Pro Unione

Home » Travel » Holy Land

Category Archives: Holy Land

Into the Desert

As I continue my research fellowship at Tantur, marveling at the amount of work one can do on a doctorate when one has normal access to a library and is not working four or five part time jobs, I have had some occasions to join the sabbatical program on a couple of their excursions.

For the last two days, we went into the desert: Qumran, Masada, floating the Dead Sea, overnight at Kibbutz Mash’abei Sadeh, Makhtesh HaGadol, and lunch with a family of Negev Beduin.

Qumran is the archaeological site between the Dead Sea and the caves on the eastern slopes of the Judean mountains, just over 20 km due east of Jerusalem as the Tristramit fly. Eleven of the scores of caves in the hills contained over 900 manuscripts dating about 2000 years old, most of which include what later became the canonical books of the Hebrew Bible (except Esther), leading to some connections between Qumran and the treasury of scrolls found in the caves, and this is what drives interest in Qumran, as it is, by itself, a fairly small archaeological site. The scriptural texts were a millennium older than the previous oldest surviving manuscripts, giving us a measure for the development over time, and the impressive consistency.

map-Qumran-spm-g-02

Masada is a desert fortress situated on a massive mesa 53km southeast of Jerusalem, towering over the Dead Sea. To say it is impressive is an understatement almost as massive. Linked with the Hasmonean Maccabee revolt in the mid-second century before Christ, it was developed on a grand scale under Herod the Great in the 30s and 20s B.C., and used again by the Sicarii, the Zealots, during the revolt against the Romans that resulted in the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D./C.E. It was during this conflict that the Romans besieged Masada, recounted to us by Flavius Josephus (who was not actually present). The remains of the roman siege can still be seen: several siege camps and a siege wall are still visible from high up in the fortress, as is a massive ramp built by the Romans to access the fortress from the desert floor without having to scramble up the narrow ‘snake path’ that lead to the front gate.

slide-static

Masada, Roman siege ramp on right

The Dead Sea probably needs little explanation, but it is hard to describe the feeling of getting in and feeling the seemingly unnatural buoyancy, owing to its 35% salinity. It is said that when Vespasian came to the Sea during the Roman-Jewish War in the late 60’s, he threw Jewish prisoners into the sea while bound to see if they really would float – and they did, despite being unable to swim. Then valuable for its salt, now the stuff piles up uselessly as the lake is process more for other minerals: bromides, potash, magnesium. More than 400 meters below sea level (at the surface) and another 300m deep, the salt lake is receding at a rate of one meter (about 3’6”) per year. This is dramatically seen when one comes across one of the spas built on the shore in the mid-1980s – now so far from the water that one has to take a shuttle to get from the spa to the lake. Surprising to me was how many tourists come to Israel simply to spend a week at the Dead Sea for its health benefits, never once spending anytime at the holy sites, exploring the cultural heritage, history, or even political situation of the land.

536-jordan_deadsea_drought_1985banner_imgjesseblatutis-foeme

We then spent the night at Kibbutz Mash’abei Sadeh. The kibbutzim are pretty well known around the world, but maybe only in a general sense. Years ago I remember talking with a group of friends about how we would love to have all the benefits of religious community life without the necessary obligations of living in single-sex communities or that the only state of life option would be vowed chastity. We had images of a large plot of land with cabins for privacy and a common space for joint activities, including a library, fencing gym, dojo, and common area for games and socializing. I do not think it occurred to any of us that we had described something that already existed in practice, so different did it seem than the usual expectation in the States of buying into your own private slice of life separate from everyone around you. This kibbutz is 66 years old, with about 200 members and another couple of hundred residents. Like most, there has been some accommodation to privatization, but education, health care, and culture remain communitarian. Everyone contributes their salary to the community fund, whether physician or janitor, and is given an equal stipend on top of the common needs being met.

A.J. in desert.jpg

Makhtesh HaGadol, in the Negev

The morning took us to what ought to be one of the natural wonders of the world. The Makhtesh HaGadol, or the large Makhtesh, is often referred to as a crater but is something altogether different. Where a crater is the result of an extraterrestrial impact or volcanic explosion, the Makhteshim are what happen when you erode the insides of a mountain out while leaving part of the shell behind. Ten kilometers long and five wide, the slopes of the original mountain are still visible, covered in limestone, while the soft sandstone middle has long since been eroded away. It is more than half a kilometer  drop from the top of the rim to the central basin below. In the quiet of the morning, under a hot sun and a cool breeze, we spent some time in quiet prayer and contemplation. Let the words of Elijah’s encounter with God shape our reflection:

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

We then went to the house of the ‘mayor’ of one of the Negev’s ‘unrecognizedBedouin communities, Kashem Zaneh, for discussion and lunch. The Bedouin are Arabs demarked by their nomadic desert life – the word itself (Arabic, badawi) derives from bada (desert) and simply means “those who dwell in the desert”. The people of Israel entire were badawi during the Exodus. Yet, the Bedouin of the Negev were often less nomadic than their counterparts in other deserts, the village we visited tracing its history back at least five centuries. Temporary construction marks the villages, not unlike some First Nations reservations I have seen in North America. Corrugated steel seems to be the construction material of choice, along with semi-permanent tents. It was a Bedouin goatherd who discovered the Dead Sea scrolls near Qumran.

Khashem Zaneh - Bedouin settlement 1.JPG

Kashem Zaneh, Bedouin village

 

Their political situation is tenuous – full Israeli citizens, and living outside of the Palestinian territories, but restricted to a zone around Be’er Sheva covering about 2% of their traditional range, the 100,000 or so Bedouin have to choose between living in one of about eight recognized communities, giving up their traditional life, or staying on their homeland with none of the benefits of the modern state. We were told the Israeli Education ministry spends as much on transporting the 700 Bedouin children from this village to school 15km away each year as it would cost to actually build a school on site – which is not done because it remains an unrecognized community.

TelBs015.jpg

The well at Tel Be’er Sheva – 2700 years old and 70 meters deep

Finally, we stopped at Tel Be’er Sheva, the archaeological site associated with the patriarch Abraham and his first settling in the promised land. A well remains that, though not old enough to be the original, dates back around 2,700 years. We first encounter Be’er Sheva (Beersheba) in Genesis 21, as the place of the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech, giving the place its name: the well of the covenant, or the well of the seven (the ewes Abraham offered to Abimelech to prove his ownership of the well).

Just a few lines beforehand, however, the first reference is attached ot one of the most significant moments in the Bible for contemporary Israeli-Arab relations. It is from here that Abraham sends away his concubine Hagar and her son Ishmael, who is destined to become the father of the Arab peoples, and the forefather of Mohamed, while Moses and Jesus both descended from the line of his half-brother Isaac.

The archaeological evidence shows habitation back to at least 4000 years before Christ, into the bronze age, an estimated 2200 years before Abraham. According to the Hebrew Bible, this is the southernmost city settles by the Israelites.

Russian Orthodox Mission in the Holy Land 

mary magdalen church

The Russian Orthodox have the monastery of St. Mary Magdalen on the Mount of Olives, including the sites of the Tombs of the Prophets and (one site of) the grotto of Gethsemane, just up the hill from the Franciscans at the Church of All Nations and the Garden of Gethsemane.

Tsar Alexander III acquired the land here in the late nineteenth century, and had the church consecrated in 1888 in memory of his (German) mother, Empress Maria Alexandrovna. The Tsar sent his brother, Grand Duke Segei Alexandrovich and his wife Grand Duchess Elzabeth Fedorovna as the official delegation to the consecration. The Grand Duchess was so taken with the place that, after her husband’s assassination in 1905, she founded the monastic community of Martha and Mary in Moscow. During the Revolution, in 1918, she and her cellmate, Sister Barbara, were taken and thrown into a mine-shaft near Alapayevsk in the Urals. Their bodies were recovered and eventually brought to rest here at the Church of Mary Magdalen in 1921. They were declared martyrs in 1981.

mary magdalen church 4

The monastic community here owes its origins to two Anglican converts who started the community in 1933. At about the same time, the miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary “Hodigitria” (the Unburnt Bush) arrived at the church. Under previous custody of Metropolitan Ilias of Lebanon, he is said to have dreamt three times that the Blessed Virgin appeared to him, ordering him to give the icon to the care of the Abbess Maria in Palestine.

Our visits here included a informative tour by a French brother who was responsible for the guest house and the holy sites. The first of which has been known since the medieval period the Tombs of the Prophets Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi (d. circa 500 BC).  Archaeological research dates the tombs to the first and early second century AD, however. There is evidence of both Jewish and Judeo-Christian burial at the site, and it is in the middle of the massive Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.

Both the Franciscans and the Russians have caves believed to be the grotto where the apostles rested as Jesus prayed during his final hours in the Garden before Judas’ betrayal. The Franciscan site is within the cave complex of Mary’s tomb, north of the Garden. The Russian site is uphill, to the east of the Garden. In this, the former was probably an olive press, and the later might make a likelier candidate. Our visit concluded with vespers sung by the nuns, beautifully ‘interrupted’ near the end by the call of the muezzin across the valley, where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque were clearly visible form the steps of the church.

We also were afforded a quick visit to the Benedictine Monastery of the Mount of Olives – with a sister of the Monastery of Bose as porter – where one of the sisters has written several icons. As we were approaching the weekend of the feast of Our Lady of Palestine, that image is included here:

OL Palestine

Ecumenical “Crusaders” and the other, other Notre Dame

In the weeks following, I attended two ecumenical evenings, of quite different character.

The first was with an informal network that has been meeting for decades, the Jerusalem Ecumenical Friends Network (or some variation thereof). Moderated by a kindly White Father (Missionaries of Africa), about 25 of us gathered in the Austrian Hospice (founded 1863)  including representatives of the Anglican, Armenian Apostolic, Baptist, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, and Catholics of Latin, Melkite, and Maronite churches. Focolare and Chemin Neuf were both present. Others are often represented, often including Churches with little or no official dialogue. A pleasant evening and a great way to connect with some of the local ecumenists. From Tantur, the rector, librarian, and myself were present. Simpler in nature, this was the real ecumenists’ meeting; the second was more grand, though a little less on-topic for Christian Unity. The opportunity no less appreciated for that, however.

A few days after returning from meetings in D.C. and at [the University of] Notre Dame, I was privileged again to join an ecumenical group for an evening affair. This time, we started with liturgy at the chapel of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, followed by a reception and dinner at Notre Dame Centre of Jerusalem, just north of the Damascus Gate. (No affiliation of the former with the latter, to my knowledge, but someone recently told me that the bar serves glasses with the monogram ND on it. Will have to go investigate.)

Having been to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris on my way to the University of Notre Dame, this makes the third Notre Dame I had been to in little more than a week’s time.

NDCenter

The installation liturgy was accompanied by an impressive Polish choir and included clergy representatives from the Latin and Melkite Catholics, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Greek Orthodox, the Coptic and Syriac Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and the United Protestant Church of France. Arab Catholic scouts were present as servers and standard bearers.

In a bit of interesting trivia, I only just discovered that the Centre is actually a Territorial Prelature, giving it quasi-diocesan status, distinct from the Latin Patriarchate, with the Apostolic Delegate as Ordinary. Originally built as a pilgrim house for the French by the Assumptionists in 1904, the Yom Kippur War left it in a state of disrepair. It was given over the Holy See in 1972, and Pope John Paul II established it as a territorial prelature barely two months into his papacy. In late  November 2004, just four months before his death, a motu proprio was issued giving control of the Centre to the scandalously problematic Legion of Christ. Given the pope’s known health issues at the time as well as the already well known problems in the Legion, this move was, shall we say, controversial.

The occasion this time was an elaborate ceremony and dinner celebrating the installation of a new Grand Master of the Order of St. Lazarus* and the initiation of several new members from around Europe and the Mediterranean, including an Orthodox colleague I have met here.

Prior to this event, all I knew of the Order was that they had some connection to, or inspiration from, the crusader-Hospitaller order of the same name, and their intentional ecumenical inclusion of members, and their support of a keynote at the National Workshop in Christian Unity in the U.S. It is this ecumenical inclusion – if not explicit goal of Christian Unity – that makes this Order more appealing to some ecumenists than some of the more widely known charitable Orders – such as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, or the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. (I am coming to think of all of these organizations as elaborate donor recognition societies, or as the Knights of Columbus on steroids. Which is no bad thing, in itself).

