The Ecumenism Blog

Home » Travel (Page 2)

Category Archives: Travel

Summer Stage I: Sun, Syllabus, and Cyprus

For three weeks, I got to call the island of Athena home. St. Paul shipwrecked here. Phonecians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Turks and more Greeks have called this island home before me. I spent the better part of July living in an apartment with a pool, two kilometers from the beach, with an agenda that primarily included visiting orthodox churches and historic sites while preparing my first university syllabus.

Cyprus is an island divided, and I wonder if my Irish friends would find something familiar about it. On the southern side, Greek flags are abundant, but it took a couple days before I saw my first Cypriot flag. On the north side, the flag of Turkey is seen at least as often as that of Northern Cyprus.

Cyprus Flag

Republic of Cyprus

Turkiye Flag


Greece Flag


North Cyprus Flag

Turkish Cyprus












Most of the world (except Turkey) sees the northern part of the island as occupied territory, with a massive amount of Turkish military and settlers who arrived in response to an attempted coup  (by Greek Cypriot nationalists) in 1974. About 200,000 people were displaced, both Turkish and Greek Cypriots, forcing ethnic Greeks to the south, and Turkish Cypriots to the north. The Republic of Cyprus (south) controls a little less than 60% of the island, while the Turkish Republic of Cyprus holds most of the rest. There is a UN buffer zone between, and a couple of British military reservations on the south side.

The total population of the island is about 1.1 million, with about 300,000 living in the north, perhaps half of whom are actually Turkish or the children of Turkish settlers (in contrast to ethnically Turkish Cypriots). The Turkish military maintains about 30,000 troops on the island. One Turkish Cypriot shared this analogy with me:

Imagine the UK invaded the US in response to a crisis (say, an attempted coup by the western states, who wanted to unite with Canada), and left a garrison of 30 million British troops on American soil for the next forty years. Obviously, there’s a shared language, ethnicity, history, and origin… but British soldiers on American soil, numbering 10% of the population in the occupied area? Say, New England? How would that go over at home?

Recently, however, relations seem to have relaxed a little, and some transit across the border is allowed. The capital city of Nicosia (Lefkosa) is divided, not unlike Berlin during the cold war, an image Cypriots of both sides used while I was there. While sipping lemonade in the Buyuk Han, an Ottoman-era inn and market, we got to meet one of the northern Cypriot politicians who was working toward reunification, reflecting a significant minority view, that, it seems, is growing with younger Cypriots there.

Sunset at St. George

Sunset at St. George

The first day in Cyprus saw sunset from the church of Agios Giorgios (St. George). Before that, though, a visit to the ecumenical center of Pahos, Agia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa – otherwise now known as St. Paul’s Catholic Parish of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in Paphos, Cyprus (entrusted to them since 1986). The Anglican community of Paphos also accepted an invitation to use the Church for worship (since 1988). The invitation was extended to the Maronite, Lutheran and Finnish communities. The site includes “St. Paul’s Pillar”, where according to local tradition, the apostle was lashed 39 times for preaching Christianity, before managing to convert the local Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus, the first recorded Roman official to convert. (cf Acts 13)

Church at St. Paul's Pillar

Church at St. Paul’s Pillar

In the south, I spent most of my time near Paralimni, on the southeast corner of the island, with a couple days around Paphos, and a couple days around the local region, such as Agia Napa and Cave Grecko.

It is common for many of the Orthodox churches to have some exterior space where the faithful can light candles or incense, even when the church is closed. Sometimes this is as simple as a converted barbecue, or as elaborate as a completely separate building. In the case of Agia Thekla, it was a sea cave turned grotto, covered in icons. (Never heard of St. Thecla, disciple of Paul? You have, you just don’t know it. The oldest image of Paul in the world is in the catacomb of St. Thecla in Rome, just discovered a couple years ago, under a modern office building!)

With more experience of Byzantine orthodoxy from the Russians and other slavs, I was unprepared for the relatively casual approach to worship here: No heads covered, summer clothes (sundresses rather than beachwear, though) some impromptu recruiting of a very excited young acolyte, and observing the feast day by passing under the icon of the saint. Antidiron (it seemed) and a mix of pomegranate, sesame, and almonds were distributed regularly after vespers.


