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.

Saving energy in an arid land

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.

Israelis and Palestinians (and many of their neighbors) have been fighting or squabbling over the land both proclaim as their home for more than 60 years.

The Holy Land may be flowing with milk and honey, but not oil. Israelis and Palestinians have had the bad luck to claim one of the few oil-free patches of the Middle East as their homeland. How does that play itself out in real life?

Virgually every light fixture within sight in Israel and Palestine (and nearby Jordan, too) has been outfitted with a compact fluorescent bulb, which gives close to the same level of light as incandescent bulbs for a fraction of the energy usage.

If you want to buy a car in Israel, the tax the buyer pays exceeds the car’s cost. That ought to be enough to curb driving. If not, the price of gas at Israeli service stations started at about six-and-a-half shekels, the Israeli unit of currency, for a liter (a little bit more than a quart). Translated into U.S. currency, that comes to $7.25 a gallon.

Water, though, is a more contentious issue. Palestinians have charged that Israelis have diverted more than 80 percent of the water that flows through their territory to help slake the thirst of Israelis within the nation’s accepted boundaries, plus the more than 120 settlements built on land confiscated from the Palestinians. While the infrastructure is there to route water through Palestinian cities and villages, Israel controls the spigot. Many towns have to do without water two days a week. Some must go without even longer. According to Maria Khoury, wife of the mayor of Taybeh, West Bank, one nearby town is so parched that she knows when the water is running when she sees the village women hanging out their clothes to dry.

A nice respite for weary travelers in Jerusalem

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.

This is not meant to be an advertisement for the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, or “Vatican guesthouse” in more colloquial terms. But it’s a nice respite for weary travelers in an arid land.

Notre Dame is located across the street from Jerusalem’s Old City. Starting in 1882, it was run by French Assumptionists to be a center for French pilgrims. The center also doubled as a seminary until World War I.

However, during the Israeli-Arab war of 1948, two bombs struck Notre Dame, rendering part of it uninhabitable. The Israeli army used the center as a guard post. The Assumptionists used it as a shelter for refugees. Things slowly returned to normal, but it was a “new normal,” with far fewer pilgrims coming to stay there. In 1972, one year before yet another Arab-Israeli war, the Assumptionists turned over Notre Dame to the Vatican.

Pope Paul VI, who visited Jerusalem in 1964, made the rehabilitation of Notre Dame a pet project, but he did not live to see its completion. In December 1978, four months after Pope Paul’s death, Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York promulgated a decree signed by Pope John Paul II making Notre Dame a pontifical institute and an ecumenical holy place and a center for public worship.

The 1987 intifada and the 1991 Persian Gulf War kept tourists away again. The second intifada, in 2000, nearly did in Notre Dame. It closed Sept. 1, 2001, 10 days before the terror attacks that struck the United States.

In  November 2004, five months before his death, Pope John Paul issued a “motu proprio” entrusting the care of Notre Dame to the Legionaries of Christ.

They’ve  certainly spiffed up the place. La Rotisserie, the restaurant attached to the guesthouse, is said to have the best Western food in Jerusalem and at a price better than its competition. But for roughly $160 a night, taking into account fluctuating currency exchange rates, travelers get a nicely appointed room. There’s a queen- or king-sized bed, a love seat, a coffeemaker, a hair dryer, and some rooms even have a flat-screen TV. On a coffee table there’s a dish of assorted fruits, a second dish with assorted cookies, a bottle of water and even a small bottle of merlot.

Drawbacks? One for sure: The Assumptionists probably hadn’t considered this in 1882, but the thick limestone walls of Notre Dame make it pretty darn tough to get a wi-fi connection.

Tips to getting around the Holy Land

Domes and cropped bell tower of Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Photo from seetheholyland.net

Pat McCarthy, a retired Catholic newspaper editor in New Zealand, has turned a retirement project into an online resource for Christians around the world who are considering a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The site  is an online guide to the history and significance of most of the sites on a pilgrim’s itinerary, describing with words and photographs the Christian, Jewish and Muslim holy places in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Egypt. McCarthy, the founding editor of New Zealand’s national Catholic newspaper, NZ Catholic, has led pilgrimages to many of these sites and has visited almost all of them, some several times.

The website, launched in May, also includes pilgrim information describing authenticity of sites, travel tips and how to organize a pilgrimage.

McCarthy said pilgrims not only get a spiritual benefit from visiting places where Jesus lived but their presence also show solidarity with the declining number of Christians still living in the Holy Land.

His research on the holy places has turned up interesting facts on sites that have disappeared, some that have been rediscovered and others that are not what they claim to be.  And he’s not done yet. After more than three years of research, he says the website is still a work in progress, with more holy places to be added.

Holy Land journey: I leave with fears and hope

By Bishop Gerald Kicanas
One in a series

DAY TEN: Jan. 14, 2010

JERUSALEM — The last formal gathering of the Coordination of Episcopal Conferences in Support of the Church in the Holy Land took place this morning. At that session the participating bishops from Europe, Canada, and the United States signed a formal communiqué summarizing this year’s experience. The statement titled “The Courage to Achieve Peace in the Holy Land” reflected what we saw and heard during these days. It expressed the deep concern we felt about the deepening tensions we observed, yet the hope that peace can be achieved if justice for all is realized. (Editor’s Note: Click here for CNS story.)

My episcopal motto, Justice Begets Peace, has come to mean even more after my experience this year. Violence, extremism, oppression, injustices only fuel tension and heighten enmity. The words of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, quoted in the statement express well the only way to peace, justice for all. My prayer is that Israel and Palestine will heed his wise words spoken as a friend.

* * *

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem at final news conference. (Photo by Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk)

Before leaving for home, I had an opportunity to visit the Catholic Relief Services office in Jerusalem, headed up by Matt Davis.  I have come to hold great respect for the incredible and important work CRS is doing around the world. It makes me proud to see their presence among the poor and their commitment to serve the littlest and weakest among us. They witness what it means to be Catholic.

This witness has become even more striking during the tragic and devastating events that are taking place right now in Haiti. CRS is on the ground providing needed help and support for the countless numbers in Haiti who have been affected by the earthquake.

In a similar way here in the Holy Land, the offices in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza reach out to those in need. The meeting with the staff further brought home to me the dedication and commitment of CRS personnel, both their international and local staff.

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