Friday, September 19, 2014

Day 8: Peace Pilgrimage concludes with Mass and interfaith services in Bethlehem

            As we conclude day 8, which is also the final full of this amazing adventure, we conclude  the Bishops' Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace.  Just as all the first seven days were full and amazing, day 8 was, as hard as it is to imagine, even longer and fuller than these last ones have been. 
            I was very much looking forward to visiting Bethlehem since I had never visited there before.  We left the hotel at 7:00 a.m. to arrive in time to celebrate Mass in the Church of the Nativity at 8:00 a.m.  How great to see Manger Square, which I've seen on so many Christmas Eves as Mass is celebrated from there each year.  The original church, dating back to the 7th century, is under renovation; we celebrated Mass in the Chapel of St. Catherine of Alexandria,

singing "O Little Town of Bethlehem" in a whole new way.  After Mass, we toured the old church and saw the Chapel of St. Joseph in a cave below the church,

which is near the very spot that is honored as the birthplace of Jesus (unfortunately because there was another group inside that very place, we were unable to actually see that spot).  After Mass, we walked through the old streets of Bethlehem. 

It was very sad to see the numerous shops and homes closed and boarded up indicating the main problem in Bethlehem:  the emigration of the Christians out of the Holy Land.  Bethlehem is 70% Muslim and 30% Christian, but that percentage is going down.  Bethlehem is perhaps the one part of the Holy Land which is experiencing the most steady decline of Christians. 
            We left the City to drive a short distance to the Marie Doty Park in Bethlehem for an Interfaith Prayer for Peace Service, which included Catholics/Christians, Jews and Muslims.  It was a beautiful time of prayer and conversation. 
We then traveled to Beit Sahour,  which is also known as Shepherd's Field, the place where the Shepherds were keeping the night watch with their flocks when they suddenly saw the brilliant Star and heard the choirs of angels singing "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to people of Good Will".  There in that place was a great olive wood religious gift shop, at which we stopped so that we could support this important business for the Christian people in Bethlehem.  We then went to Bethlehem University,

a Catholic university under the direction of the DeLaSalle Christian Brothers---the only Catholic university in the West Bank.  We were hosted to a delicious lunch and had an opportunity to dialogue with a number of the young students, which was not only enjoyable; it was also very inspiring and hopeful to see these young students, Christians and Muslims, learning and studying together, each with hopes and dreams for their futures even though the future is so unsure. 
            We then travelled to Hebron, perhaps the most ancient part of Israel, a city that traces its roots back 3,500 years to King David's time---the place where the patriarchs of Judaism and Islam are buried. 
Unfortunately, however, it is a city divided.  Even though this City is in the West Bank and officially under the control of the Palestinians, the Israeli military occupation makes its presence felt very strongly here because of a huge Jewish "Settlement" right in Hebron.  There is no place in all the Holy Land which is a more clear example of "the problem" which everyone talks about which is so "complicated", the only word that everyone seems to agree on.  We spent a good bit of time there, walking the streets to see for ourselves the "separation" between the two groups of people.  We were accompanied by a young woman who works for a human rights group known as Bet'Saleem (again, not sure about the spelling), which tries to help to bring understanding and tolerance between the two groups. 
            The final part of the day was spent over dinner at a wonderful place known as Tandor, which is run by the Holy Cross Community (the same ones who are our neighbors in South Bend at a little place known as Notre Dame).  This place, dedicated to ecumenical dialogue and study,   runs sabbatical programs for priests and others.  We had a delicious dinner with a number of ecumenical leaders, along with those who are there on sabbatical.  We enjoyed a wonderful time of conversation and dialogue, and then concluded, appropriately enough for us, with a beautiful time of prayer for peace. 
            I have written before about the "Wall" that runs along the borders marking the Israeli controlled and the Palestinian controlled lands within the Holy Land.  It is the ugliest sight in all of the Holy Land---and it is impossible not to see it.  It's everywhere.  In some places it looks like the Great Wall of China, but far less beautiful.  It's symbolically toxic.  Those on one side of the wall say it is for their protection and security; those on the other side of the wall experience it as separation, exclusion, and areason to be treated with indignity and disrespect.  Part of this incredibly long Wall runs along the border between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  The only way to get through it is through checkpoints guarded by armed guards. 
As wonderful as it was on this, our last day in the Holy Land, to see where Jesus, the Prince of Peace was born, it is heartbreaking to realize that the place of Jesus' Birth is separated by this Wall of Mistrust and Fear from the City of Jesus' Resurrection. 
And it is even more heartbreaking to realize that this Wall separates, excludes, and antagonizes the Jewish people from the Palestinian people, both Christians and Muslims.  Jesus was born to tear down the walls of separation and division.  This Wall, and all that it symbolizes, must also be removed, so that people---fellow human beings, brothers and sisters in the human family, can see each other; and as they see each other, then perhaps they can once more learn how to live together in peace, which is precisely why Jesus, the Prince of Peace was born.
Manger Square

            I have learned a lot during this week.  I have seen a lot this week---much more than at times I wanted to see.   I and my brother bishops have prayed intently this week with religious leaders of all faiths, and with sisters and brothers in our Catholic family living, and suffering, in this Holy Land.  As I prepare to return back to the United States, and back home to the Diocese of Kalamazoo, in many ways I'm more confused that when I came seven days ago, even though I've learned a lot.  In spite of all the depressing, sad, and discouraging things I've seen while here, and even though I may be confused as I try to sort out this entire experience in my mind and in my spirit, while this might sound like a contradiction, I am returning home also very inspired by so many things that I  have seen, by so many great, courageous and devoted people that I have met, and by the absolute conviction that, while this whole situation is "complicated", and to some people a solution seems impossible, I believe with all my heart what Jesus Himself taught us:  "with God, all things are possible.”  This is the Land of Miracles.  And I for one believe in miracles.  Let us continue to pray for, work for, dialogue for, learn for peace and justice for all people in the Holy Land, and pray for the miracle of changed hearts, open minds, and eyes and ears ready to see and hear what God shows us and says.  And one day, we can sing that song of the Angels and mean it:  "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to people of good will."  Let it be so!

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