Lefkosia: The Last Divided Capital

In the north, a local couple showed us around – a Turkish Cypriot high school teacher and his Turkish wife, both generous hosts, showed off a few choice sites. There’s an English village clinging to a cliffside called Karmi, where remnants from the British occupation settled and never left, even after the Turks took over. Bellapais abbey looks out over the port town of Kyrenia, and dates back to the 14th century.

Aziz and Turkan, my hosts in the north

Turkan and Aziz, my hosts in the north

The last, we celebrated vespers on the hilltop church of the Prophet Elijiah, overlooking Protaras, on his feast day. If I had planned it, I might not have made it in time, it just happened that my friend and I decided to climb the hill that day, at that hour, and found ourselves ready to get good seats and join in the liturgy honoring the prophet just after the sun set on my last day in Cyprus.

The next morning, a few hours before I flew to Romania, air raid sirens sounded to commemorate the 39th anniversary of the Turkish invasion. Prior to that, most days were filled with church bells and/or the call of the muezzin, both of which fill me with prayerful peace.

Icon of the Prophet Elijah

Icon of the Prophet Elijah

Church of Holy Elijah
Church of Holy Elijah


Testing the Porvoo Agreement: An Ordination in Norway

Stian Heggedal was an Anglican seminarian when he lived at the Lay Centre for his semester as a student in Rome in 2009. Today he is a priest of the Lutheran Church of Norway, ordained at Nidarosdomen, the Cathedral Church of Trondheim. Yet, he will have the faculties of an Anglican priest as well, and be able to serve in either church. His first pastoral assignment is with the Military Ordinariate of Norway, where he will begin as a chaplain lieutenant stationed near Lillehammer.

The ecumenical achievement that makes this possible is the Porvoo Communion, which was established by the signing of the Porvoo Common Statement, twenty years ago in the very same cathedral where Stian received his presbyteral ordination.

As early as 1938, work began towards a closer union between the established churches of northern Europe, which are variously Anglican or Lutheran. The church of Norway was one of the first handful of signatories in 1992, with the Church of Denmark being the latest to join, in 2010. It includes 14 member churches and some observers, consisting of the Anglican and Lutheran churches in the British Isles, Scandinavia, the Baltic states and the Iberian peninsula.

The churches are all episcopal in structure, rather than congregational or presbyterian, and most are established state churches. An ordained priest or pastor in one can serve in another, and in theory at least, it does not matter anymore which church you are ordained into. An Anglican seminarian can be ordained by a Lutheran bishop, and still be validly Anglican.

Yet in practice, it did not quite work that way. Stian had to officially join the Lutheran Church of Norway about two weeks before his ordination. Finance, personnel, and administration seem to delay what theology and sacramental practice have already allowed to happen!

As for the ordination itself, i am sorry to report that my camera died, which was only discovered at the end of the weekend. However, i will note that i was surprised at how small the attendance was. Family members and friends, and a few church officials, but for two ordinands, there were about 50 people present, including three of us who had studied with Stian in Rome – myself, Eveline from the Netherlands and Cosima from Germany. The presiding bishop of the Church of Norway was present, but served as neither the presider at Eucharist nor the principal minister of ordination. In fact, one ordinand offered the homily and the other offered the Eucharist.

On a personal note, i have to say that i liked Norway for the fact that it was the first time in my life i was up before the crack of dawn every day. Granted, dawn cracked at about 10:00am, and sunset was at 2:00pm, but still… It was a very good trip!


Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim

In January, i was in Trondheim, Norway for the ordination of a friend of mine as a pastor in the (Lutheran) Church of Norway. More about that in another post, but here’s something about the Cathedral, which was for centuries the northernmost cathedral in the world.

Located at about the same latitude as Fairbanks, Alaska, the city that is now called Trondheim was founded as Nidaros by King Olaf I Tryggvason, in AD 997 – that would be the same King Olaf who received Leif Eriksson and introduced him to Chrstianity, just before the latter made his famous voyage to establish “Vinland” – modern-day Newfoundland, Canada.

The diocese was erected by St. Olav (King Olaf II Haraldsson) in about AD 1030 and elevated to metropolitan see in 1153 with suffragan sees in Norway, Iceland, Greenland, and the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles. The cathedral was constructed during the later part of the 11th century and the entirety of the 12th. In the mid-1530s the Church of Norway came under the influence of the Lutheran reformation, and, like the Church of England, broke communion with Rome, and became an established church. For four centuries there was no official Catholic presence there, until a mission was re-established in the 1930s; now the de-facto Catholic cathedral of the Territorial Prelature of Trondheim sits just across the road from Nidarosdomen, in a squat temporary building. (A capital campaign is underway to build a new Catholic church there.)

