Dr Ivo Coelho Priest & Philosopher – interview

Dr Ivo Coelho Live Encounters Magazine May 2013

MAY 2013

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Dr Ivo Coelho, Priest – Philosopher and Rector of Ratisbonne Monastery, Jerusalem, Israel, in conversation with Mark Ulyseas                                                

Is it true that a Jewish convert built the monastery and that in 1948 Jewish refugees, women and children, were given shelter in the monastery? Kindly give us a historical perspective of the significance of the monastery?

The Salesians came to Ratisbonne Monastery in 2004, at the pressing request of the Vatican. The monastery itself was founded way back in 1877, and is an impressive building designed by the French architect M. Daujat. It was probably the very first building outside the walls of the Old City, in those days when it was somewhat dangerous to live outside the city walls, and it has its own place in the history of Jerusalem, even finding a place in the museum housed in David’s Citadel at Jaffa Gate.

The founder was Alphonse Ratisbonne (1814-1884), a famous Jewish convert of the nineteenth century, whose story finds a mention, I believe, even in William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. Alphonse’s brother Theodor had converted to Catholicism before him.

In 1842, Alphonse himself made a journey to Rome with a friend, who persuaded him to step into the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte. He came out of that church converted, convinced that he had to join the Catholic church. He reports that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him – and he remained deeply devoted to Mary all his life. He went on to become a Jesuit like his brother, and eventually the two brothers founded the religious congregation of Notre Dame de Sion, with the express purpose of bringing their brethren to the Christian faith. Alphonse decided to go to Jerusalem, where he first settled in the Old City, buying a place pointed out to him by the Muslims as the place where Jesus had been judged by Pilate.

He began here a work for children of all faiths, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, a sort of professional school if I am not mistaken. The convent still exists, going by the name of Ecce Homo – Behold the Man, the famous words of Pilate to the crowd seeking Jesus’ death. When the work grew and the house became too small, Alphonse looked around for property outside the City, and eventually bought a site on a hill overlooking the Old City from Greek Orthodox owners.

Why did he choose just this site? Because it is not far from the Upper Mamilla Pool, which, according to what we know, is the place where Isaiah made his famous prophecy of the Virgin Birth: The virgin shall conceive and bear a son. That pool still exists, just down the hill from Ratisbonne, at the edge of Independence Park, just before the Alrov Mamilla Shopping Arcade begins, but it is so well hidden that most tourists and pilgrims simply pass it by. At any rate, Alphonse constructed the monastery on the hill, and he must have bought a good part of the hill. Much of that property has been gradually alienated over the years, so that now the monastery has just a little space around itself, a little garden at the entrance, basketball court behind, and the Turkish Tower, the most ancient edifice on the campus dating back to Ottoman times. The professional school for children was shifted from the Old City to the new monastery, and I suppose it went on for many years, with a farm, cowshed and dairy, and so on.

The great changes took place with the creation of the State of Israel in 1947 and the war of 1948. It was at that time that the house was emptied of the children and boarders, and that the Fathers decided to take in refugees, mostly from Gush Etzion, which was one of the kibbutzes on the warfront. The refugees were naturally women and children; the men were out fighting, mostly. There are books that recount the interesting experience of these Jewish people living cheek to cheek with Catholic religious and priests, and many of them are still very attached to the place, which accounts for the many Jewish tourists who visit Ratisbonne.

Ratisbonne Monastery therefore has, in many ways, entered into the Jewish imagination: because it was the first building in what later became the New City of Jerusalem, because of the fact that its founders were Jewish in origin, because of the way it opened itself up to the Jewish refugees of the War of Independence of 1948, and because, after the Second Vatican Council, the Religious of Sion re-invented themselves, pledging to love the Jewish people (which they had always done), to study of the Jewish faith (which also perhaps they had done for a long time), and to engage in dialogue with the Jewish people. A centre for Jewish Studies was set up (the Centre Chrétien d’Études Juives – CCEJ). Ratisbonne can boast of major scholars like M.J. Stiassny, who even contributed to the entry on the Ratisbonne Brothers in the Encyclopedia Judaica. In 1984, the Religious of Sion decided to offer the monastery to the Vatican, on condition that the Vatican continue to support and sustain the CCEJ.

