A Dream for the Future of the Holy Land

Father John Solana has a dream.

The Legionary priest wants to build a center for pilgrims in the North of Israel, Galilee — an area of the Holy Land where few centers exist to serve spiritually-minded Christian travelers.

Father Solana is director of the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem — a guest house for pilgrims and a center for ecumenical events and for dialogues for peace. Prior to this he was the rector at Our Lady of Thornwood, a New York training and education center including philosophy studies for Legion of Christ seminarians.

He spoke with Register correspondent Sabrina Arena Ferrisi.

Tell me about your background. Did you grow up Catholic?

Yes. I come from a strongly practicing Catholic family. My parents were very fervent. I owe them my vocation. They had real love and conviction. We were 13 children, which says a great deal. We all went to Catholic school in Puebla, Mexico, about 62 miles east of Mexico City. I grew up in a ranching area. Both my mom and dad grew up on farms.

When and how did you discern your vocation to the priesthood?

I had thought about being a priest when I was 12 years old, after a missionary priest had come to my school to talk about it. But as I see the priesthood now, this happened in October 1976, when I was 16. I went to Mass almost every day during this time in my life. And I went to a certain Church because that was where my girlfriend went.

Mass was celebrated by two priests: one very fervent, the other a little bit cold. One day, I asked myself, “Why does one priest celebrate this way and the other that way?” Then I wondered how I would celebrate Mass.

When I walked home with a friend, I told him that I had had a crazy thought at Mass. He said, “You thought about being a priest.” Later on, I met the Legionaries during Holy Week of 1977. I met the founder, who impressed me very much. I began seminary during the brief pontificate of John Paul I.

What has been your focus as a priest?

I have worked all my life in the houses of formation for the Legionaries. The news that I was to go to Jerusalem to be the director of the Pontifical Center Notre Dame, in March of 2004, came as a very big surprise to me.

Tell me about this center.

It is principally a center of hospitality for pilgrims in the Holy Land, also called a guest house. It is also a center of cultural importance. We host many ecumenical events and dialogues for peace. The center is located exactly between the east and west of Jerusalem. It is considered a neutral area of the Holy See. On Nov. 26, 2004, the center was entrusted to the Legionaries of Christ. It is also a school for poor people who want to work in the tourism sector. We have 100 youth who want to get jobs in the areas of cooking, administration and reception. Though the school is open to all; almost every student is Arab.

Tell me about your latest project — Notre Dame Galilee — to purchase land in the town of Magdala near Lake Tiberias.

I was recently visiting Lake Tiberias [also called Lake Genezareth and the Sea of Galilee] at sunrise. It was very beautiful, and I thought, “It would be great to have a place here — to present the life and doctrine of Our Lord with modern technology.” For example, this is a historical village. We could have multimedia — like an IMAX and computer screens — as a teaching tool. But this could also be a place where one could have a house for spiritual retreats.

This center could also sow seeds in the dialogue for peace. I think that an aspect which will favor peace is employment. There must be more employment because there is lots of poverty. A center which can sustain 200 families would be a concrete action in this area.

Do you think pilgrims would come here?

In the north of Israel is Galilee, and in the south, Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, there are many guest houses. But in the north, there is virtually nothing. There may be 500 beds altogether. I thought it would be nice to increase the number of beds, to offer the appropriate atmosphere to pilgrims and also offer spiritual retreats and formation. I then discovered that this land was for sale. I thought it was perfect. It's a holy area, and it's large enough to build on.

What about the fact that it located in Magdala?

This is the area where Mary Magdalene came from. She is an important figure. I thought we could also have a center on the spirituality of women. This is very attractive to people now. There is a very valuable feminism which must be developed.

What stage is your project at right now?

We have already spoken to the owner. Now we need economic help to see this project through.

Is it safe for pilgrims to travel to the Holy Land?

The vision of safety here is presented in an exaggerated way. Many people are too afraid, and it is not justified. There are cities in the world with far more deaths than Jerusalem. Yes, there are areas of conflict, but they are far away from the itineraries of pilgrims. I have never heard of a single pilgrim getting hurt.

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from Jersey City, New Jersey.



click on “The Galilee Project.”

Or: CatholicWorldMission.org