Nidaros Cathedral houses the remains of St. Olav, patron of Norway – though the exact whereabouts have been unknown since a 16th century iconoclasm. The only known relic of St. Olav is his arm, which is located in the (Catholic) Cathedral of Oslo.

Next to the Cathedral one can still find the archbishop’s palace, though there is no longer an archbishop. The (Lutheran) Bishop of Nidaros has his offices there, and hosted us for an intimate reception after the ordination. The presiding bishop of the Church of Norway also officially has some offices there, as Nidaros is the primatial see of Norway, though she spends most of her time in Oslo, the national capital.

Final Statement

Final Statement
Fundamentalist or Responsible Citizen?
The Contribution of Religious Communities to the Formation of European Citizens.

28 November to 5 December 2010 Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Our God has called us here all together, Jews, Christians and Muslims, motivated to encourage young religious people to take a more active role in public life within Europe. In light of the changing religious composition of European societies, increased xenophobia, and a trend towards excluding religion from civil discourse, our aim was to propose ways in which young religious European citizens can take a more active role in fulfilling their duties towards society as a whole.

We are concerned over the rise of extremist attitudes, sometimes identified with fundamentalism, whether religious or secular. We believe that religions, cultures and civil systems can work together towards common  objectives.

We assert that religious identity should not be excluded from the public sphere, and that in order to achieve a fairer society, people of all backgrounds and beliefs must take an equal part in civil activities.

To achieve this, we recommend:

Formal, informal and non-formal educational initiatives:

  • to raise awareness about the role of religious communities within
  • to raise awareness of civil duties within religious communities;
  • to increase understanding of different religions and perspectives;
  • to help all people to see beyond stereotypes;

Dialogue and collaboration:

  • on an individual level: getting to know each other, listening, and
    sharing life experiences;
  • between religions and secular authorities;
  • to build networks involving different religious and secular communities
    and policy influencing organisations;


  • by young religious citizens in politics, media and NGO work;
  • in setting an example, becoming involved in voluntary services.

These are activities that will need to be continued by all members of European society on a long-term basis. We must persevere towards a more committed, more responsible and more inclusive society, all together.

Sarajevo, 4th December 2010

The Jerusalem of Europe: Spirituality and Religion

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart (Catholic), Sarajevo

The city of Sarajevo sits in an area that has been inhabited since the Neolithic age, with a medieval settlement in the region large enough that a cathedral was established by the early 13th century. Sarajevo as it is known today is traditionally said to be established in 1461 under Ottoman rule. It is known as the Jerusalem of Europe in part for its location between east and west, and for its concentration of major religious houses of worship in such close proximity. Within less than a square kilometer one can find the Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals, the Emperor’s Mosque, and the Sephardic Synagogue, as well as other mosques and churches. We toured several during our first evening.

Buna River source, from Blagaj Tekije

On the second day of the conference, we took a bus tour through Herzegovina, visiting pilgrimage sites of each of the major religious groups. Our first stop was a Tekije (A Dervish house, like a monastery) in Blagaj, overhanging the source of the Buna River. The Tekije (or Tekke) was built in the 16th century, and also houses something rather unusual for Muslim holy places, which is a Türbe, a tomb or shrine, of two of the sheikhs who had lived here.  

Žitomislić Monastery

We then moved to the Žitomislić  monastery with its Church of the Annunciation, a community of Serbian Orthodox monks, which had been originally established in the late 16th century. It is a site of martyrdom, as well: the monks here were all killed during World War II by Axis-allied Ustaše (Croatian Revolutionary Movement) and the buildings razed. It was rebuilt after the war only to be destroyed again in 1992 during the Bosnian wars and the collapse of Yugoslavia. The most recent reconstruction began in 2002.