In 1998 the centre became a Pontifical Institute. In 2001, the Pontifical Institute was transferred to the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and incorporated with the Centro Cardinal Bea per gli Studi Giudaici. The Fathers of Sion retained the north wing of the monastery, where they continue to run the CCEJ, though in its former non-pontifical status. The rest of the monastery remained largely empty for several years.

Eventually the Vatican began looking for a large religious congregation to take it over. The Franciscans had enough on their plate in the Holy Land, the Dominicans had their École Biblique, and the Jesuits had their Pontifical Biblical Institute on Rehov Emile Botta. So in the end the Salesians, who had their theology centre in Cremisan, were persuaded to take over. And that was how, in 2004, the Salesians entered the monastery. One part of the monastery still belongs to the Fathers of Sion, but the larger part is now occupied by us with our formation community and study centre.

I must add that the Fathers of Sion still run a small Centre for Jewish-Christian Studies. Ecce Homo in the Old City is run by the Sisters of Sion, and in Ain Karem there is another monastery run by the Fathers and the Sisters, if I am not mistaken: that is the place where Alphonse died, where the little house where he lived and worked is still lovingly preserved, and where the grave of this man who loved his Jewish people may be found.

Why did you become a priest?

I grew up in a Salesian (Don Bosco) parish in Mumbai, and I had a good experience of the priests there. There was one who was especially good, he spent time with us youngsters, organized games, movies, outings and formative meetings, besides teaching us catechism in what is perhaps the most creative way I have ever seen. (All those years ago, instead of teaching plain doctrine, he was presenting us with lives of outstanding Christians of the twentieth century. It was probably in his classes that I first heard the names of Miguel Pro of Mexico and Teilhard de Chardin.)

It was he who popped the question to me, Would you like to become a priest, and I said yes, let’s try, though not without hesitation, since somehow I had had other plans. There is of course a long process between this and the final decision, a process with many experiences of the life to which I was aspiring, opportunities to pray and reflect, and the guidance of several outstanding priests. I was looking at the priesthood in a Catholic religious congregation, the Salesians of Don Bosco, and, like any other choice that one makes, one goes along and asks whether one is happy, peaceful with the choice and so on. I liked what I was seeing, and at all the major points I felt – though certainly not without self-doubt and moments of difficulty – that God was calling me to serve in this congregation that works especially for poorer young people and young people in difficulty.

All along the way, naturally, there was predominant the figure of Jesus and that of the wonderfully charismatic founder of the Salesians, Don Bosco. At some point along the journey – during my years of philosophy, actually – I sort of became highly critical of everything, and ‘lost’ Don Bosco, and every now and then my inherited Christian faith also went into crisis. But then there was also a process of rediscovery of Don Bosco, and, more slowly and in a more complex way, a reappropriation of the faith into which I was born.

Does that answer the question? Yes and no, I guess. I suppose it is like when people fall in love. You feel this is the person for you, there is no voice of God and there is no angel telling you things most of the time, and if you hang on long enough the first enthusiasm and the first flush of love wanes, but if you do go along, hopefully, often, life confirms the choice you have made, though not without ups and downs. So I find myself happy to be a priest and a Salesian, with every passing year the faith opens up in a deeper way, and I am very grateful for that.

And when did you become a philosopher?

Quite early in the longish process of becoming a Salesian priest. In fact, already in the first major stage, that of the novitiate, our young provincial of the time simply asked me to go to the Jesuit-run Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth at Pune. This was something quite extraordinary at a time when all my other companions stayed on in a smallish Salesian-run centre of philosophical studies.

Quite early in the longish process of becoming a Salesian priest. In fact, already in the first major stage, that of the novitiate, our young provincial of the time simply asked me to go to the Jesuit-run Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth at Pune. This was something quite extraordinary at a time when all my other companions stayed on in a smallish Salesian-run centre of philosophical studies. So I ‘became a philosopher’ because of this decision. I accepted the invitation in religious obedience. I had no idea what philosophy was or what it entailed. But Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth was an exciting place to be in. We had extraordinary men as our professors, people like the Indologist Richard De Smet, Gasper Koelman, Jean de Marneffe, Salvino Azzopardi, Subhash Anand, and Cyril Desbruslais.

