialogue with the Abrahamic religions and to offer a contribution for peace, that the Tantur Ecumenical Institute was founded. Conceived by U.S. Father Theodore Martin Hesburgh (1917-1915), with the support of the University of Notre Dame and many benefactors, the Tantur Institute was inaugurated in 1972, although work had been completed in 1967, but the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war led to the postponement of its opening. Since then, as was also recalled at the conference "Hope of unity: living ecumenism today" (Oct. 26-27, 2002), on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of its opening, the Tantur Institute has become a place of study and experience in the ecumenical field, hosting thousands of scholars belonging to different Christian denominations, with the intention of promoting theological research closely linked to a daily witness of faith in Christ, through which to strengthen the path to church unity. Tantur, partly because of its location between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, is an oasis of meeting, study, prayer and hospitality that, since its founding, has aimed to be a place open to men and women from all over the world.

On a level more closely related to knowledge of the richness and complexity of Christian traditions is the founding of Bethlehem University, which dates back to 1973, almost a decade after Paul VI's visit, although the origins of a Catholic institution of higher learning in Bethlehem are much older. At the end of the 19th century, in fact, the Christian Brothers decided to open a series of schools in the Middle East, from Egypt, to Lebanon, to Jordan, with an intent that went far beyond missionary activity, since it appeared, at the time, to be central to the need to form Christians, albeit of different traditions, in the region. One of these schools was opened in Bethlehem, beginning a tradition that managed to survive, albeit amidst a thousand difficulties, taking root to such an extent that from this experience they began to think about the creation of a real University, after the impulse given by Paul VI, who wanted to offer Palestinians, not only Christians, a place of higher education. Since its founding, Bethlehem University, also thanks to the international relations it has been able to create, has become a place of training and reflection that has nurtured the idea that Bethlehem and its cultural heritage, not simply religious, belong to the world in a spirit of dialogue and welcome that can help the peace process.

Over the years, especially in recent years in light of the events that seemed to have pushed away the project for building peace in the Holy Land, relegating it to the attic of utopias, the two institutes have continued, despite the growing difficulties, their action by pointing to a perspective that has gone beyond knowledge for dialogue to promote a culture of dialogue capable of nurturing processes of reconciliation of memories, as the first step in overcoming the violence that withers the lives of men and women.

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