Today is the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Six-Day War. At the time, I was temporarily living in a very Jewish environment in Queens, NY. I remember very well the anxiety that suddenly seemed to preoccupy people in response to Egyptian President Nasser's threats and the UN's obsequiousness - the sudden sense that the very survival of Israel and of the Jewish People was once again at stake. I remember the morning when the war began. Above all, I remember when and how it ended, with total Israeli victory.
That victory made possible the unification of the Holy City of Jerusalem, artificially divided by the 1949 armistice. I can still visualize the enormous outpouring of emotion as Jews were once again free to pray at the Western Wall, which they had been prohibited from visiting since Jordan's seizure and occupation of East Jerusalem back during Israel's War of Independence. I had always wanted to visit the sacred Christians sites in the Holy Land, and now I mentally added the Wall and the Temple Mount to my list - little knowing, of course, when (or even if) I might actually get there. and certainly never imagining the vocational context in which I would finally find myself there. That came to pass some 26 years later, when I spent a summer at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem (photo).
Ironically, ground was broken for the Tantur Ecumenical Institute on a 36-acre hill on the Jerusalem to Bethlehem road, on June 4, 1967 - the very day before the war began. At that time, the site was in Jordanian-occupied Jerusalem. A week later it was in Israel. Tantur resulted from meetings of Pope Paul VI with Protestant Observers during Vatican II and with Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I in Jerusalem in 1964. The property is owned by the Holy See, which leased it to the Notre Dame University for the administration of the institute. Although primarily set up for scholars, Tantur in the 1990s also ran a summer program for non-scholars, which I was able to take advantage of in 1993. The Director at that time was my own former novice master from 12 years earlier. So it was a naturally welcoming setting for me to experience the Holy Land.
Summer 1993 was a relatively peaceful period In Israel. (I was there in June and July. On September 13, the so-called "Oslo Accord" was signed in Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rbin and Yasser Arafat.) That summer we were able to travel safely almost everywhere. (Hebron was the one exception.) Not only did we get to visit most of the sites officially as a group, but there was plenty of free time to explore both Jerusalem and Bethlehem on one's own. I walked the couple of miles to and from Jerusalem on my own more than once and unhesitatingly rode both Jewish and Arab buses back and forth.
It was fashionable then to refer to the Holy Land as 'the 5th Gospel." Certainly living in the Holy Land - "running where Jesus walked" (and often enough just walking where Jesus walked) - was a great eye-opener. I remember once waiting at a bus stop and watching a shepherd across the road call his sheep, and thinking, Oh, that's what Jesus meant!
As Paulist Fathers' Founder Servant of God Isaac Hecker himself expressed it, reacting to his own profoundly spiritual experience in the Holy Land in the early 1870s: "In reciting the Gloria and the Credo, after having been in the localities where the great mysteries which they express took place, one is impressed in a wonderful manner with their actuality. The truths of our holy faith seem to saturate one’s blood, enter into one’s flesh, and penetrate even to the marrow of one’s bones."
The experience also highlighted for me the centrality of the promised land in the covenant God made with the Jewish People, a covenant which is still relevant. According to the Second Vatican Council's timely reminder: God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues (Cf. Romans 11:28-29).