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!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Day 7: A Time of Remembrance

Day 7: September 17, 2014  
        If yesterday was a time to celebrate the Annunciation since we began the day with the celebration of Mass at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth,
then today should be a time to celebrate the 2nd Joyful Mystery, the Visitation, since we began by celebrating Mass at the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem.  As we all know, the Feast of the Visitation came about because after the Archangel Gabriel secured Mary's "Yes" to God's request that she become the Mother of Jesus, Gabriel also told Mary that her cousin, Elizabeth, who was an older woman and to that point in her life, barren, had become pregnant and in fact was in her sixth month, "for", as Gabriel stated, "nothing is impossible with God".  The next thing that St. Luke tells us is that Mary immediately packed and traveled into the "hill country of Judea" to spend the next three months with her cousin to help her and to see her through to the delivery of her blessed son, who would be the one we know as John the Baptist.  This was my first visit to the Church of the Visitation, which is truly in the beautiful, lush hillside not far from Jerusalem.  That means that Mary, herself now pregnant, had to travel through the mountains all the way from Nazareth to Ein Karem, which is perhaps more than 120 miles (the better part of a three-hour bus ride).  To realize that fact puts the "Visitation" in a whole new light for me.
         Once we arrived in the beautiful town of Ein Karem and got out of the bus, we still had quite a walk through the village, and up a steep hill which has perhaps as many as 100 steps up to where the church is.  Needless to say, there were many of us huffing and puffing by the time we reached our destination.  The Church is small, and beautiful.  We had a beautiful celebration of the Holy Eucharist commemorating the Readings and Prayers of the Feast of the Visitation.  What a wonderful way to begin our 7th day in the Holy Land on our Bishops' Pilgrimage for Peace.

        Today was a day of more meetings, but also a time of profound remembrance.
        After returning to the hotel from celebrating Mass, we had a meeting with two representatives of the Israeli government in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bureau of Jewish Affairs and World Religions.   That meeting was followed immediately by a meeting with the Council of Religious Institutes in the Holy Land, chaired by an Evangelical Lutheran Bishop, and accompanied by a Muslim and a Rabbi, who shared with us their concerns of "the complex situation.”  Needless to say they advocate strong involvement of Church leaders, and feel very strongly that the Church throughout the world must support a solution.  We left that meeting to travel to a restaurant in Jerusalem to meet, pray and discuss with a Jewish Rabbi. 
        At this point, I can say that the major points, no matter who is sharing the information with us, is always the same; however, there are diametrically opposite opinions as to who is responsible, and who must do what.   It's very clear that "someone" needs to "do something"; however, in most cases, it should be "them" that has to change, not "us.”  That's part of the essence of why this is such a difficult and complex problem. 
        We left the lunch/meeting to travel to Yad Vashem, on the hillside of Jerusalem,

which is the world's largest museum commemorating the Jewish Holocaust.  It was a profoundly moving and disturbing visit.  We were privileged to have with us one of the Holocaust survivors, Rabbi Fabion Schonfeld (91) along with his wife.  Though aged and frail, Rabbi Schonfeld was very articulate in telling his story of survival.  His daughter, Debbie,
was our knowledgeable tour guide.  There are no words that can adequately express the horror of this atrocity and attempted genocide of the Jewish people living not only in Germany but in most of the countries in Europe which Hitler was conquering in his attempt to establish the Third Reich in the 1930's and 1940's.  What is so sad, for all of humanity, is that the world stood by and did not speak out.  I know that is one of the sins that most people of good will continue to deeply regret and of which we repent.  Of course, as with all historical events, we must also learn as best we can, not only never to forget, but also never to repeat the same sin/atrocity. 