I was excited about philosophy, I worked hard, and went on to do a master’s degree in philosophy. Soon after obtaining the degree I began teaching in our little newly opened centre of philosophy, Divyadaan, which at the time was in Pune, and it was a good way of getting deeper into things. That was when I did a mad thing: I was asked to teach metaphysics, and I taught philosophy of knowing. Naturally, the principal was mad, and then he had to give me the philosophy of knowing course so that I could teach metaphysics. The problem was that I had decided to follow Bernard Lonergan’s Insight, and that required that I begin from knowing in order then to reach being. That was how I began to get into Insight in a more systematic way, though we had had some acquaintance with him during our master of philosophy years.

Eventually, after priestly ordination, when I went on to the Gregorian University in Rome to do a PhD in philosophy, I decided to work on Lonergan’s hermeneutics. That decision was not as natural as it sounds, because I thought I had had enough of Lonergan, and that he was somehow also too intellectual. I was searching for something more exciting, and also something on the borders of philosophy and theology.

Hermeneutics therefore suited my purpose very well, but the decision to go along with Lonergan was, at its root, very practical: Lonergan had written largely in English, and I did not have the time and energy required to really master the German that was required for reading Gadamer or the French for Ricoeur. I have never regretted, however, my decision to study Lonergan. And all thought of ‘excessive intellectualism’ disappeared as I delved into his corpus and followed him in his trajectory of thought. The Lonergan of the post-Insight years moves securely into the other aspects of being human, what you might call the existential, affective and religious aspects. He was true to his word in Insight, that feelings were best treated in a theological context. In the process of writing Method in Theology, he did just that. The Lonergan of Method in Theology speaks no longer merely of the pure desire to know, but of the passionateness of being, and the Lonergan of the post-Method years securely reverses the priority of knowing over loving with his extraordinary notion of the two vectors of human development. When I first came across that notion, it was like a clap of thunder: the two vectors (the ‘way up’ which goes from knowing to loving, and the ‘way down’ that descends from loving to knowing), like all vectors, are simultaneous. And that explained to me why it is sometimes so difficult to make calm and proper sense of the conflicting claims of faith and reason.

What does it entail to be Rector of Ratisbonne Monastery? And what is the duration of the post?

‘Rector’ in a Salesian context means ‘religious superior’ of the community, and he has a term of three years, usually renewable once. The Rector is the one who is ultimately responsible for all sectors of the life of the community, which in our case is a ‘formation’ community with a theology study centre attached, the Studium Theologicum Salesianum.

Our community consists of 46 members, of which 11 are staff and 35 students, hailing from about 25 nations. Our students are in the final phase of their preparation for the priesthood, which means they have behind them the year of novitiate, some years of philosophical studies, and a few years of field work in different, mostly youth-related contexts. Concretely, most of my time goes in meetings with my council, and individual meetings – usually monthly – with the students. Since I do not have a theology degree, I do not teach theology, but I pitch in with the history and spirituality of the Salesian congregation. I also continue to be associated with Divyadaan: Salesian Institute of Philosophy, Nashik, India, teaching there every summer and editing Divyadaan: Journal of Philosophy and Education, so I don’t regret at all the lack of substantial teaching here in Jerusalem.

Does the institution interact with other faiths?

This is one of our great weak points. If we are not careful, we could end up pretty much living our own life, teaching and studying theology, and so on. We became quite sharply aware of this lacuna, and so, especially since this year, we took steps to remedy the situation. In the current year the focus has been on Judaism; in the next year we will focus on Islam.

Then there is also the situation of the Christian churches: Jerusalem is full of a variety of churches, Catholic, Orthodox, Apostolic Armenian, and Protestant. The Catholic presence itself is a kaleidoscope with the many different rites, Latin, Melkite, Maronite, Syrian and Chaldean. So there is much to do not only on the interreligious front but also on the ecumenical front. The monastery plays host every month to the meetings of the Ecumenical Fraternity, which draws not only Christians but also Jews, but I must confess that we hardly make time to attend these meetings. The Religious of Sion were far more prolific in their contacts, most especially with the Jewish world. In fact, they still run a small Centre of Jewish-Christian Studies in the part of the monastery that they still retain next door.

Having said this, I must say that we do have our own ways of making contact.

Our students have weekend ministries, and some of them go to Bethlehem and Cremisan, where they are in contact with largely Muslim boys and girls. This is an extremely fruitful and enriching contact. The young people are very friendly, and our students have the most cordial interactions with them. The lack of Arabic does pose a barrier, but it is quite amazing what can still be done.

We have far less contact with the Jewish world, despite the fact that the monastery is situated smack in the middle of the new part of Jerusalem, off King George Street, not far from the Central Synagogue.

One problem again is the lack of Hebrew. Learning the local languages is probably the biggest single step that anyone can take in wanting to interact with people, and that is something we have not yet succeeded in doing. Still, in the current year we have had an series of lectures by Jewish people on their faith, a visit to a synagogue to participate in a Sabbath service, and so on.

The monthly ‘Taize prayer experience’ conducted by our students in our chapel is also a moment that draws people young and old, mostly Christians of all denominations, but also a smattering of Jews. For me this has been an opportunity to meet Jewish people who are sincerely interested in peace, and who work in their own little ways towards this end. Like, for example, the gentleman who lives in one of the nearby settlements, whose way of working for peace is to give lifts to just any Palestinian person who he sees on the road. His own settler friends call him mad, but he goes on, and is appreciated by many of the Palestinian people for his openness. He told me that he also makes it a point to visit homes in the nearby Arab village, and to take along, when possible, some of his more politically radical friends, and he says that such direct contact is surprisingly powerful in bringing about positive changes in attitudes.

I think one of the ways of getting in touch with Jewish people would be to attend the many cultural events that go on in the city around us. But that will mean somehow making time or creating time, and Salesian life tends to be rather busy.

In this context, I was really struck by a recent visit to the Olivetan Benedictine monastery at Abu Ghosh, down the hill from Kiriath Yearim, which is the place where the Ark of the Covenant rested till David decided to take it to Jerusalem. The monastery is in itself extremely beautiful, an oasis of green and quiet and beauty in the midst of a town that is quite beautiful in itself. But the really remarkable thing about this monastery is the hospitality and friendliness of the monks.

Here is where I began to understand the remarkable possibilities today of the monastic life. The monks are not busy like us. They have time for people. They have no other ministry, no ‘outside’ apostolate. They are there when people come. The monk who received us, Bro Olivier, was a remarkable example of this kind of ‘being there.’ He spent two hours with us, and he left us terribly impressed.

Bro Olivier meets many people from all walks of life and all religions. For his diaconate ordination last year he said he was surprised by the number of people who turned up: Christians of course, but also Muslims, both men and women, Palestinians as well as Israelis, religious Jews as well as soldiers, and even 20 bikers with their Harley-Davidsons.

I think the secret is that Olivier and most of the other monks speak Hebrew, and that they have time to waste with people. That is the wonderful thing about being a monk: no other apostolate, and the great value of hospitality. They speak Hebrew, and pray in French, Latin and Hebrew. So naturally a whole world opens up. And they have the time. It’s a great apostolate, truly an oasis of peace. “We show that we must live together, and that we can,” said Bro Oliver. “I can tell you that my political views are quite different, but I experience that people love me just the same.” Wonderful. “I received an sms from a soldier that made me cry and laugh: I miss you. Take care of yourself. Don’t go out into the sun.”

Do you make your own wine?

Ratisbonne does not! But a sister institution, the Cremisan monastery in Palestine (where, in fact, our theology community and centre was, till we shifted to Ratisbonne), does, and has been doing so for more than a hundred years.

Is there anything more you would like to share with the readers?

I think I have said more than enough! But only this: let us believe in peace. Let us believe in the brotherhood and sisterhood of all human beings. This is what it means to believe in the Fatherhood of God: we become one family.

This is the central message of Jesus.

But wonderfully, the unity of all human beings is a conviction in which we can all be united, regardless of whether we belong to this religion or that, or to no religion at all. Sometimes it is difficult to believe that there will be peace here in the Holy Land, but we continue to believe, to do our little part, to say what has to be said, as the former Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah said to us, but to keep loving, believing and hoping.

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