Međugorje church and outdoor pilgrim chapel

Međugorje was our next site. It had been pouring rain all day, and it was already dark by the time we arrived. Until the day before, I had not realized we would be coming, so I had not brushed up on the apparitions there, yet as the only Catholic theologian in the group, I was the default expert. Several people had not heard of the site, and were not familiar with the Catholic tradition of Marian apparitions, though some did know of either Lourdes or Fatima. There were few pilgrims in the church, and between the dark and the downpour we could not see or get up the hill. Since 1981, there have been claims of apparitions here, and the Holy See has not yet made a final decision regarding the site (and will not until the apparent apparitions abate), though the initial investigation by the local ordinary, concluded in 1986, was critical. The current status is that it remains open, and that no one is forbidden from going unless and until the message is determined to be false. At its best, the Church would never require anyone to believe in the messages, as general revelation ceased with the apostles, but would allow veneration.

Stari Most (Old Bridge), Mostar

Finally, we ventured to Mostar, a 15th century city known for its Stari Most (“Old Bridge”), which stood from 1566-1993 when it was destroyed by Bosnian Croat forces during the war. A new Old Bridge has been reconstructed using the same technology and local materials as the original. It was inaugurated in 2004. Since 2005 it has been on the World Heritage List. It was another great city that was unfortunate to visit in darkness and a downpour that would contribute to the flooding of the region in the days to follow. We had a pleasant local dinner and sampled Bosnian wine before heading back to Sarajevo.

Emperor's Mosque, Sarajevo

Conflict and Dialogue: Contemporary Bosnia i Herzegovina

Sarajevo at sunset

The siege of Sarajevo was contemporary with my four years in high school, 1992-96. Now, nearly fifteen years later, the city is in good shape and relations seem markedly better, but just as there are some signs of the previous destruction – a few buildings with bullet holes or shrapnel damage, some still gutted, an abandoned and burned out pickup truck, and a few Sarajevo Roses still to be seen – so too is there still some evidence of the ethnic and national tensions.

The airport is small, with a relatively short runway surrounded by residential neighborhoods, in a valley that usually includes a turbulent and foggy approach. As if this is not enough, pilots must approach in radio silence, apparently because there are still pockets of resistance whom authorities fear would take advantage of an incoming jet, intercept voice communications and give incorrect information in order to cause a crash. Outside the capital city, there are still places where you can see nationalist expression, even while within Bosnia, for example, you can see neighborhoods divided by flying Croatian and Serbian flags respectively.

The government is complicated. There are three (ethnic) constituent peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH): the Bosniaks (mostly Muslim), Serbs (Orthodox) and Croats (Catholic). In the wake of the Dayton Accords which established the current peace (but did not set up a constitution or long term plan), the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina has a rotating national presidency of three people, one from each of the constituent peoples. The three presidents serve a four year term (elected) and rotate chairmanship of the presidency every eight months. The locals joked with us that if you walk down the street, nobody knows who the current president is, but they surely all know the UN High Representative (currently Austrian Valentin Inzko) who is responsible for overseeing the ongoing implementation of the Dayton Accords.

Further, the country is divided into three political entities: The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska, and the small Federal District of Brčko which is formally part of both the other entities but governed by neither. Further, the Federation is subdivided into ten cantons; each has its own government. Finally, the regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, respectively, are distinct but not defined – Herzegovina covering the southern part of the country, the eastern half in Republika Srpska and the western half in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Sarajevo Martyrs Cemetary, courtesy Khaoula Amouri

At one point during the week, we had an evening presentation on the country and its culture, given by our local hosts and members of the planning committee, three Bosnians in their twenties. They had deliberately decided not to present on the war. As part of the younger generation, only children at the time, there is an understandable interest in moving on and focusing on the good that has come since, and also to show that the war is not the only thing to know about the country. (Our friend from Northern Ireland voiced his understanding for this approach from his own experience of having been constantly asked about the troubles there). In part, the decision had been made because there had already been some tense side discussion about one of the more horrific aspects of the conflict, which was the Srebrenica massacre, which was ruled as genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in 2004 and confirmed as such by the International Court of Justice in 2007. Other participants had been waiting for a discussion precisely on the topic, though, and the anxiety boiled over during discussion, when it seemed as though it might not be addressed at all during the week.


