The journey from the Eternal City, Rome to the Holy Land, Jerusalem for a semester of studies at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was not a pilgrimage of change of cities but one of longing to quench desires seeking to understand the Holy Bible. From 5th 0ctober 2018 until January 24, 2019, when lectures began and came to an end, respectively, I was part of a team of 14 students from the Pontifical Biblical Institute (PBI) in Rome to study both at the PBI in Jerusalem and Rothberg International School in Jerusalem. While two from this group lived in religious communities belonging to their congregations, 12 of us joined the 7 stable members of the Jesuit Community living in the PBI in Jerusalem.
Israel, particularly, Jerusalem, is a place with eternal stories. Everywhere speaks its own language and does so loudly. The religious atmosphere is thick, the visiting pilgrims are unending, and the political tensions are disheartening. One is daily confronted with the cries of the victims of the victims mostly constituted by Palestinians and immigrants who found themselves thrown in a very complicated, harsh and horror-filled context. As one walks on the streets of the State of Israel and Palestine, each symbol speaks, each stone has a language, and peoples’ gestures carry many meanings. Living in Israel for a week makes one wants to write an article. When you live for a month, you are sure you can get a book out. When you stay more than a month you are lost in a web of religious, political, social and humanitarians’ complications that inspire introspection. The longer you stay, the more you become speechless and unable to write. This makes Israel uniquely beautiful.
As PBI students, our activities are divided mainly into three, that is, community life, academic life and the life of a pilgrim – what I entitled double pilgrimage (this latter is more private than obligatory).
Community Life: the community is very friendly and accorded us a comfortable ambiance for study: quiet space, comfortable library, regular meals and drinks, and daily Eucharist at 7 pm. It was quite easy settling in for everyone because of the great warmth of hospitality from the members of the community including the staff in the house. The rhythm of the community is very convenient for academic work. The community organized two occasions for us to listen to two different speakers providing two different perspectives on life in Israel and in Jerusalem, particularly, on the political and religious perspectives. We had the occasion of attending Mass of the Vigil of the Nativity in St. Catherine Church, Bethlehem. A very deeply moving experience for us all. On Christmas day, we celebrated the liturgy at the Shepherds Field, in the area of Beit Sahur southeast of Bethlehem, in Palestine – a place that tradition says the angels first announced the birth of Christ. The language of communication in the house is English and serves as a beautiful community for retreat and individual pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Academics: Some of us thought the introductive year in Rome was busy but when the academic life kicked-off we noticed it was just a single pattern with different names. We began with two weeks of archeological visits opening up the geographical tales which fill the Biblical Old and New Testaments narrative. It was a mixture of both spiritual pilgrimage and intellectual exploration since, though visited for academic reasons, some holy sites inspired prayers and meditations. Most of these excursions, largely archeological, took a day’s trip of visiting different sites that speak the history of the people of Israel archeologically. At least, we discovered that stones have languages and they never stopped speaking. The archaeological visits were dispersed from the beginning to the end of the semester mostly all our weekends are dedicated to such visits. Studying the Holy Bible in the Holy land for a semester has strengthened our understanding of the meaning of words and symbols employed in the composition of the Bible. It was also quite enriching to have the pleasure of listening to Jewish professors speak about the Sacred Scriptures as their own heritage and the depth of meaning, both cultural, historical, and theological that they unpack. Besides, being in a class of people from different religious traditions who are all seeking to understand the bible enriched the quality of perspectives presented in class discussions.
Double pilgrimage: It was clear for the 14 students from PBI, Rome that a semester in Jerusalem was a double pilgrimage, intellectual and spiritual. While academics and intellectual activities brought us here, our presence in the Land of the Biblical narratives made it very easy to access Holy grounds for prayers and spiritual regeneration. Although most of our time was spent on pilgrimages to archaeological sites to understand ancient history, we also had the special honour of reserving Holy Sites to celebrate the Eucharist. We were pilgrims all through the semester.
Fr. Gabriel Ujah Ejembi, S.J.