One hundred and thirty years ago, the French Augustinians of the Assumption were on to something. Their first pilgrimage to the Holy Land was a sell-out: all 500 spaces on the Marseille boat to Haifa.
People were thirsting for more. Mosquitoes and, even worse, horse flies fortunately influenced the trip analysis and outcome: Bedouin tents were inadequate – something must be done! Notre Dame De France (as it was called originally) was the answer – a “modern” guesthouse large enough to harbor such groups.
The site was perfect: only 8 minutes-walk to the Holy Sepulcher, once the New Gate was carved out of Suleiman’s Old City Walls across the Street. Besides, it would take only 12 minutes to walk to Mt. Zion, to the Upper Room of The Last Supper or 10 to the Via Dolorosa and a few more to the Western Wall & the Temple Mount. In 20 minutes, you arrive at Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Today, even with a Corvette, it would be hard to arrive faster!
The Assumptionist priests are still active in Jerusalem and take care of “Peter In Gallicantu” (Cock crowed – Peter’s denials – Christ’s redemptive mercy) on Mt. Zion. Notre Dame de France, now Notre Dame of Jerusalem, under Vatican auspices since the early 1970s, serves Jerusalem’s growing number of visitors.
In April 2017, Israel welcomed an all-time high of 349,000, a 38 percent increase from April 2016.
Pilgrimage is hard work, not a vacation, if the latter means easy-going relaxation, sightseeing, comfortable surroundings and shooting video! Pilgrimage entails quite a lot of physical exertion and much more spiritual and moral processing which intensely taxes our resources. After a pilgrimage, a vacation would be the right thing! That’s why I always say to pilgrims that Notre Dame’s first task is to provide them with tasty nourishing food and a nice room for a good night’s rest: “Tomorrow, you will be fit for another day’s labor of intense pilgrimage!”
There are quite different forms of ‘doing’ Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Today simple ‘tourism’ seems to overtake ‘pilgrimage’ as far as overall numbers go. And ‘pilgrimage’ itself has morphed for many folks into ‘religious tourism.’
On the other hand, ‘spiritual retreat’ while small, seems to be an increasing segment. People are often interiorly depleted by the intense commercialism of society. Many are wounded. It’s time for the ‘revolution of tenderness’ as Pope Francis promotes. Peaceful prayerful surroundings are desired. Recently the retired Anglican bishop of Oxford explained how his group was focusing on more in-depth prayer at fewer sites each day, rather than a hurried ‘visit-photo-prayer’ stop at many sites.
Fr. Florencio, a seminary classmate of mine, brings university groups, professors and students who have been here already, to a second visit primarily for prayer. Amazingly, these students seek a lot of silent reflection during the day at a few Holy Sites, followed by lively exchanges at dinner.
Notre Dame’s infrastructure and spiritual contours fit this purpose. The Consecrated Women of Regnum Christi add a special touch which becomes very palpable when you sign up for a guided tour of the on-site Exhibit: “Who is the Man of the Shroud?”, a great tonic before or after ‘doing’ the Via Dolorosa.
This Notre Dame environment also suits a growing number of individuals who come almost every year for a personal retreat. Pilgrims delight in the house chapel which is open around the clock and offers Eucharistic adoration and benediction each evening before the 6:30 pm mass, especially valued by those who did not have a mass during the day at one of the Holy Sites. It is easy to find a priest for confession or a personal chat and the Consecrated Women are on hand for special spiritual moments.
So, on a typical morning you find a rich cross section at breakfast in our restaurant: tourists, family trips, pilgrims from all Christian confessions, both as individuals and in groups, folks on retreat, Jewish families too, especially on Shabbat (Saturdays). You’ll meet people from every culture and faith, completely secularized or no faith at all.
Business, Educational and Philanthropic associations of various kinds and dimensions find Notre Dame, an ecumenical place of peace, most suitable. In mid-July we look forward to hosting Rise above the storm clouds!, a Jerusalem Conference on Forgiveness for the Renewal of Individuals, Families, and Communities with participation of the highest caliber Jewish, Muslim and Christian speakers, including Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Milan.
A special treat I love to offer visitors is a “Rooftop Tour of the Old City and environs,” by day or by night where I present “all the history and geography of the Bible in 2.5 minutes.” So far, everybody, ranging from Korean & Philippine Sisters and novices to European Prime Ministers have enjoyed it! There is a grace which touches every person’s heart. Notre Dame of Jerusalem is serving the yearly increasing numbers of visitors, especially those who are thirsting for more.