A Closer Look: Notre Dame, the Tantur Ecumenical Institute and Holy Land Peace Building

Author: O'Neil, Alison

A Closer Look: Notre Dame, the Tantur Ecumenical Institute and Holy Land Peace Building

In June, University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. journeyed to the Vatican to discuss theological matters — Catholic education, Holy Cross missions and other issues — with Pope Francis and other Church leaders. The gathering of priests highlighted the significance of Jerusalem’s Tantur Ecumenical Institute as both a theological linchpin and a potential instrument of peacebuilding.

Its name evokes curiosity, and even a sense of mysticism: What is this institute, and how does its work relate to Notre Dame? While owned by the Holy See, Tantur is a theological research institute leased to the university that was founded in 1972. Nestled among cypress and olive trees and set on a hill overlooking Jerusalem, Tantur boasts a library with 70,000 volumes, a chapel, a dining hall, classrooms and conference rooms. The Institute offers several options for visitors and scholars, including the three-week Easter Encounter, a Scholar’s Program and additional summer opportunities. 

In addition, Tantur hosts field trips that allow visitors to explore Holy Land sites such as Bethlehem, the Dead Sea and the City of David. Participants enjoy a mixture of bus trips and hikes to some of the earliest churches and most significant religious sites.

Not all of Tantur’s activities fall under the umbrella of Christian theology. Occasionally, the Institute even offers language classes and public lectures. Such talks, hosted by professors from Yale to the University of London, have explored topics such as theories of war and peace, papal history and the writings of Dante.

In June, Fr. Jenkins met with Brian Farrell L.C., a bishop well-known for his work in mediation between faiths. In a Notre Dame press release, Bishop Farrell spoke of Tantur as a platform for intellectual freedom in which “anybody who is willing to sit down and talk … [is] welcome.” Farrell believes that Tantur can play a role in bridging the religious and political divides that have plagued the Holy Land for so long.

Tantur is fulfilling Bishop Farrell’s claims in more ways than one. The Institute serves as a gathering place for Muslims, Christians and Jews interested in discussion. In 2015, for example, Tantur held a Conference on the Future of Interreligious Dialogue in Israel, during which attendees discussed Jewish-Christian and Christian-Muslim relations in the Holy Land. A six-week program in 2013 took visitors to mosques, temples and churches and exposed them to the views of each faith. 

Tantur’s “primary mission,” as Tantur rector Rev. Russ McDougall, C.S.C. puts it, is the study of Christian theology. However, much of Tantur’s work focuses on showing people of different faiths that their beliefs are not so different after all. “Local organizations that bring young Palestinians and Israelis together in order to nurture friendships frequently meet at Tantur,” says Fr. Russ. 

“So do ‘Combatants for Peace’ — Israelis and Palestinians who have been involved in violence, as soldiers or as protesters, and who are now looking for a way forward together. We also collaborate with local religious leaders and interfaith organizations on a number of initiatives that allow the international scholars, pastors, teachers and students who take part in our programs to meet and get to know the diversity of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities in the Holy Land.”

The Institute’s website lists a diverse cast of 29 “regular” lecturers “in addition to visiting scholars and other academics,” all of whom bring a unique perspective to the theological table. Here, men and women, reverends and rabbis, scholars and priests and more can discuss their views in a peaceful setting.

Fr. Russ, summarizing Tantur’s work, connects peacebuilding with God’s plan for the institute: “So in smaller and in more ambitious ways we try to build up the kind of relationships that for Christians are signs of God's peaceable kingdom present in our midst even now.”