VATICAN CITY — Legionary of Christ Father John Solana was appointed Nov. 26 by Pope John Paul II the director of the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, the Holy See’s religious, charitable, cultural and educational institute in the Holy Land.
Father Solana spoke with Register Correspondent Father Alfonso Aguilar about the Pontifical Institute’s structure, goals and challenges, and about being entrusted by the Pope to serve the cause of peace and faith in the heart of the city that witnessed Christ’s death and resurrection.
What’s the history of Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center Pontifical Institute?
In 1884, the French Assumptionist Fathers thought necessary to build a representative pilgrimages’ center close to the Holy City to accommodate the soaring numbers of French pilgrims. Twenty years later, the center and the church were finally completed and crowned with the great Statue of Our Lady, Queen of Peace.
Unfortunately, the conflict between Israeli and Arab forces in the ‘50s and ‘60s heavily damaged the activity as well as the building. In 1970, the few priests left sold the entire property to the Jewish National Fund [Hamenuta], who donated it to the Hebrew University for use as a students’ residence. The Holy See opposed this transaction and reacquired the complex in the name of its eminent domain over ecclesiastical goods.
Pope Paul VI gradually resurrected Notre Dame as the Holy See International Pilgrimage Center. In December 1978, John Paul II signed the decree erecting Notre Dame as a Pontifical Institute and Ecumenical Center. He rededicated the chapel and restored it to public worship.
How is it that the Holy Father entrusted this Center to the Legionaries of Christ?
In the last 20 years, the center was run by individual priests appointed by the Holy See. Lack of resources and the recent Israeli-Arab conflicts were causing a deterioration of the center. So, the Pope saw it fit to have Notre Dame be run by a religious congregation to better serve world’s pilgrims and the cause of peace in this martyred region.
Where is the center located?
Just a few minutes walk to the Holy Sepulcher. Its location, in fact, has a symbolic character — the institute stands between Jerusalem’s Jewish and Arab zones, and faces the New Gate of the ancient city’s wall, which is the entrance to the Christian suburbs.
How large are the facilities?
The modern, four-story guesthouse can accommodate 280 pilgrims in 150 comfortable and elegant rooms of various styles. Each room is equipped with private bathroom, phone, air conditioning, voice mail and wireless Internet modem connection. Some of them are also equipped with satellite television.
A number of rooms and the terrace offer a unique view of the historic Old City of Jerusalem. It is actually known to have the best view. Services include lounge, laundry, daily religious activities, 24-hour security, safe-deposit boxes at the front desk, car rental, taxi, on-call doctor, a big library and three excellent restaurants.
What about the other facilities of the center?
The institute houses a well-known public library of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, with over 40,000 books on the history, geography and culture of the region. Many scholars come here to research.
Furthermore, Notre Dame has conference and meeting rooms. It also boasts one of the largest and most modern auditoriums in Jerusalem with 500 seats equipped with table and separate microphone and earphone for translation. It is called the John Paul II Auditorium and was inaugurated by the Pope in his historic 2000 pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
How will the Legionaries run Notre Dame?
There are three Legionary priests working full time in the Center to administer the sacraments and provide spiritual assistance to pilgrims and all the people here. I am the Center’s director and PR man. Father Héctor Guerra, former territorial director of the Legion of Christ in France, is responsible for the cultural conventions and initiatives.
Father Salvador Fernández, who was working with Hispanics in California, is in charge of the pastoral work. A few consecrated Regnum Christi women will be in charge of the guesthouse and will assist the pilgrims in their visits to the Holy City
How safe is the place? Daily news about the situation in Israel does not encourage pilgrimages.
Understandably, Catholics are afraid of coming here. The situation, however, is less dramatic than it is portrayed. The Holy Father, together with the Italian, the Spanish and the German Bishops’ Conference, has recently encouraged pilgrimages among the faithful to support the diminishing Catholic community in the area. As a result, many pilgrims came and found to their surprise no external sign of conflict going on. Besides, the center is kindly secured 24 hours a day by a large team of guards.
In the few weeks I’ve been in Jerusalem, I’ve met pilgrims from all over the world, including Americans. Their visits were safe and peaceful.
Any plans for the near future?
Following the Pope’s wishes, our first goal is to host pilgrims to the center’s full capacity so that more and more Christians can spiritually benefit from visiting the land where the Church was founded by the Son of God. We will also organize a series of cultural and interreligious activities. We will be attentive to fulfill every directive and desire coming from the Vicar of Christ and the Holy See.
What is it like being in charge of a center in such a holy place and so loved by the Pope?
I am very grateful to God for granting me the opportunity to live in the land where God realized the history of our redemption and where Our Lord lived, died and rose from the dead. I’d like to encourage and assist thousands of people to experience firsthand what I have already experienced. I’d also like to do whatever I can to advance the cause of peace and justice in the Holy Land. Aware of my limitations, I humbly ask our readers’ prayers to support this promising Institute.
Father Solana can be reached at email@example.com.
P.O. Box 91204 Jerusalem