Going up to Jerusalem

From where I sit writing, I can look out the window and see the Jaffa gate, which is one of the main entrances into the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The Old City is a spectacular sight, especially when the sun reflects off the bright stones which make up its buildings and walls. It feels surreal to be sitting here right now.  For years coming to Jerusalem has been a dream of mine. The fact that I have the chance to live in this city for a good stretch of time is something I never really expected.

Last year when I started my studies in Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute (PBI) in Rome, I began hearing about the opportunity to spend one semester living and studying in Jerusalem. This program has a long history. The PBI has had a house in Jerusalem since around 1930. Since then, this house - which actually looks more like a castle from the outside - has been run by the Jesuits as a center for biblical and archeological research in the Holy Land. When the late Cardinal Martini was rector of the PBI in the 1970’s he created a structured program that would allow students from Rome to study for one semester in Jerusalem as they work towards their degree in Scripture. Students would follow most of their classes at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one of the oldest and best known universities in Israel. Here classes would focus on the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). These courses would be supplemented by classes on the New Testament taught at the PBI.  In addition to classroom instruction, students would have the opportunity to visit archaeological sites and broaden their knowledge by hearing from a wider range of scholars, particularly Jewish ones.

The Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem
Since Cardinal Martini started this program, about a dozen or so students have participated in it each year. As soon as I heard about this opportunity I wanted to be part of the next group to go to Jerusalem. When I proposed the program to Archbishop Miller I was extremely happy and appreciative when he gave me the go ahead to participate.

I arrived in Jerusalem (or “went up to Jerusalem” as they’d say in Hebrew) in early August. In all, I will be here for about six months while following the PBI program. Since my arrival, I have been participating in a two month “Ulpan” at Hebrew University. The Ulpan is an intensive course in Modern Hebrew, which is the form of Hebrew spoken in Israel today. Because it is closely related to the Hebrew of the Bible, learning some modern Hebrew is very helpful for my studies. After the Ulpan finishes at the end of September, we will have a month-long course on New Testament history at the PBI. In November, I will start my courses at Hebrew University. These courses will be on the language, history and archaeology of the Hebrew Bible. In addition, I will keep studying some Greek at the PBI. In addition to classroom instruction, many of the courses will include some very interesting field trips! Sometime in the beginning of February I will write my exams and make my way back to Rome to continue studying there.

My time so far in Jerusalem has been amazing. It is a fascinating and exciting place. Much of what makes Jerusalem so intriguing is that is a holy place for Jews, Christians and Muslims. As a result, in the city there is an incredible, vibrant combination of religious sights and sounds. Jews have many beautiful synagogues in the city and the iconic Western Wall. Each Friday evening at sundown, sirens can be heard signalling the start of the Shabbat. Christians have an abundance of churches in Jerusalem.  Perhaps the most important of these is the Holy Sepulchre, the church built over Calvary and the tomb of Jesus. From these churches, bells can often be heard ringing out Marian hymns. Being able to visit and pray at the Christian holy places has been a wonderful experience. Throughout the city, Muslims have many impressive mosques and monuments; one of the greatest among them is the famous Dome of the Rock. In the city the Muslim call to prayer can be heard five times a day. This lively blend makes the city incredibly interesting and at times somewhat overwhelming to take in.

Adding to the texture of the place is its long and complicated history. Though I feel quite safe in Jerusalem, the many troubles from the past and unanswered questions about the future of the region creates a palpable tension. Jerusalem is something of an enigma. On the one hand, it is the Holy City, a place sacred and inspiring to billions. On the other hand, the place seems to bring out the worst in some people of all religions. There are tensions on various levels: between different religious groups, within each religious group, and between religious and secular aspects of society. In spite of the very real difficulties that exist, the atmosphere of the place is not dark or depressing. On the contrary, in general I find the city to be full of life and energy.

In my time here so far I have been struck by how much I have to learn from this place and those who live in it. People often tell me how lucky I am to be here. I agree of course and am usually aware of this fact. I appreciate the reminders, however, so that I don’t begin to take things for granted. I really look at this experience as a gift and adventure. I will try to learn as much as possible so that I may be more effective in my future ministry in the Church. Along the way I hope to share from time to time some of what I experience.

Melting in the sun on the Mount of Olives with the Old City of Jerusalem in the background