It got very emotional. Had the planning committee overlooked including a discussion about the war, which would have been irresponsible, or were they trying to move on too quickly, which could appear as a false irenicism? Was Srebrenica genocide as the ICJ declared, or is that a matter of opinion – with each of the three factions in BiH having its own take in addition to the “outsider” international judgment? Is even asking that question genocide denial? One of our participants pointedly asked whether killing 6 million Chinese would count as genocide, suggesting that several historians disagree with the ICJ determination (based on the idea that genocide cannot be confined to a locality, but must target an entire ethnic group or nation), while another held that even questioning the term genocide in this case was tantamount to denying the act itself. Someone else asked whether it mattered at all what we called it, massacre or genocide, war crime or atrocity, so many deliberate killings is wrong no matter the motivation. Others were voicing shock that this could happen on European soil so recently as to be in our lifetime, after the Shoah and “never again”, even while UN peacekeepers stood by and did nothing (or could do nothing). For that matter how could a siege have lasted for so long in the modern era without direct international intervention?

I would not have wanted to be in the place of our presenters, a couple of young Bosnians in unprepared for the barrage of questions and not expert in the topic other than having lived here – but they handled it remarkably well. Some of the planning committee worried that the entire rest of the conference would be derailed by the topic, rather than focusing on the purpose that brought us together. I have rarely felt so inadequate for a discussion: I had not studied the war in depth, and am not an expert in genocide (its definition or its denial). I spent the rest of the night wandering from group to group, doing what I could just to listen to everyone, or to as many as I could. I was humbled, inspired, and moved in turn – at times I have felt that my work in dialogue can get too academic and we need to bridge the gap with the pastoral. Here, that was no problem, and my only wish was that I could have offered more.

This is what interreligious dialogue is about. The group gelled well in the first part of the week. People were open and available for conversation and challenge. It was not planned this way, but the organizers and the next morning’s presenter responded well, addressing the concerns but bringing it into the context of our work, doing so first in thespirit of prayer and then in the greater question of fundamentalism and dialogue. I know not everyone was perfectly happy, some still felt as if their voice was not heard enough, or not enough attention was given to the subject of the war and the ongoing healing, but the larger sense seemed to be that at a moment which could have tipped the rest of the week into uncomfortable irrelevance, instead we were able to bring it back together and deal with difficult questions. In the end, we were better for it.

Home group at the end of the week, courtesy Amjad Agil

Sarajevo 2010: Fundamentalist or Responsible Citizen?

Karin Kops (Estonia) addressing the conference

For the last week, I have been blessed with the opportunity to be in Sarajevo with a great group of young people from all over Europe. We gathered for a conference entitled Fundamentalist or Responsible Citizen? The Contribution of Religious Communities to the Formation of European Citizens. The sponsoring agencies included the Ecumenical Youth Council in Europe (EYCE, affiliated with the WCC), the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations (FEMYSO), and the Council of Europe. This summit marked the culmination of a three-year Campaign to Overcome Fundamentalism spearheaded by EYCE. 

I should note that “youth” means something different here than in the U.S., as anyone involved in World Youth Day would be aware. At home, especially when speaking of “youth ministry”, we are talking of teens in middle school and high school, age 12-18 or so. Over here, “youth” means university age, in its broadest implications, so the participants ranged from 20 to 35. After almost a decade of involvement in National Workshops on Christian Unity and some NCC events in the States, it was striking to be one of the older people in the room rather than one of the youngest. 

About 45 people were gathered, roughly twenty each were Christian or Muslim, and only four or five were Jewish. I think only four of us were Catholic, with Orthodox, Protestant and even pre-protestant communities represented (i.e., Moravians, Czech Brethren, and Waldensians). Most European states were represented, with the Iberian countries being the only noticeable absence. I was the only non-European, but for my European credentials I was ‘representing’ the Vatican as a pontifical university student – that is, quite unofficially. 

The highlight of the week was the other participants. My roommate was a student from Lithuania. I spent time at a British pub called “Cheers” with a theologian-staffer to the Icelandic bishops’ national office, a protestant pastor’s kid from Northern Ireland living in the Republic, and a Romanian seminarian friend who lead the planning of the whole event (and just turned 22). One of my first conversations was with a Palestinian Briton about the situation in the Holy Land, and my experiences there with the Russell Berrie Fellowship. I shared shisha with a Turkish Muslim woman living in Cairo, and burek with two Albanians from Macedonia and a Latvian who has seen more of the world than I likely ever will! And the list goes on. 

