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

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.


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