I was impressed with the conversations I had, with both officers and guests, including delightful dinner conversation with the local Finnish Lutheran pastor and her daughter, though we shared the experience as sort of outsiders – coming from cultures where the medieval concepts of royalty and nobility have been excised. Many of those present were from European countries where these ideas are still very much alive, if in a different form than was the case when monarchs were heads of government as much as heads of state. That lead me into further investigation of the Order and of the crusader orders in general which are, or claim to be, extant today.

PrinceSixteHenri

* Five major military-monastic orders were formed in the Holy Land during the era of the first crusades:

Some, like the Templars, were disbanded (giving us Friday the Thirteenth as an unlucky day). Others morphed into elaborate charitable organizations, continuing the work of hospitals or support of the Christians in the Holy Land, but abandoning the militaristic aspects after the conquest of Acre in the late thirteenth century. The Order of St. Lazarus survived in this transformed mode, and various attempts were made by popes to merge it with other Orders (Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem, the Order of Malta, the Order of St Maurice) throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth century. At the beginning of the seventeenth, the Order was effectively transferred from papal oversight to the royal house of France. It effectively ceased following the French Revolution, Royal Protection being withdrawn from the Order in 1830.

Whether it continued then or in what form is apparently a matter of some dispute among historians of chivalrous orders, nobility, and the like.

In 1910, though, the Melkite patriarch and some veterans of the papal army revived the Order as a non-profit charitable association under French law.  Its efforts at ecumenical inclusion began in the 1960s, in fidelity to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and in the interest of expanding into the anglophone world.

Ironically, just as the Order embraced these ecumenical values, tensions between anglophone and francophone leadership lead to a schism in 1969 between what became known as the Malta and Paris obediences, respectively. Attempts at reunion only partially succeeded in 1986, when a significant portion of the anglophone members in the Malta obedience joined the Parisian sector, including the U.S. In 2004, a schism within the Paris obedience resulted in an Orleans obedience, under the spiritual patronage of the Archbishop of Prague. Further confusion is caused when, in 2010, some of the original leadership of the Orleans obedience broke away and formed St. Lazare International, based in Jerusalem. Happily, in 2008, the majority memberships present in the Paris and Malta obediences reunited, leaving three main branches of the Order (indicated with their respective spiritual protectors):

There is also an Italian ‘branch’ that seems to have little to do with the rest:

  • Ordine San Lazzaro – “Bishop” Giovanni Ferrando (who appears nowhere in the Italian hierarchy list and whose supposed address is the local renaissance castle…)

If you are interested, more extensive history of the order is provided here by the order itself, and here by a skeptical researcher.

Nevertheless, the charitable work of the Order – mostly hospital and ambulance work – and its ecumenical inclusion are worthy of admiration. All such orders could, perhaps, divest themselves a bit of concerns over nobility and dynastic ties and promote based on merit alone. That being said in principle, my impression of Prince Sixte-Henri and his officers was positive, setting the standard for what one supposes nobility is supposed to represent in the first place.

gregoriii_med_hr

High Holy Days

A month into my fellowship at Tantur, and though time is flying, it has proved to be just what I needed – an escape from the work and distractions of Rome. Not that the last three weeks have been without concerns, as violence has escalated in and around Jerusalem. Thankfully, Tantur is safely removed from the areas of tension, and spending the day in the library and at my desk is easy to do. There have been some exceptions worth sharing, however.

I arrived in the middle of the High Holy Days, between Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the latter of which coincided this year with the beginning of Eid Al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice/Time of the Hajj).

Tantur is at the southern end of Jerusalem, about 8km from the Old City, and just under a kilometer north of the checkpoint into Bethlehem. (It is another 3.5km to the Church of the Nativity).

On Yom Kippur a group of us walked into the old city, stopping at St. Clare Monastery on the way. The Poor Clares here arrived from France in 1884. A glimpse into their life can be found online here.

