A ‘Top Ten’ list about Jesus

Unlike David Letterman’s “Top Ten” lists, this list starts with the smallest number and then proceeds from there.

The list is from Jesuit Father James Martin, editor at large of America magazine and author of the new book “Jesus: A Pilgrimage,” which documents his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land as part of his preparation to write a book about Jesus.

Jesuit Father James Martin on pilgrimage in Holy Land (Photo courtesy Fr. Martin)

Jesuit Father James Martin on pilgrimage in Holy Land. (Photo courtesy Fr. Martin)

Father Martin is no stranger to comedy, what with his being the chaplain to “The Colbert Report”; host Stephen Colbert, even when he isn’t using the French-sounding affectation of his surname, is a honest-to-goodness Catholic.

But Father Martin plays it straight with his own “Top Ten,” driving home some essential points about Jesus’ earthly life and ministry while deflecting some of the suppositions others tend to make about Jesus.

Take a look for yourself. It’s a deft four-minute video.

Jerusalem welcomes Vatican official who works with Jews

By Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM — Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews, was warmly welcomed by a largely Jewish audience to an intimate gathering focusing on Jewish-Catholic relations.

Sharing the stage with him were two rabbis: Austrian-born Rabbi Mordechai Piron, who was Israel’s second chief military rabbi and today serves as the chairman for the Israeli Jewish Council on Interreligious Relations, and Rabbi David Bollag, a fellow Swiss and a lecturer and senior research fellow at the Institute of Jewish-Christian Research in Lucerne.

Pope Benedict XVI rekindles the eternal flame at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem May 11, 2009. The flame commemorates the six million Jews killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust. (CNS photo/Ronen Zvulun, Reuters)

During the May 24 event at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, Cardinal Koch’s message reiterated his statements to journalists a week ago emphasizing the binding nature of the Second Vatican Council and “Nostra Aetate.”

Rabbi Piron, a nonagenarian, reminded the audience of times when any encounter between Jews and the Catholic Church had been “a tragic and difficult moment; a reality of blood and tears and persecution.”

“But now all this has changed, totally and radically,” said Rabbi Piron.

While denying any direct connection to the Nazi Holocaust in which some 6 million Jews were murdered, Cardinal Koch said that Christians did not display the “vigor and vitality” one would expect from them in opposing Hitler’s regime, which Cardinal Koch said was also anti-Christian.

“So we Christians have every reason to remember our complicity,” he said.

Rabbi Bollag said he felt there was a direct connection between the long history of Christian anti-Semitism and the Nazi killing machine. He said he felt troubled by the Vatican’s return to limited use of the Tridentine Mass and Pope Benedict XVI’s rewriting of a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews.

“I have no intention as a Jew of suggesting to the Vatican that or even how it should change this prayer,” he said. “It is our duty to respond and to express how we hear this prayer. We hear it as a regression … to a very painful episode of relations between Christians and Jews. I admit we are oversensitive a bit, but we are traumatized,” said Rabbi Bollag.

A young Israeli woman, Hana Bendcowsky, program director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian relations, noted that as an Israeli Jew she no longer felt traumatized and wondered what were the steps specifically Israeli Jews needed to take so that young people could learn about Christianity.

“In our 2,000-year history in reality we are still strangers to each other,” she said.

Reflections on a visit to the Gaza Strip

Sami El Yousef, regional director in Palestine and Israel for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, just returned from his first trip in seven months to the Gaza Strip.

In reflections posted on the website of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, he writes of the “the heroes in Gaza and how brave they all are to live under these difficult conditions, yet how they are still able to smile and laugh and continue to hope that tomorrow will be a better day.” Israel controls traffic in and out of the Gaza Strip, although Egypt has opened a border crossing to people only.

El Yousef speaks of fuel shortages and their cascading ramifications; trying to lift the spirits of Christian university students; and seeing goods that had been smuggled through tunnels from Egypt.

His reflections can be read here.

Passover is around the corner — that means it’s matzah time

In the last couple of decades Catholic parishes have conducted Christianized “Seder” suppers. These “Seders” are not true Seders, of course, since they usually include Catholic prayers and symbols. However, they serve a couple of great catechetical purposes. The ceremony brings home the story in the Old Testament of the Jews flight from Egyptian captivity in Moses’ time. It also helps Catholics understand how Jews today celebrate that important event in their history.

One of the things served at every Seder is matzah, the bread of affliction, unleavened because the fleeing Hebrews had no time to wait for their bread to rise before they left for the Promised Land. And at Passover, not just any matzah will do. Seders require shmurah matzah, made from wheat that has been carefully grown and processed.

Our friends at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency went inside the Manischewitz shmurah matzah factory in Newark, N.J., for an inside look at how this ceremonial bread is made. Watch the fascinating video story.

So next week, when you are at a parish “Seder” or if you’re fortunate enough to celebrate a Passover Seder with a Jewish friend, when they pass the matzah you can say, “You know, I’ve seen this made.”

A glimpse of life along the Via Dolorosa

JERUSALEM — The sound of schoolboys playing and roughhousing echoes off stone walls as they run up an alley on their way home after a day of classes. An elderly man follows, admonishing them to settle down and stop disturbing the neighborhood.

Shopkeepers urge visitors to check out their wares. “What can I show you?” is a regular refrain.

Life along the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem near the third and fourth stations on Jan. 30. (CNS/Dennis Sadowski)

Two fashionably dressed young women walk briskly, talking quietly, smiles on their faces. The sound of their ankle-high boots striking the stone walkway announce their presence. A few men look up to catch a glimpse.

It’s daily life on the Via Dolorosa — Latin for the Way of Grief — in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Even on a cold, foggy day with a steady rain falling — as it was yesterday — the sights and sounds along the 2,000-foot path that Jesus is believed to have followed to Golgotha leaves a multitude of thoughts and questions: What was Mary thinking as she saw her son pass? Did Simon of Cyrene volunteer to help Christ struggling with his cross, or did the Roman soldiers force him to step in because he said something that raised their ire? How did Jesus keep going after falling, not once, but twice onto the hard stone pavement — with people who did not know him likely jeering all around? Who were the crying women he met? Were they mothers? Friends of Mary? Followers of their messiah? Did Jesus think he could escape or did he face the inevitable knowing he was carrying out a plan far greater than he could ever imagine?

And more.

The Via Dolorosa is most easily reached by entering through the Lions’ Gate — also known as St. Stephen’s Gate — on the east side of the walled Old City of Jerusalem. Along the path, simple black round metal markers bearing Roman numerals indicate the first nine Stations of the Cross. In several locations churches have been built to recall a specific incident in the final hours of Christ’s life.

The final five stations are commemorated inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a structure dating to at least the fourth century. During excavation, St. Helena is said to have discovered pieces of the original cross at the site.

Hundreds of pilgrims crowd into the church daily. Some have followed the Via Dolorosa; others have come to venerate the place where Christ died, was buried and rose from the dead. They patiently wait to see relics, pray at Christ’s tomb and view the rock where the three crosses are believed to have been erected. Some kneel, some weep, some watch in silence. During Lent, the number of pilgrims visiting the church will increase until events culminate in the Easter triduum.

The church remains under the shared administration of several Christian churches under a long-ago arrangement. It is home to Roman Catholic, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches.

It remains the holiest place on earth for Christians.

Dennis Sadowski is traveling in the Holy Land with other Catholic journalists from the United States under the auspices of the Catholic Press Association in an arrangement with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

Holy Land retreat connects New York cardinal-designate with his priests

Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan of New York greets Catholic journalists from the United States in Jerusalem Jan. 29. (CNS/Bob Mullen, The Catholic Photographer)

JERUSALEM — Traveling with a busload of his fellow priests through the Holy Land is giving Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan of New York the opportunity to reflect on what his upcoming investiture as cardinal means for his priesthood.

“Just to be here … at a pivotal moment in your life, a time of transition, (that) you would turn to the Lord in prayer and reflection, this is good,” Cardinal-designate Dolan said at the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center during a brief meeting with a group of Catholic journalists from the United States also visiting Israel.

Cardinal-designate Dolan is leading 50 priests of the New York Archdiocese on what he describes as a retreat pilgrimage. They have so far visited the Mount of Beatitudes, the Jordan River to renew baptismal vows and the Qumran National Park, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

Cardinal-designate Dolan said the priests also celebrated Mass yesterday at the Church of the Good Shepherd in the ancient city of Jericho in the Judean Desert east of Jerusalem.

He described the trip as one full of emotion.

“A pilgrimage, of course, is intended in Catholic wisdom to be a microcosm of life,” he said. “So you have all the emotions, right? You got fatigue, you got joy, you got smiles, you got tears, you got restlessness.”

With several days to spend in Jerusalem, Cardinal-designate Dolan expects more of the same, especially as the priests gather for daily Mass and visit the sites of Christ’s passion and death, resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven.

The retreat pilgrimage is the third that Cardinal-designate Dolan has led for his fellow priests in his three years as archbishop of New York. The first was during the Year for Priests in 2010 to Ars, France, home of St. John Vianney, patron saint of priests. Last year it was to Italy, to Assisi and Rome particularly.

Next year, to mark the Year of Faith, a pilgrimage to the sites of church councils is being considered. On the agenda are Nicea, Constantinople and Ephesus, all in Turkey.

“When I came (to New York) I said I wanted to get to really know my priests well because there’s so many of them. I said, ‘There’s no better way to know somebody than traveling with them,’” Cardinal-designate Dolan said.

“We’ve limited it to a busload of priests because you really want to get to know the guys. You laugh together. You pray together. You eat together. You can yell at each other,” he said with a laugh.

The American Catholic journalists were in the Holy Land on a trip sponsored by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

Israel’s Gospel Trail: for hikers, bikers — and pilgrims

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

GALILEE, Israel — The scene was one of tranquil beauty: In front lay the Sea of Galilee in all shades of blue, with a solitary boat floating on the calm surface of the lake. Beyond, in a blurry haze of pink and purple, were the mountains of the Golan Heights. To the right was the green valley of Ginossar and to the left, hidden by greenery, was Tabgha, where Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

Students and journalists participate in a pre-launch tour of the Gospel Trail from Mt. Precipice, Nazareth, to the Jazreel Valley, April 14, 2011. CNS photo/ Debbie Hill

A group of 20 intrepid reporters had climbed up to the top of Tel Kinrot, an ancient archaeological site dating back to the Bronze and Iron ages, just above the shore of the Sea of Galilee, as part of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism’s inaugural event for the official opening of its new Gospel Trail, which marks the path Jesus might have followed when he left Nazareth and began his ministry.

While tourism ministry officials cannot be 100 percent sure of the exact trail Jesus took in his wanderings, they picked one which, according to topographical and Biblical research, seemed like a logical possibility, said Uri Sharon of the religious tourism department.

Tourism officials hope to encourage restaurants, shuttles and overnight accommodations along the path to help the local economy. Already, a small kiosk selling drinks and snacks at the edge of the small Bedouin village of Wadi Hamam at the foot of Mount Arbel is looking forward to an increase in business.

The trail starts at Mount Precipice, just outside Nazareth, and continues eastward to Capernaum, where Jesus established his ministry and met his first disciple Peter. Stops along the way include the Mount of Beatitudes, the home of Mary Magdalene, and Tabgha. A segment is also part of the national Israel Trail, which crosses the entire country.

An overview of Nazareth from Mount Precipice, Nazareth, where The Gospel Trail begins. CNS photo/Debbie Hill

Sitting at the festive lunch at the end the journey, retired Anglican Bishop Riah Abo el-Assal, retired Melkite Catholic Archbishop Pierre Mouallem and Melkite Archbishop Elias Chacour said they were glad to see effort spent to improve Christian pilgrimage. They were less enthusiastic about side industries such as bike riding and horseback riding, which they said were not suited for a contemplative pilgrimage experience along the trail.

The Gospel should come before the trail — and before the horses and the bicycles, said Bishop Abo el-Assal.

“I am happy they took this initiative to illustrate the fact that Jesus Christ was here and walked around this area,” said Archbishop Chacour. “Although there is the intention to commercialize these places, it nonetheless comes back to the real event of Jesus Christ spending his time around this lake, the most holy place in the Holy Land, where man has not yet changed the landscape.”

After the Arab dictators fall, will democracy follow?

A big question on everyone’s mind since the Arab Spring began  and dictators from North Africa to the Arabian peninsula began falling like dominos is “what will take their place?” In some places — Egypt, Tunisia and Libya the most recent — the rebels prevailed. Yet the opposition is unorganized. Who will fill the power vacuums and what form of government will emerge are still largely guesswork. Western hopes always look to democracy, but there is no guarantee. None of these states has ever had anything remotely resembling a democracy. Can it work?

Another even more compelling debate is whether democracy can work in an Islamic culture. Can one of the oldest forms of government and one of the world’s largest religions exist in harmony? Recall that not so many years ago some wondered whether Christian principles and a secular democracy could go hand-in-hand.

In the July issue of One magazine, the official publication of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, scholar John L. Esposito explores this issue in his article, “Is Islam Compatible with Democracy?” Esposito, a professor of international affairs and of Islamic studies, is the founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington. His conclusion: “The relationship of Islam and democracy remains central to the development of the Middle East and the Muslim world in the 21st century,” but it won’t be easy ironing it out. Moreover, the survival of ancient Christian communities in these lands may very well depend on a successful outcome.

Also check out the Alwaleed Center site for a video of Esposito discussing the future of Christian communities in the Middle East with pollster James Zogby.

What are your thoughts on the chances of democracy catching fire in these once oppressed nations?

Christian unity needed for survival, patriarch says

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Catholicos Aram of Cilicia, the Beirut-based patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, is a forceful speaker and a committed ecumenist who believes that theologians should continue dealing with the dogmatic differences keeping Christians apart. But even while they do that, he said, Christians leaders and their faithful must get on with the business of the full visible unity of the churches.

“One of our top priorities in the Middle East at this point of history is Christian unity,” he said today during a meeting with Catholic journalists visiting Lebanon with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. “Today our people don’t care” about highly theological, historically influenced differences. “They care about how we can be together.”

The Armenian Orthodox leader accepted Pope Benedict XVI’s invitation to send a “fraternal delegate” to the special Synod of Bishops for the Middle East in October and he said he wrote to the pope expressing his opinion that the synod “should not be exclusively Catholic” since the issues it was dealing with were “Christian concerns” common throughout the Middle East.

Catholicos Aram of Cilicia (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

Echoing a call made repeatedly at the synod, the catholicos said, “The first thing we must do is fix a common date for Easter. There is no theological problem — it’s a calendar problem,” depending on whether a church follows the older Julian calendar or the Gregorian calendar used in the West. Especially in the Middle East, when people see Christians celebrating the major feast of their year on different dates, he said, they wonder how they can all claim to share the same faith.

One of the big issues at the synod was what the churches could do to help stem the tide of Christian emigration from the region.

“Emigration is a pan-Christian concern,” the catholicos said. “The churches in the Middle East have a clear policy on emigration: we are against it. The Christians should not leave the region…. Christians belong here and they should stay firmly attached to our land and our tradition.”

At the same time, he said, Christians must work together more closely to educate their members on their rights and obligations as citizens and be more vocal in demanding respect for those rights.

“We have to be faithful to our traditions and history, but faithfulness to our roots doesn’t mean we have to stay away from each other because we all are the body of Christ,” he said. “We must identify the best ways so that that God-given togetherness (of faith in Jesus) is visible in the life of the people, especially in the Middle East where we are a minority.”

“We cannot live like small islands in the middle of a huge ocean,” he said.

It’s not all ‘Greek’

Editor’s Note: CNS staffer Mark Pattison traveled to the Holy Land in September as part of a study tour sponsored by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and funded in part by the Catholic Communication Campaign. We will highlight his trip as the Vatican prepares for the Oct. 10-24 Synod of Bishops for the Middle East.

If you go to the Holy Land and talk to Christians in the region, you will be apt to hear a lot of talk about “Greek” Catholics.

Greek is the term that people in the region use to identify Eastern Catholics. In my recent visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Greek Catholics were usually Melkite Catholics, although in other parts of the Middle East, Chaldeans or Maronites might predominate. Eastern Catholics constitute a majority of Christians in the Holy Land. Melkite is just one of 22 Eastern rites in communion with Rome. More on that later.

The term “Eastern Catholic churches” is used for Catholic churches with origins in Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa that have their own distinctive liturgical and legal systems and are identified by the national or ethnic character of their region of orgin. The term “Greek Catholic” is used colloquially in the Middle East to differentiate between these Catholics and “Greek Orthodox,” who constitute a majority of Christians in the Holy Land.

After the Great Schism of 1054 separating the Catholic Church and the Orthodox, the Orthodox generally organized their church around national identity. That holds true today. In addition to Greek Orthodox, you may see Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, and a number of other Orthodox churches, each one with its own institutional autonomy.

If you were go to an Orthodox liturgy and witness its “Greek Catholic” counterpart, you would be hard pressed to find any significant differences in worship. The principal difference is outside the church building; Eastern Catholics profess their loyalty to the bishop of Rome, the pope, but the Orthodox do not do so.

One  difference that does exist is the date of major feasts. Often, major feasts are several days, if not weeks, apart from each other. Leaders in each tradition have often pointed to this as a sorrowful source a scandal to Christians everywhere.

Roman Catholics, for instance, celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25. The Orthodox do not celebrate this feast until Jan. 7.  However, many Eastern Catholics observe the feast of Theophany, when God in human form made himself manifest to other humans; this is a holy day of obligation in the Eastern Catholic calendar.

Easter has proven problematic as well. There are a few times when both Catholic and Orthodox celebrate Easter on the same day. But when it is not celebrated jointly, the Orthodox Easter is almost always later than the Catholic Easter.

Efforts have been made at arriving at a common date for Easter, but they have yet to bear fruit. An even stickier situation has been to set a fixed date for Easter.

In the Palestinian territories, the general agreement in place made is that Christians celebrate Christmas on the Catholic date of Dec. 25, but Easter on the Orthodox date — for 2011 on April 24, same as for Latin-rite Catholics.

And, now for those Eastern churches in communion with the see of Peter. There are five families or groupings for the 22 Eastern churches. They are:

Alexandrian: Coptic and Ethiopian churches.

Antiochene: Syro-Malankara, Syrian and Maronite churches.

Armenian: Armenian church.

Byzantine (often used in North America as a synonym for “Eastern”): Albanian, Belarussian, Bulgarian, Georgian,  Greek, Hungarian, Italo-Albanian, Melkite, Romanian, Russian, American Ruthenian, Slovak, Ukrainian and Yugoslav churches.

Chaldean: Chaldean and Syro-Malabar churches.

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