        In many ways, that is what is happening in our world now.  ISIS is committing unspeakable crimes of inhumanity and barbarism even as we speak, waging so-called "holy war" against any one (Jew, Christian, or even fellow Muslims) that does not bow to their opinions and perspectives, indiscriminately.  It is this "fear" learned from the past and the "fear" of the present that is, in my opinion, making the finding of an equitable, just and peaceful solution to this "complex problem" in the Holy Land so very difficult.  It's not bad will; it's not bad people; rather, I believe, it's fear.  Or to put it another way, it's the inability to trust the "other.” 
        At the end of our visit to Yad Vashem, we Bishops, joined with Rabbi Schonfeld and his family, concluded with a beautiful time of shared prayer in the front of this powerful memorial. 
        We returned to the hotel, had an internal meeting among ourselves to help us to process all that we have been seeing and learning, and concluded the day with a beautiful dinner with the leaders of HLTOA, the Holy Land Tour Operators Association.  This is a group of 48 Christian and Muslim tour guides in the Holy Land area that are encouraging pilgrimages and tours to the Holy Land, and of course, urging us to use Christian touring companies to help support them in their livelihood.  During our time here, we have been associated with the Near East Travel company, which has been excellent.
        Our Pilgrimage is coming to an end.  Bishop Pates, the head of our delegation, had to return to his diocese this evening, and four more bishops will be leaving tomorrow.  The remainder of us will spend the entire day in Bethlehem, and then depart on Friday.  So, as we have celebrated the Annunciation and the Visitation, can you guess what we will be celebrating tomorrow in Bethlehem?

        Part of what is common ground among the world's three major religions is the great love and respect for our Blessed Mother.  Let me conclude today's reflection with selected verses of our Blessed Lady's great prayer of praise, the Magnificat:  "My soul proclaims the greatness of The Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name.  He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation.  He has shown the strength of His arm, He has scattered the proud in their conceit.  He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly....He has come to the help of His servant Israel, for He has remembered His promise of mercy, the promise He made to our fathers, to Abraham and His children forever."  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us; lead us to Jesus, Who will lead us to Justice and Peace.   Amen.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Day 6: Gaining more insight from Nazareth to Ramallah to Jaffa

 This may be the Feast of Sts. Cyprian and Cornelius on our Liturgical Calendar, but for us on our pilgrimage, we were blessed to celebrate the Annunciation in the Basilica Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth to start Day 6.  We left the hotel at 7:30 a.m. to arrive for Mass at 8:00 a.m.  This church is huge and beautiful.  
While we could see the chapel which commemorates the very spot where "Verbum caro factum est" (The Word became Flesh) when Mary said "Yes" to the Archangel Gabriel's request on God's behalf and the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, we celebrated our Mass in the beautiful upstairs church.  And as I reflected in my daily “Tweet” today, since Mary was only a teenage girl when this wondrous event took place, I celebrated my Mass today for all teenagers/youth/young adults so that they will have an openness to say "Yes" to God in their lives.
            Right after Mass, we began a drive to Ramallah, not far from Jerusalem, a large Palestinian city which is the headquarters of all the Palestinian political groups. 
I haven't heard the term Palestinian Leadership Organization (PLO) used; rather Palestinian Leadership Authority seems to be the term.  However, the PLO signs and flags are quite visible.  We had three very interesting meetings here in Ramallah.
            We were first received and had a meeting with Dr. Hannan Ashrawi,
a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and one of the major public spokespersons for the Palestinian cause on international TV.  We were warmly received, and Dr. Ashrawi gave a very strong, rather pessimistic, but quite articulate presentation to us.  There was some time for questions and discussions, but both our schedules were quite tight.  We were there for about an hour. 
            We then traveled to another headquarters to meet with the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Leadership Authority, Mr. Rami Homdallah.  
That too was quite an interesting and enlightening meeting.  Where Dr. Ashrawi was somewhat pessimistic about a just solution anytime soon, Mr. Hamdallah holds out great hope and determination to pursue every peaceful solution possible.
            For our final stop in Ramallah, we proceeded to a restaurant where we had a wonderful time for prayer, discussion and a delicious meal with a number of interreligious Christian and Muslim representatives.
            We then drove to Jaffa on the Mediterranean Sea. 
Jaffa as you might remember is a very biblical town, mentioned in the Old and New Testaments.   There we had the privilege of meeting with the retired President of Israel, Shimon Peres
at the Peres Peace House, a place dedicated to the study and dialogue for peace for Jews and Palestinians.  Mr. Peres looked as stately as he always does; however he is also looking, and sounding, quite frail.  However, his commitment to peace is as strong, if not stronger than ever.  It was a joy to spend the time listening to him and engaging in some dialogue.
            Finally we drove the two hours or so back to Jerusalem where we had a short meeting among ourselves to do some debriefing and to get ready for another full day tomorrow.
            Even though today is not the Feast of the Annunciation, I for one am filled with the joy of what the Annunciation means for us each and every day, whether it's March 25th or September 16th or any other day.  The Word has been made Flesh.  God dwells among us.  Something considered impossible has been made possible.  One of the reasons that is so is because a young, teenage Hebrew girl had the openness of mind, the generosity of heart and the strength of faith to say "Yes"---and with that, the impossible became possible; God became Man; Heaven and Earth were united.  What that tells me is that there is no human problem, personal or societal, local or international, no matter how complex, difficult or long-standing it is that cannot be resolved if only we too have the openness, generosity and strength of a teenage girl to say Yes to God, and Yes to what we know is right.  War can never be right.  Injustice can never be right.  Wrong can never be right.  We must continue to pray, and work, and be in dialogue with one another so that we can say Yes to God, Yes to what is Right.

            Please be assured of my prayers for you and prayers for Peace in this Holy Land.

Additional Highlight photos: 

Interfaith luncheon in Ramallah

 Looking down on the Chapel of the Anunciation
Beautiful sunset over the Mediterean Sea

 Meeting with Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah

 Overlooking Nazareth
Peres Peace House Garden

Monday, September 15, 2014

Day 5: September 15, 2014 Our Lady of Sorrows

Today began even earlier than all the previous days.  We had to check out of the hotel in Jerusalem,and be on the bus by 7 a.m. to begin our journey to Nazareth (about a three-hour bus ride to the north).  But before we did that, we were treated to a truly wonderful tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, and had the privilege of praying for a good while at the Western (Wailing) Wall.

            We arrived early and toured various sites in the Old City, including the ruins of King Herod's Palace,

and two of the most sacred of Islam's shrines, the Dome of the Rock and the Sacred Mosque.  Security is incredibly tight in this section of the Old City, known as the Muslim Quarter and the Jewish Quarter.  There were literally Israeli armed guards everywhere, not just one or two, but in groups of five and six, just standing around together, in groups, everywhere.  In order to get into this section, we had to go through a security system similar to getting on an airplane. 

Our tour guide, Andre, a Palestinian Christian, is superb in his knowledge and extraordinary in his articulation and explanations of the history behind everything.  He has really made seeing all these holy sites so much more rich and helpful because of his ability to "teach" and make all the connections with the Gospels, the Old Testament, and historical facts.  He is with us all the time, every day, so he has truly been a great blessing.  Even though we were already in the Old City, 
View of the Old City from the vantage point of the Wailing Wall
we had to go through another security checkpoint (just like the airport) when we entered the area of the Western Wall.  As you know, this is sometimes called the "Wailing" Wall as well.  This is the only part of the ancient temple which was destroyed in 70 A.D. that is left, which is why this site is so sacred to Jews, and to all people of faith.  I want you to know that I prayed for you at this very holy place---everyone in our Diocese, all my family and friends, and all those in special need.  I wrote your names on small piece of paper and left it in the cleft of the Western Wall.  And of course I prayed intently for an end to violence, discrimination, hatred and prejudice of any kind----that we all may be one and live in peace.  I was grateful for the substantial period of time we were able to stay here in prayer, united with so many hundreds of other pilgrims and pray-ers as well.
            After returning to the bus, we began our journey to Galilee.  As we all know, it was in Galilee, in Nazareth in particular, where Jesus grew up in his Holy Family.  And we know that they, and all practicing Jews, made pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem at least once a year, if not more.  As we made this bus ride, which took the better part of three hours, in our comfortable bus with a/c, it blows my mind to think of pilgrims---Jesus, Mary and Joseph----making that trip, on foot, through the desert and the incredibly harsh conditions that they would have encountered.  And then, of course, they had to go back home after the celebration.  It would have to take days, if not weeks, of walking.  This makes me so much more aware of what is involved when the Gospels tell us that "they went down to Jerusalem" making it sound like "they went for a nice walk in the park.”  There was so much more to it than that.  I think that is so important for us to realize. 
            Along the way, we caught sight a couple different times of the Jordan River, which is much less impressive than we might imagine.  

But Andre explained that over the years, as people have made "progress" by building dams, etc., that progress has taken its toll on the Jordan River which is depleting it substantially. The greatest sight along the way was the Sea of Galilee, which of course is not a "sea" at all, but rather a large fresh water lake.  It's 15 miles long and at some points seven miles wide, so that's a pretty large body of water.  But as we know, so much of Jesus' life and ministry takes place in relation to the Sea of Galilee.  It's a beautiful sight to behold. 

Our first destination in Galilee was to have lunch on the Mount of the Beatitudes, and that was followed by celebrating Mass at an outdoor chapel overlooking the Mount of the Beatitudes where Jesus taught the Beatitudes, as well as the entire Sermon on the Mount.  And of course, the Mount of the Beatitudes overlooks the Sea of Galilee.  It is another warm (hot) day here, but the breeze on the mount was refreshing and pleasant. 

            After Mass, we went to Capernaum.  As we know, when Jesus began His public ministry, He left Nazareth, was baptized in the River Jordan, and then went to Capernaum, and pretty much made that his new home, living a good bit of the time with Peter, his wife and mother-in-law.  We were able to see the ruins of Peter's home, as well as the Synagogue where Jesus gave His first sermon.  We then traveled a little further in Capernaum to see the place where the Risen Jesus appeared to the apostles who had gone back to Galilee somewhat discouraged to go back to fishing.  Jesus appeared to them, had breakfast with them, and then asked Peter those three important questions: "Do you love Me?” three times.  We were able to visit the rock where Jesus and Peter had that conversation, known as the Primacy Rock. 
Ruins of Peter's house
            We then came to Nazareth where we will be staying overnight.  We immediately went to the home of the Bishop who is Vicar of Galilee in the Diocese of Jerusalem, and had a wonderful discussion with him.  Then we went to the Church of the Annunciation for an interfaith dialogue---which was quite interesting indeed.  We will celebrate Mass at the Church of the Annunciation
tomorrow morning, which I look forward to very much, and then we will head back to Jerusalem.
            On this Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, I feel so privileged to be here in Nazareth, at the Church of the Annunciation, where Mary first said "Yes"/"Fiat" to the Archangel Gabriel.  At that very moment, when the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and she conceived Jesus in her womb, our salvation began.  All along the way, Mary experienced many joys, but also many sorrows.  The Church recognizes seven Sorrows:  three related to Jesus' childhood; four related to His passion and death.  But it all began with Mary saying "Yes" on the Feast of the Annunciation.  Very early this morning, standing in the Old City of Jerusalem, I could see the domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which houses the spot of Calvary where Jesus was crucified for our sins and the sins of all the world.  From the Cross, with His dying words, Jesus said "Yes" to the world when He said to John: "Behold your Mother.”  As Mary, with her first "Yes", always leads us to Jesus, even though at times she experienced great sorrows in doing so, so by Jesus' "Yes" on the Cross, He led us back to Mary.  And of course, as we have regular recourse to Mary, as we share with her our daily sorrows and struggles, she will do what she always does:  she will lead us to Jesus for His mercy, forgiveness, and unconditional love.
            Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.....and help to lead the world to Peace in your Son, Jesus.