On Holy Thursday, Christians recall the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. It is a day when a story about the Cenacle, the Upper Room where Jesus took his last meal with the disciples, is a natural choice for news editors. The room is on every pilgrim's itinerary, but title for the space has been in dispute for centuries, and Christian devotions there are strictly limited (in my experience to silence and a short, quiet prayer).
Held by the Franciscans, then by Muslims, and now partially occupied since 1967 by an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva and the putative tomb of King David, the question of its ownership or at least its administration, has been part of negotiations between the Holy See and Israel for much of the last two decades.
According to informed sources, an agreement on land, taxes and other fiscal matters, has been delayed in part because Archbishop Antonio Franco, the apostolic nuncio to Israel, has held out particularly for a settlement on the Cenacle more favorable to Catholic interests. At the very least, Catholics would like to pray openly and celebrate the Eucharist there.
A recent NPR story relates little fresh news. It suggests an agreement may be made public by June. But in Israel-Vatican relations agreements are perpetually just over the horizon. Perhaps more significantly the comment by Rabbi Avraham Goldstein, the head of the David's Tomb Yeshiva, that as soon as the site becomes "a church," Jews will be unable to enter it, suggests negotiations may be at an impasse.
Goldstein's reading of Jewish law would exclude Catholic worship in the Upper Room, a reasonable baseline concession on the Israeli side, if neither administration nor title were to return to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.
Why then a story on a day the Holy See Press Office is closed? Is there an effort to move the talks to a unilateral conclusion by taking the Cenacle off the table? Already two holy sites, Capharnum and Mount Tabor have been made national parks without any negotiation. Or perhaps, the placement of the story is a ploy to change an undisclosed agreement with which one party or another is dissatisfied.
As a journalist, I fall back on the old bromide, "This bears watching." As a believer, I pray the dispute doesn't weigh on Catholic-Jewish relations and a new agreement will foster improve ties in the near future.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.