On arrival in the Old City we went first to vespers with the German Benedictine monks at the Abbey of the Dormition, on Mount Zion, just next to the Tomb of King David and the Cenacle (the Upper Room of the Last Supper). Through the construction of the abbey took place from 1900-1910, with the first monks arriving in 1906, the history of the community starts with the 19th century immigration of Germans into Jerusalem, culminating in the 1898 visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II. During his tour, the Kaiser dedicated the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City and donated the land for the Abbey to the German Association for the Holy Land.

After vespers we wend our way down to the Kotel (the Western Wall), just in time to get settled before the shofar (ceremonial ram’s horn) sounded, marking the end of the day of fasting and the beginning of a celebration. This was one of the most moving spiritual experiences, watching the joy and celebration. I had not arrived in the Holy Land expecting this to be on my to do list, but now I can cross off something that belongs up there with Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s, as far as lifetime religious experiences go. It has made me realize that any “bucket list” i might keep for myself begins with unique spiritual religious places/times. Appropriate, then, that my time here begins with Yom Kippur at the Wall and will end after Christmas in Bethlehem.

Quickly added to the list was the opportunity to celebrate Sukkot – the Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles – with a friend from Hebrew University. A rooftop Sukkah and a cozy company of guests from both Israel and the U.S. made for a real welcome to this place. I imagine the cultural equivalent to be Thanksgiving – you know you have been welcomed as friend and family when you have this gift!

Three Months at Tantur, Jerusalem

The Ottoman-era gate at Tantur

The Ottoman-era gate at Tantur

Summer has come and gone, and I find myself checking off something that has been on my “Bucket List” for nearly two decades: Living and research at Notre Dame’s Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem.

I arrived in the Jerusalem late Sunday night, after what felt like a week in transit via Seattle, Vancouver, Minneapolis, Amsterdam and Rome. My first thought, as the Nesher shuttle drove under Montefiore Windmill, is that time flies and I can hardly believe it has already been 5 years since my first visit to the Holy Land. That was a 9-day seminar with the Russell Berrie Fellowship, at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Today, I embark on a 3-month dissertation writing fellowship at Tantur. It has taken three years of working multiple part time jobs (university teaching, research assistant, study abroad residence manager, spiritual advisor, international program staff) to get to the point I could take a few months ‘off’ and actually work full time on my dissertation. I am looking forward to it, but I confess it takes a couple days to adjust to having so much time to work on the one thing I never seem to have time for!

Thankfully, Tantur has a library of about 60,000-70,000 volumes on hand, with emphasis on ecumenism and patristics. [By comparison, the Centro Pro Unione in Rome has about 24,000; the World Council of Churches library at Bossey has about 100,000.] The library resources suffered some during the Second Intifada (c2000-2005), and is in the midst of updating its collection – a project I have been asked to help with while I am here, as part of my Fellowship.

The roots of the institute go back to the Second Vatican Council and encounters between Paul VI and ecumenical observers, who dreamed of an international theological institute for ecumenical research and life. The famous 1964 meeting of Paul VI and Athenagoras in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives sparked the notion that this would be the obvious place for such an institute to be established.

Before long, Paul VI entrusted the vision to none other than Notre Dame’s president, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC. As he looked around Jerusalem, he seemed to find the perfect spot.

Tantur is located on 36 acres of hilltop olive trees, vineyards, and pine. Overlooking Bethlehem, Gilo, and Bayt Jala, a short drive south of Jerusalem and with the mountains of Jordan visible on a clear day, the location has been understandably described as “strategic”. Prior to the 1967 Six Day War, this was Jordanian territory, and is ‘east’ of the Green Line but west of the border fence surrounding Bethlehem.

The property itself belonged to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, at least since 1869, when it was administered by the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire’s branch of the SMOM. During the Ottoman era, they operated a hospital on this site. Apparently, though, there are ties to this land with the order dating back to their first arrival here – in 1099, with the first crusade.

Fr. Hesburgh convinced Paul VI to purchase the property from the Order in 1966, for $300,000, just a few months shy of the Six Day War. The initial cost of building the center was estimated at $1 million, for which Fr. Ted looked to the generosity of I. A. O’Shaughnessy (known on campus for having donated the funds for the Arts and Letters College). Notre Dame leased the property from the Vatican in 1967, but building had to wait during the conflict, after which Israel now controlled the territory. By the time the center was constructed in 1971, the cost had doubled. The first year of operation was 1972.

Anticipating the renewal of the Vatican lease of Tantur to Notre Dame for another 50 years, starting next year, the University has approved a strategic plan that would propel the Institute to its next phase. The original vision of a resident community of scholars has ebbed and flowed, and most of the people who come through do so either for sabbatical or short term programs, in addition to ND’s study abroad programs in the spring. There are currently three of us considered resident Fellows or Scholars: A Church of England priest, a Jewish biblical scholar, and myself. There is also one seminarian intern/program assistant. There are about twenty people here on a three-month sabbatical/continuing education program, mostly Catholic priests (with two Anglicans). It is easy to envision something like the Lay Centre in Rome as a model for the community life here, with a more explicit focus on ecumenical dialogue.

***

I had finished most of this post at the end of my first full day here; this morning (Yom Kippur/ Eid al-Adha) I heard the news of the shooting death of a 19-year old university freshman at a security checkpoint from a Mennonite peace worker. It is a somber reminder that even as I am here to get away from the distractions of the world to write and research, and as quiet and peaceful as things appear from this hilltop retreat, the complexities of the situation here, and the tragedies, require our prayer for peaceful resolution. And deeper understanding. I am no expert, and I hope the next three months bring me to a deeper understanding and solidarity with my brothers and sisters here – Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, Druze, and Christian.

Oy, Advent! quote of the day…

Attributed to Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin (d.1821) founder of the Lithuanian yeshivot:

“Thus will be the advent of the Messiah: you will be sitting in your room alone studying, and your wife will suddenly enter and say, ‘Oy, Hayyim! You are sitting here studying? Don’t you know the Messiah has come?’ Startled, you will sputter three times and say to her, ‘Who told you?’ and she will say to you, ‘Go outside and see for yourself: not a soul is left in the city, not even the babes in their cradles, for everyone has gone out to greet [him].’”

Aviezer Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism, and Orthodoxy: Historical and Conceptual Background, p. 22

Very Rev. David Neuhaus, SJ

Very Rev. David Neuhaus, SJ

 

The Synod of Bishops is meeting in extraordinary session for the Middle East for the first time in church history, and one of the few synod fathers who is not a bishop is our guest presider and presenter this evening, Jesuit David Neuhaus, Patriarchal Vicar for the Hebrew-Speaking Catholics in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

The Patriarchate is the diocese covering Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon serving the 70,000 Latin Catholics living in this area. In Israel, only 2% of the population is Christian, and the majority of these (about 90%) are Arab. There is a small but significant number of Hebrew-speaking Catholics, however, that requires special attention and holds a unique place in the Church.

Like migrant workers anywhere, these families are made of the first-generation workers, many now parents, who came to Israel looking for work, but maintaining their primary identity with their country of origin. Many of these are Filipino. Now, their children, who have been born and raised in Israel, are “culturally” Jewish – they speak Hebrew, go to school in Hebrew, know the popular religious imagery and stories of Judaism as a child in the States or the UK would know basic “cultural” Christian stories and images even if not a Christian (Christmas itself being a great example). The vicariate then ministers, primarily in catechesis, to these children who are Israeli, ‘culturally’ Jewish, but religiously Christian. Like Jews in a secularly Christian culture, the biggest threat to these Christians in a secularly Jewish culture is assimilation.

It was one of the first places in the world granted blanket approval for the liturgy and sacraments to be celebrated in the vernacular, as early as 1955. At the time, the liturgy had to be in one of the three sacred languages: Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. If one of those three happened also to be the vernacular, in this case Hebrew, you were set. Eleven priests serve the 500 members of the vicariate.

Fr. David is one of a rarer sort, a convert from Judaism. Born in South Africa the son of German Jews, he migrated to Israel at the age of 15, less than two weeks after the assassination of Stephen Biko. There his first encounter with Christianity was with an 89-year old Russian Orthodox babushka whose principal character marker was joy. He met with her regularly until her death at 93. When he told his parents, as a teen, that he intended to become Christian, I can imagine there was a little scepticism mixed in with the expected disappointment. They told him to wait a decade, and if he still wanted to convert then, he could. Ten years later he began the formal catechumenate process.

