The Holy Land

The city of Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock in the foreground.
(Photos provided by Fr. Meconi)

Spending the Christmas season in the Holy Land has made me much more sensitive to how communities are “ringing in” the New Year. As the date turned from 2014 to 2015, two very different calls for solidarity made the news.

On the one hand, January 1 marks the Church’s “World Day of Peace.” When Blessed Paul VI inaugurated this universal call to human solidarity in 1967, he began by teaching that, “It is our desire that then, every year, this commemoration be repeated as a hope and as a promise, at the beginning of the calendar which measures and outlines the path of human life in time, that Peace with its just and beneficent equilibrium may dominate the development of events to come.” The New Year 2015 thus began with Pope Francis’ echoing the Epistle to Philemon, “No longer slaves, but brothers and sisters.” Francis opens by calling all people of good faith to “resist the temptation to act in a manner unworthy of our humanity.” We do this by ceasing to look at one another as problems or as products, but rather as people. Francis boldly scolded those who reduce refugees—the migrant worker, those forced into prostitution, and all who must beg for their bread—to the status of objects, used and discarded by the powerful.

The day before Francis’ call for peace, the Palestinian chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, also commemorated the New Year, by recalling the 50th anniversary of the founding of Fatah, the former Palestinian National Liberation Movement. On January 1, 1965, a group of Fatah militants attempted to blow up a source of Israel’s water supply (the explosives failed to detonate), but were more successful later that year in their attacks on public transportation, as well as on private homes of prominent Jewish leaders. Ever since those attacks, Palestinians regard January 1 as their call to independence, which includes a challenge to do whatever they need to in order to establish themselves as their own sovereign people. Fatah’s New Year’s message was a call to use “all available means” against the Jewish “terrorists” who “occupy” their land.

Clearly, I possess neither the historical awareness, nor the cultural sensitivities, to understand everything that is going on here in Israel (I am sure many readers will point this out to me below in their comments!). I do not know how (or if) Israelis should live in Hebron or Beit El, and I am not exactly sure why Sweden recognizes Palestine, while the United Nations just rejected Palestine’s plea to reconfigure Israel’s borders, yet again. I will leave those questions up to the politicians and leaders. What I do care about is the growing persecution of Christians, and, on the other hand, the amazing work done here by so many to help the most vulnerable in this war-torn land.

Fr. Meconi with some of his directees: Kyle Berens, Fr. Meconi, Peter Fineseca, David Miloscia, and Cesar Anicama from Peru.

I have been blessed to have spent the past few weeks here accompanying a couple dozen transitional deacons (most of whom will be ordained this coming May or June) on a retreat and pilgrimage. Being in Israel over Christmas is a bittersweet experience: it is wonderful to see how the Roman Catholic Christians conduct themselves, but it is so sad to see Christians forced to move out from their homes to a land where they will not have to suffer from the prejudice of others towards them, if not outright persecution for their faith. According to some statistics (and, admittedly, they do vary widely) Israel today is only .8% Christian (some say 4%). What is very clear is that more and more Catholic families are looking to emigrate from their homes because of how they are mistreated by all sides.

Take, for instance, the town of Bethlehem, where our group fittingly celebrated the Epiphany of the Lord in the “Field of Shepherds.” This is a city which, only a decade ago, had a Christian population of about 20,000. However, today, it has maybe one quarter of that number living there, leaving possibly just a handful of Christian families in Bethlehem. Supposedly, Muslims intentionally buy up all the land they can—funded with endless money from oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar—and then have such a corner on the market that makes it very difficult for Christians to live here. In fact, while we were in Bethlehem, a fist fight broke out between our Christian tour guide and a Muslim man who was caught antagonizing the Catholic store owners where our bus had stopped to allow us to purchase souvenirs. He was “incensed” (pun chosen) that we chose to shop only there, and was threatening the Christian merchants with bodily harm, as well as the destruction of the store. According to our tour guide, this kind of thing happens all the time. He said that Muslims know Christians do not fight back, and when Christians “turn the other cheek,” they take the Christians’ land, stores, and way of life. This was a challenge to me and many of the men on our tour who do not live with the day-to-day pressures of religious and cultural tensions. It made me rethink how difficult a situation that is to live in: it’s all too easy to teach the fraternal harmony called for by Pope Francis, and the beautiful history of 20th century ecumenism; but it is another thing to live next door to a people who cheer when one of your own fellow believers is attacked and their livelihood destroyed.

