There’s a big wide world out there.
Mention most countries or areas to anyone and usually an image or concept pops into their consciousness right away; snow in Switzerland, sand in the Sahara, sunshine in Sydney. Israel conjures up many thoughts, but the most frequent one is probably “Judaism” and the Jewish homeland. Although sophisticated people do know that the Holy Land is the center of the world for all three monotheistic religions, how many people know just how much there is to see in Israel concerning the birthplace and stamping grounds of Christ?
The Pontifical Institute of Notre Dame in Jerusalem is a good place to begin your road to discovery. Jerusalem is no stranger to controversy; Notre Dame aspires to be the route to serenity, peaceful coexistence and normalcy.
Its history is long and checkered and not within the scope of this article. Today the old but beautifully restored building houses not only the guest house (they prefer not to call it a hotel), but also three restaurants, a gift shop, conference rooms and a giant auditorium. Not to mention of course – of course! – the tranquil chapel. This is after all a Catholic institution, property of the Vatican. There is free Wi-Fi in the lobby area, but no tennis court, swimming pool or gym. Only the suites have TVs. This no ordinary hotel.
And then there is the “Shroud of Turin” museum. (Yes, Turin Italy.) The history of the shroud (said to be the mantle that covered the body of Jesus for burial), how and why it reached Turin, and why it is believed to be the real thing, awaits you at Notre Dame. The mystery, the theory, the multidisciplinary research and scientific examinations, the religious beliefs, the perplexing photographic evidence – all come together in this mind-boggling museum.
The Institute also runs a school to train young people for a career in the hospitality and tourism industry. The school celebrated its silver jubilee in 2015 and there are currently about 140 students.
Confused? Don’t be. Although Notre Dame might be considered as “only” a guest house for pilgrims, it is really a fine hotel, and far from Spartan. A welcoming lobby and reception desk, comfortable rooms, a generous and varied breakfast, fine dining at the rooftop restaurant and the other cafes and dining areas. The Jerusalem location is right opposite the New Gate into the old city. (The gate was opened when Notre Dame was built, for convenient pilgrim access to the old city’s many Christian sites.) The concept of Notre Dame is of “a gift for humanity” that embodies Jerusalem: moderation, co-existence, downed barriers, and peace. Not to mention the typical Jerusalem architecture of a bygone age. The “Mosaic Suite” must surely be unique in the entire world. If you are fortunate enough to stay there, or even to visit it briefly….
The Christian community in Israel serves as a buffer between militant Muslims and militant Jews and the religious diversity, so apparent at Notre Dame, tends to enhance its power for dialog between antagonists. But more than that, the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame also serves not only as a buffer, but as a link, between Judaism and Christianity.
Nowhere is that clearer than at “Magdala”, a site on the Sea of Galilee which is currently being completed, and which is closely linked to the Notre Dame Center and the Catholic Church. Magdala is right by the town where Mary Magdalene lived 2000 years ago. Soon after excavations began, the ruins of the oldest 1st century synagogue were discovered. Nearby, the ruins of the “mikveh” (Jewish bathhouse for ritual cleansing and purification) were excavated. Is this the synagogue where Christ prayed, studied and preached? All signs indicate it was. On the lake shore just 100 meters away is the port where fishermen brought their catches 20 centuries ago, where Jesus performed miracles, where the community market place was located. Over the old restored market place floor now stands “Duc in Altum” – the main so-called “boat chapel” and the four smaller side chapels (for quiet reflection and prayer). The building is breathtakingly beautiful in its elegant simplicity.
Magdala, with its synagogue and chapel, set in secular Israel, is symbolic of the bridging aimed at by the Vatican Church leadership in Israel, of bringing the vision to life. Magdala’s core mission and purpose is to offer a 1st century experience in a 21st century environment and to highlight its historical, cultural and spiritual significance. “To really bring the vision to life.” It is staffed (and visited) by people from all walks of life, all religions, races, sects and nationalities. The message is reconciliation, compromise, peace, tranquility and harmony. The Catholic Church sees itself as the “mother of humanity” and as such has a role to play in bringing her sometimes unruly children together.
The issues of womanhood are spotlighted in “Duc in Altum”, where the main atrium is space devoted to women of biblical times. How appropriate that is in 2016, at the town where Mary Magdalene lived. Religion, history and culture come together in this continuity of Judaism and Christianity at the crossroads of Jewish and Christian history. In this day and age, we found the message refreshing in its simplicity. We believe you might too.
There is much to see, learn, experience and especially, to reflect on, both at the Notre Dame Center and at Magdala.