What a glorious Feast Day for the entire universal Church. I pray that as you participated in Mass today, your celebration of today's Feast deepened your appreciation for the incredible act of Love Jesus' crucifixion was for us and all the world. By the wood of the Cross, Jesus has indeed redeemed the world.
While I have celebrated this Feast every year throughout my life, I was uniquely privileged today to celebrate this Feast in the Holy Land where the Exaltation of the Holy Cross actually took place.
Today was a bit of a different day, and one that I know I enjoyed immensely. Our focus today was on spending time with our sister and brother Catholic Christians in Palestine. To make the best use of our time, we were divided into three groups: one group went to St. Joseph Parish in Jifna, near Ramallah, in the West Bank----about a 60-minute bus ride; a second group went to a parish in Nablus, and a third group went to celebrate Mass in Gaza. It was decided that it was easier, and safer, to try to take only a small group into Gaza given the security concerns.
I was fortunate to be in the first group. On the bus ride through Israel's countryside, one is struck by the unforgiving nature of the landscape----hills, valleys, and rocks. Not much vegetation, and many wide open spaces for as far as the eye can see, with only extremely rocky, hilly terrain.
When we were 45 minutes into the trip to Jifna, we had to go through one of the numerous Israeli military checkpoints. We expected it to be a formality. However, the soldier who stopped our bus refused us permission to go through. He gave no reason; he just said "not permitted", and turned us away.
When the bus driver asked for an alternate route, he gave him directions that would have taken us at least one more hour before we would get to Jifna (even though it was only 10 minutes away from that point). Fortunately, the bus driver was able to find some alternate routes, and we arrived in Jifna (though having had to travel on far more dangerous roads) only being slightly late for Mass. This was another eye-opening experience. There was no rational reason to deny us permission to go through the checkpoint except for the fact that we were going to a Palestinian village.
When we arrived in Jifna, we were greeted warmly, and we immediately prepared for Mass. The Church, dedicated to the Patronage of St. Joseph, is a gorgeous, relatively small stone structure (as just about all structures are), with a capacity for about 130 people.
And the church was filled to, and beyond, capacity. The Mass was filled with people of all ages: seniors, families, and lots of children. The pastor is Fr. Firas Aridaha (see below with two sisters),n energetic and good pastor, quite proud of his Catholic family and their Palestinian heritage. They participated in the Mass with great enthusiasm and respect. I had the great privilege, once again, of preaching the homily for this Mass. Since I do not speak Aramaic, I was very relieved to learn that most of the people are able to speak and understand English, to my surprise, so I did not need an interpreter. After Mass, we greeted everyone and enjoyed some coffee (always coffee!) and treats in the parish courtyard. After that, we were given a briefing on the current circumstances by representatives of one of the Palestinian leadership groups---a part of the PLO negotiating team. While it is clear that their information is one-sided, it is also clear that these "negotiations" are sadly stalled. Following the briefing, we enjoyed a wonderful lunch with the priests, sisters and some other parish leaders. The parish gave each of us bishops a stole decorated with images of the Jerusalem Cross, and a beautiful olive wood, handmade piece of devotional art.
Following that we left for a meeting in Ramallah, a huge Palestinian city, to meet with one of those involved in Water and Hydrology management, since water is in short supply and needs to be "managed" between these two societies. Then we traveled to Nablus to meet up with the Bishops from group 2 at the Church built over Jacob's Well, where Jesus encountered the Samaritan Woman. That was a wonderful, and moving, experience to see firsthand the very place where Jesus said those amazing words to this unsuspecting woman: "I am the Living Water. Whoever drinks of this water will never thirst again." The Church itself was just recently renovated after sitting in disrepair for nearly 100 years. Unfortunately, there are tensions in this area as well. All in all, it was quite a moving and wonderful experience. We returned to the Hotel and had a nice dinner to complete the day.
Church built over Jacob's Well in Nablus
Vase used by Samaritan woman
I was very glad that we had a less formal/informational day today. To have time with devout and faithful Catholics, who are so committed to their faith in spite of the "crosses" they are carrying, was extremely refreshing. The pastor wanted to make sure that we let "our people" know that at least in this part of the Holy Land, the Christians and the Muslims are coexisting in peaceful and respectful ways. Thanks be to God for that. I took the occasion in my homily at Mass to assure these good people that we, the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Kalamazoo and throughout the United States, are in solidarity with them, supporting them spiritually and with our prayers. That's what they want to know---they want to know that we remember them and pray for them. Please make sure to add this very important intention to your list of daily prayer intentions.
Tomorrow is a day of transition. We have to check out of this Hotel, we will go early to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem to pray (be assured of my prayers for you at this sacred place), and then we will be traveling up to Nazareth to stay there over night, returning then to Jerusalem on Tuesday evening.
May each of us continue to carry our crosses, whatever our particular cross(es) might be, knowing that we are never alone---we are part of the Body of Christ and that is what gives us strength and endurance. Let us always glory in the Cross of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
And let us continue praying for peace and justice in the world.