Mass at Dominus Flevit Church (“The Lord Wept”) outside Jerusalem

To muddy the waters even further, when I asked why the Israeli government does not help the Christians more in this fight against Islam, the bus driver spoke the only English sentence I heard from him in two weeks: “They don’t care about us, they only care about our churches.” The Catholic churches in the Holy Land are beautiful, and they rightly draw many, many tourists—3 ½ million at the last count. While the Greek Orthodox do not allow local men to be elevated to Patriarch (they must be Greek), the Catholics are bravely shepherded by Archbishop Fouad Twai, a Jordanian Catholic who has served as Co-Adjutor Bishop here since 2005, and as Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem since 2008. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Oriental Churches is responsible for finding such men to lead the Church in the Middle East, and is entrusted with safeguarding the Roman Church’s rights and relationships in this unbelievably complicated and messy part of the world. If you travel here, you, too, will notice very palpable differences between how the Roman Christians run their places of worship, and how the various Oriental communities do. We should be very proud of the Catholics: our churches are really places of prayer, and the leaders of those Catholic churches—although small in number—are fostered from local vocations. There are over 200 Franciscans, from all over the world, living and working daily to keep our Roman Catholic places of worship open. Your prayers and contributions assist the life of the Christian people in this part of the world, where Christ first came.

Fr. Meconi with Brother Leo, OFM, at Dominus Flevit Church

As God, Jesus Christ transcends any geographic or cultural confinements. As a man, however, he was born to a particular people in a particular place. In the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), the eternal Son of God chose the land of Israel, the tribe of Judah, and all the customs of first century Jews in which to make his home. While these places and people are not intrinsically closer to the Savior than all the rest, there is something very special about getting to visit those special sites where Christian tradition tells us that the Word became flesh, where Our Lady gave birth to Jesus, where Jesus lived and worked, where he walked to his death and, of course, where the place of his life-giving resurrection occurred.

The British mystical theologian, Caryll Houselander, used to define the Church as “Christ dwelling in men.” The men I have gotten to know on this pilgrimage are real signs of hope for our Church: they all come from families where the Faith is important, from communities who want manly priests and loving pastors, and from parishes who have spent decades asking God daily for faithful shepherds—Salina and Wichita in Kansas, Cape Girardeau and St. Louis in Missouri, among others. These seminarians really are answers to so many prayers and sacrifices. They never knew St. John Paul II in his prime, but they know his words, and they embrace his legacy. Most of them became adults just as Pope Emeritus Benedict was continuing the vision of Vatican II with his own theological wisdom and unique appreciation for the depths of the liturgy. They are now faithfully awaiting to see just what Pope Francis might do or say next. They are good young men who want to serve Christ and his Church. They are loving toward one another, faithful to their prayer life, and so, so excited about serving you as a priest of Jesus Christ.

Place of Jesus’ Birth, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

As wonderful as the past few weeks have been, a pilgrimage for the Christian is a gift and a grace, never a requirement. We are not Jews with eyes on Jerusalem; we are not Muslims in need of Mecca. Our God is not confined to any one place and, really—in the Holy Eucharist, in your prayers, and in those you love—God is closer than any rock or stone in a distant land could ever convey to you. May you look for him in peace, and in the assurance of his love for you, in this New Year of 2015. Pray for the Christians of the Holy Land, and look for ways to help them. This is where Christ was born. But more importantly, let Christ be born daily in you as you live out your vocation as his beloved.

Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ About Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Meconi, SJ is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.

Comments

  1. Thank you for teaching us so beautifully.