Hasan Patel, photo courtesy of Khaoula Amouri

Despite having studied in Rome for the last year, this was the first time to really talk about Europe per se with Europeans – really to listen and observe as they discussed it themselves – especially on such a relevant issue as the role of religion and secularity in nation, state, and European society. (Most of my classmates are African, Asian, and some from the Americas and what Europeans there are mostly from the east, and a minority.) 

While not an academic conference exactly, the presentations were on topic and promoted good discussion. We had a welcome from the Mufti of Sarajevo and President of the Interreligious Council (IRC), a panel with Muslim, Orthodox, and Catholic representatives of the Bosnian IRC, and presentations from Bashy Quarishy of Denmark, Hasan Patel and Imam Ajmal Masroor of the UK, and Dirk Thesenvitz of Germany. At the end of the week, a subcommittee of participants collated the week’s comments and discussion and drafted a Final Statement, which was signed by all the participants. As part of that committee, I wish we had had more time, as there were a few areas that we felt could have been better phrased, but considering the actual drafting was done in about three hours, by committee for approval by the whole, it seemed to come together rather well. 

Baltic and Balkan friends, photo courtesy Kristina Jureviciute

John Allen, Jr. on Pope Benedict and Islam

Appropos of conversation this week during the conference in Sarajevo, Fundamentalist or Responsible Citizen? The Contribution of Religious Communities to the Formation of European Citizens, here is an exceprt of Jon Allen, Jr.’s blog All Things Catholic today concerning the pope’s take on Islam. The entire post can be read here.

In the political argot of our time, Pope Benedict XVI is unquestionably a “conservative.” A core aim of his papacy is to revive a strong sense of traditional Catholic identity over against radical secularism, a classically conservative agenda.

Precisely because of those credentials, however, the old American axiom that “only Nixon could go to China” fits Benedict XVI like a glove. Because of who Benedict is and what he represents, every once in a while he can do things a more “liberal” pontiff either wouldn’t dare or couldn’t pull off without splitting the church apart.

That point has been brought home anew due to Benedict’s new book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, titled in English Light of the World, which featured some surprising comments on condoms.

Consider the following defining traits of cultural conservatives these days:

  • A hawkish line on Islam
  • Eco-skepticism
  • Unyielding pro-life advocacy

Here’s the irony, one which is often underappreciated: While Benedict XVI is obviously sympathetic with all three concerns, in some ways he’s also taken the legs out from under the extremists in each camp.


On any list of improbable recent papal moments, the site of Benedict standing alongside a mufti in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque in 2006, facing the mihrab in a moment of silent prayer, would have to figure near the top.

As a theologian, Benedict expressed doubts about the very possibility of inter-religious prayer. The fact that he stepped outside his own skin, so to speak, on such a high-profile occasion, offered a clear signal of his commitment to reconciliation with the Muslim world.

When Benedict was elected, many observers prophesied he would be the pope of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” rallying the Christian West against an Islamic threat. His Regensburg lecture in September 2006 seemed to cut in that direction, igniting protest across the Islamic world by appearing to link Muhammad with violence. (In his new book, Benedict admits he failed to realize that people would take his academic address as a political statement.)

Yet since Regensburg, Benedict instead has emerged as a great friend of Islam, albeit without pulling any punches on terrorism and religious freedom. He’s met with Muslims on scores of occasions, opened up new dialogues, and pulled off highly successful trips to Muslim nations. Today, it’s abundantly clear that détente with Islam is the top inter-faith priority of this papacy.

At the core of Benedict’s vision is what he described during a May 2009 journey to Jordan as an “Alliance of Civilizations” – a phrase obviously crafted as an alternative to the “Clash of Civilizations.” The idea is that Christians and Muslims should stand shoulder-to-shoulder in defense of shared values such as the right to life, care of the poor, opposition to war and corruption, and a robust role for religion in public life. (The pope calls that “inter-cultural,” as opposed to “inter-religious,” dialogue.)

In Light of the World, Benedict is asked if he has abandoned the medieval notion that popes are supposed to save the West from Islamization.

“Today we are living in a completely different world, in which the battle lines are drawn differently,” Benedict says. “In this world, radical secularism stands on one side, and the question of God, in its various forms, stands on the other.”

In that struggle, Benedict sees Christians and Muslims as natural allies.

Bottom line: The only crusade Benedict is interested in leading is against a “dictatorship of relativism,” not against Islam. If only Nixon could go to China, maybe only Benedict XVI can go to Mecca.

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: