A 'New' Holy Site in the Holy Land

Initiator of the Magdala Project Gives Update on Discoveries, Plans

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ROME, APRIL 24, 2012 (Zenit.org).- The March-April issue of the Franciscan Custody's review "Holy Land," which treats of the Holy Places, dedicates much space to Mary Magdalene and to Magdala. The review states literally that "a new Holy Place is being born."

Legionary of Christ Father Juan Maria Solana is the initiator of the Magdala Project, which the Holy See has put in the charge of the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Pontifical Institute.

In this interview, Father Solana talks about this place.

ZENIT: What can you tell us about this reference in “Holy Land”?

Father Solana: In fact, I was delighted by this issue of the review, and I was pleased that it came out in these days of Easter, as Mary Magdalene is one of the important protagonists. If I'm not mistaken, she is mentioned 11 times in the four Gospels in connection with the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. I think it's the case of an exceptional woman because of the prominence she is given in the Gospels.

On the subject that a Holy Place is "being born," I think it's partly true and partly not so. Let me explain: more than a century ago the Franciscan Fathers acquired a property in Magdala. In the 70s they undertook important excavations. Then the place was practically abandoned. Only around 2006 Franciscan Father Stefano de Luca returned to excavate and work in the said property. In this sense, it's not true that this Holy Place is being born. There is another sense in which it is, however: the Legionaries of Christ acquired the plots adjacent to the Franciscans and we initiated the "Magdala Center" project which, God willing, will open at the end of 2012 in its first phase after many centuries of being closed to pilgrimages. In this sense, it is being born. Moreover, in the process of this project there have also been numerous novelties that have brought to light the importance of the place during Jesus' life.

ZENIT: We would like you to share with us what the "Magdala Center" project consists of, and what the novelties are to which  you refer.

Father Solana: The "Magdala Center" project is a very large project. At times I get scared for having initiated it, but I think we must trust God. Very briefly the project consists of the following: it is a hotel for pilgrims which will be called Notre Dame du Lac (Our Lady of the Lake), as it will arise precisely on the shore of Lake Tiberias. It will of course have a chapel where pilgrims can pray, celebrate Mass and the other Sacraments, just as happens in the other holy places. We have thought of calling this chapel Duc in Altum, because, by a series of providential coincidences it has been centered on the boat from which Jesus preached, Peter's boat. And this was precisely the phrase that Jesus said to Peter at the end of his preaching: Duc in altum, "go into the deep and let down your nets." The boat is in the logo of the whole project and it will also be in that chapel.

We have also thought of making a center to promote woman's dignity, as we think that Mary Magdalene is a central person of the Gospel and her figure can give us material to propose a whole Christian feminism. We hope to name this center "Magdalene Institute." We have also thought of a multi-media center to help pilgrims, with attractive and modern means, to understand their pilgrimage, the names they are going to hear, the itineraries, etc. We are living in the culture of image, of music, of the senses. We think that we can and must use the best means to speak to the men and women of today.

Finally, the project will have an archaeological area as, providentially, we found there a great part of the ancient village of Magdala, the village of Mary Magdalene, of Jesus' times.

ZENIT: Earlier you mentioned some surprises and novelties.

Father Solana: Indeed, the project I thought of at the beginning was only the nucleus of what it is now, as on the way Providence has sent us important persons, ideas and discoveries that have greatly enriched and enhanced the original idea. Perhaps the most important are in the archeological field. We acquired the plots between the years 2006 and 2009. In 2009, we were given the license to build and carry out the excavations prior to construction, in keeping with Israeli law. To our great surprise, we discovered several buildings, among them the first-century synagogue of Magdala. The synagogue is a real archeological treasure as it is one of the seven oldest synagogues in the world found up to now. It is, perhaps, the richest, as it has elements that were never discovered before, such as mosaics, frescos and an altar.

However, from our Christian point of view it is precious, as it is the only one of Jesus' synagogues in the whole of Galilee. And we must recall one of the frequent phrases in the Gospels "Jesus went about Galilee teaching in its synagogues."

In addition to this we found an area of the port of Magdala of the first century, several areas of houses some with ritual baths, etc., numerous artifacts and coins. According to officials of the Authority of Antiquities, it is one of the best archaeological sites relating to the first century, that is, the time in which Jesus lived.

Among the more encouragaing surprises have been the more than 400 volunteers who with great enthusiasm have wished to collaborate in the archaeological excavations. This has been a blessing from God, as these young people, of numerous countries and provenances, have been able to take back a great experience of the Land of Jesus. I am very grateful to them.

ZENIT: I congratulate you and I hope this Center will open soon. What plans do you have?

Father Solana: For years we have been thinking of opening the first phase of the project on 12/12/12, that is, at the end of this year. In fact, I think it will be difficult for several reasons, above all because we are doing the whole project with donations and it's a very large project.

I really see the hand of God in this: the time during which we have developed this project has coincided with the grave crisis we Legionaries went through because of the history of our founder. It has coincided with two global financial crises. It has coincided with two armed conflicts in the Middle East region. And yet, God has blessed us with the generosity of many people. Needless to say, we would like to open this Center as soon as possible, but there is no hurry. What is important is to do it well. Let's hope that in December of this year we'll be able to open the chapel and the restaurant; the rest will open little by little.

In answering this question I realize that I am putting everything in the future, but in reality, there is already a partial opening, as we have prepared a brief itinerary so that pilgrims can visit the archaeological area and, if they wish, Mass can also be celebrated in the beach area. It is a modest itinerary, but I think it has its charm, on seeing how the Holy Place is "born," as opposed to the other places one visits, which are now as they have been for a long time. More than one pilgrim has visited while a vessel, or coins or a street is being discovered.

ZENIT: Will this place have something that is different from the others?

Father Solana: I don't think so. The majority of the Holy Places are in the hands of the Franciscans, who have done a notable job from all points of view. We have tried to imitate them as much as possible and would like to insert ourselves in this great tradition of the Holy Places. Perhaps, if there is to be a "difference," I think it would be that it is a modern place. The other places were made many decades or centuries ago. The requirements of the highway administration, of security, etc. to which we are obliged at this moment by law I think will make it a very efficient place, more modern. Not for nothing will it be the first place built and inaugurated at the beginning of the Third Millennium!

ZENIT: Give us your last comment on Magdala.

Father Solana: Really, there is much to say. In fact, I am writing a book on this project. I wish to add only the beauty of the place; Jesus chose well where to live and preach. Magdala is in a beautiful geographic enclave and those who visit are enchanted by the Lake, the mountain and all the scenery.

And, given that I cannot comment on many other things, I suggest a visit to our Internet page: www.magdalacenter.com.