Conversant in Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, English, and French, Fr. David was drawn to the Melkite liturgy, but also to the Jesuit community, where he eventually applied to be part of the province serving the Holy Land, based in Lebanon. He is the only Israeli citizen in the Church’s flagship religious order.

He shared with the community about the church in the Holy Land, his vicariate, and about the Synod on the Middle East. The purpose of this special assembly of the Synod was  

“…to confirm and strengthen Christians in their identity, through the Word of God and the sacraments; and to deepen ecclesial communion among the particular Churches, so that they can bear witness to the Christian life in an authentic, joyful and winsome manner. Essential elements in this witness in our lives are ecumenism, interreligious dialogue and the missionary effort.”

This gathering of the Synod is remarkable for several reasons. For the purpose of this Assembly, the Middle East indicates 18 states, a region with a total population of approximately 356,174,000 people, of whom only 5.7 million are Catholic, representing 1.6% of the total population. The region is home to seven of the 23 Churches sui iuris that comprise the Catholic Church.

It is perhaps the first time that the Catholic bishops of the Middle East have met as a group. The Assembly itself is predominately representative of the Eastern Catholic Churches: of the 185 Synod Fathers, 140 are Eastern Catholic. In addition to the regular participants, there are 36 experts and 34 auditors, plus three special guests: an Israeli Rabbi, a Lebanese Mufti (Sunni), and an Iranian Ayatollah (Shi’ite). This marks only the second time that a Jewish leader has spoken at a Synod assembly, and the first that Muslim leaders have done so.

Working languages of this Assembly are Arabic, English, French and Italian; scheduled for only 14 days, it is the shortest gathering of the Synod in its history.

Despite streamlining in the meetings since Pope Benedict’s election, there still are some organizational challenges. There is no real order to the speakers’ interventions, for example: Fr. David gave his five-minute speech between the Maronite bishop of Sydney and the Chaldean bishop of Kirkuk, Iraq.

The main concern is the coherence of Catholic presence in the Middle East, the question of dialogue is most pressing in terms of Islam and religious freedom. With Judaism, our dialogue flourishes in the west, where Judaism is a minority, but in Israel where Christianity is the minority it is harder to ‘get on the radar’. Many Israeli’s can go most of their lives never having met a Christian, as a Christian, and those who encounter the work of the vicariate are often surprised to find Christianity taught in Hebrew, rather than an imported western language and culture. The challenge of dialogue can be partially in the overlap of culture and religion, ethnicity and identity in the region, a challenge to separate the religious from the political, at least to an extent. A the same time there is unique opportunity for bridge building in a place where most Christians are Arab, east can meet west and  Arab can meet Israeli, all under the roof of the Catholic Church.

In terms of ecumenism in the Holy Land, Fr. David shared an anecdote from the visit of some (western, Anglophone) pilgrims. He took them to a particular holy site, which is administered by an Orthodox monastery. After knocking for several minutes, an irritated monk opened the door and demanded to know what they wanted. At first he refused entry, but eventually allowed them to look around, “but no praying!!” He proceeded to follow them around, suspicious that they might commit the apparent sacrilidge of Catholic prayer in an Orthodox holy space.

“Some of you may be wondering about the reception we have just had,” our Jesuit starts. “Consider the first arrival of Latin Christians, the crusades – the sacking of Jerusalem and the wholesale slaughter  of men, weomen and children – Muslim, Jew and Christian alike. Then consider the controversy of the erection of the Lutheran/Anglican diocese, and even of the Latin patriarchate in the last century. We (Latins) have not always been the most Christian when coming to these places.” He continues with the history and information about the site as the monk, who had been listening all along, slips out the back. Just before they get ready to leave, he asks them to wait, “I have prepared something for you” and offers refreshment. Before they finish, he invites them to pray.

The healing of memories was one of the key themes of John Paul II’s approach to ecumenism, and it starts with us and an honest look at our common heritage. Some debts may be too great to pay, but cannot be ignored. Some small acts of honesty can go a long way in a place so sensitive to such memories.

%d bloggers like this: