U.S. bishops affirm power of prayer for Israeli-Palestinian peace

Washington — U.S. bishops affirmed that prayer is powerful, peace is possible and that support for a two-state solution is an essential dimension of pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace in a Sept. 22 communique, following a Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace in the Holy Land. Eighteen U.S. bishops made the Sept. 11-18 journey to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

“There is no military solution to the conflict, but tragically violence on both sides undermines the trust needed to achieve peace. Violence always sows seeds of further violence and fear,” the bishops wrote in their communiqué.

Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, led the delegation.

The bishops celebrated Mass at Holy Sites and with Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem and local Christian communities in Jiffna, Nablus and Gaza. They met with religious and government leaders. Religious leaders included representatives of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions, including Orthodox, Armenian, and Protestant leaders. Government leaders included former President Shimon Peres of Israel, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah of Palestine, and Hanan Ashrawi of the Palestinian National Council.

The bishops expressed concerns about the rights of religious minorities, especially the dwindling Christian population of the region, as well as the challenges to the peace process posed by factors like the barrier wall, expanding settlements and other legal and socioeconomic restrictions.

Full text of the communiqué follows:

Bishops’ Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace in the Holy Land

We went to the Holy Land as men of faith on a Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace.  Motivated by the love of Christ and deep concern for both Israelis and Palestinians, we went to pray for peace, and to work for a two-state solution and an open and shared Jerusalem.  Arriving in the wake of the recent Gaza war, though, we encountered pain, intransigence and cynicism.  Even the young people are discouraged. But we also saw signs of inspiration and hope.

Prayer was the central element of our pilgrimage. Through daily liturgies at holy sites and local parishes, we experienced our communion in Christ with local Christian communities. We are grateful to those at home who supported our pilgrimage with prayers and interest. We also prayed alongside Jews, Muslims and other Christians. Prayer is powerful. We know peace is possible because God is our hope.

We met with people of goodwill, Palestinian and Israeli alike, who yearn for peace. We were inspired by the commitment of the staff and partners of Catholic Relief Services, The Pontifical Mission, and the local Christian community, who are providing relief to the people of Gaza; by the efforts of Christians, Muslims, and Jews who are building bridges of understanding; and by the mission of the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre. We were moved profoundly by our visit to Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, and were encouraged by Bethlehem University, a Catholic institution that is building bridges between Christians and Muslims as they study together to create the future of Palestine, and by the Church’s schools that are open to all.

We are compelled by the Gospel of Peace to share the fruits of our prayers and encounters with Israelis and Palestinians. Two peoples and three faiths have ancient ties to this Land. Sadly, Jerusalem, the City of Peace, is a sign of contradiction. We were told more than once that the city could erupt in violence as it has on far too many occasions.

The towering wall that divides Israelis and Palestinians is another sign of contradiction. For Israelis, it is a sign of security; for Palestinians, a sign of occupation and exclusion. The contrast between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is also a sign of contradiction. In crossing the border one moves from freedom and prosperity to the intimidation of military checkpoints, humiliation, and deeper poverty.

The situation of Christian Palestinians is an added sign of contradiction.  The Christian community is emigrating at alarming rates.  As we learned from Patriarch Fouad Twal, the unresolved conflict and occupation undermine human dignity and the ability of Christians to raise their families. Israeli policies in East Jerusalem prohibit Christians who marry someone from outside the City to remain there with their spouse, and security policies restrict movement and confiscate lands, undermining the ability of many Christian families to survive economically. The harsh realities of occupation force them to leave. Muslims also suffer similarly, but have fewer opportunities to emigrate.

As U.S. bishops, we humbly acknowledge that we do not understand all the complexities of the situation, but in faith we do understand some things clearly. We reaffirm the longstanding position of the U.S. bishops and the Holy See and support a two-state solution: a secure and recognized Israel living in peace with a viable and independent Palestinian state. The broad outlines of this solution are well known; but there has not been, nor does there appear to be, the determined political will to achieve it.

There is no military solution to the conflict, but tragically violence on both sides undermines the trust needed to achieve peace. Violence always sows seeds of further violence and fear.  We witnessed the horrific devastation of whole neighborhoods in Gaza and heard about tragic deaths on both sides, especially a disproportionate number of Palestinian noncombatants, women, and children. The local Christian community in Gaza described the nightly terror they suffered during the war. Israelis in Sderot and elsewhere described their dread of Hamas rocket fire.

The route of the barrier wall, the confiscation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank, especially now in the Bethlehem area and the Cremisan Valley, and any expansion of settlements threaten to undermine the two-state solution. Many reported that the window of opportunity for peace was narrowing dangerously. If it closes, the futures of both Palestinians and Israelis will be harmed.

Many persons with whom we met joined us in commending the recent initiative of Secretary of State John Kerry, but said renewed U.S. leadership is required for peace. For the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians, the United States must mobilize the international community to support both parties by adopting parameters for a lasting solution, including borders, an open and shared Jerusalem, and a timeline.

Pope Francis, in word and gesture, inspired hope on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in May. After another Gaza war, hope is now in short supply. One person on our journey told us that the Holy Land is the land of miracles. The miracle we need is the transformation of human hearts so each side is less deaf to the concerns of the other.  In solidarity with our brother bishops and all people in the region, we urge alternatives to the cycle of hatred and violence. Peace is possible.

Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Chairman, Committee on International Justice and Peace
Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, Chair-Elect, Committee on International Justice and Peace
Bishop Richard J. Malone, Diocese of Buffalo, Board of Catholic Relief Services
Bishop John O. Barres, Diocese of Allentown
Archbishop Eusebius J. Beltran, Archdiocese of Oklahoma City
Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, Diocese of Stockton
Bishop J. Kevin Boland, Diocese of Savannah
Bishop Paul J. Bradley, Diocese of Kalamazoo
Bishop Tod D. Brown, Diocese of Orange  
Bishop Robert J. Coyle, Archdiocese for the Military Services
Bishop Bernard J. Harrington, Diocese of Winona
Bishop Richard Higgins, Archdiocese for the Military Services
Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, Diocese of Albany
Bishop William F. Medley, Diocese of Owensboro
Bishop Dale J. Melczek, Diocese of Gary
Bishop William F. Murphy, Diocese of Rockville Centre
Bishop Michael D. Pfeifer, Diocese of San Angelo
Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger, Diocese of Salina

Bethlehem and Marie Doty Park

We began our final day together in the Holy Land with Mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. While Mass and prayer have been the focal points of our days, it was nevertheless wonderful to walk the streets of Bethlehem after Mass and then head to Marie Doty Park to see the location, as well as to take part in an ecumenical gathering of local leaders, including leaders of the local Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities.

How does one summarize Bethlehem? It’s impossible. But it’s likewise impossible not to write home about such a place.

The ancient city of Jesus’ birth is located about six miles southwest of Jerusalem. Again, visitors to the Holy Land are oftentimes startled by the proximity of the sacred sites, which gives an entirely different perspective to Jesus’ journeys, which were always by foot. The topography of the place is mountainous, and Bethlehem sits 2,600 feet above the Mediterranean Sea. When we consider that the Dead Sea is 1,400 feet below sea level, it gives new meaning to those biblical passages where we read of Jesus going up to one location and going down to another!

In its earliest origins, Bethlehem was situated along an ancient caravan route, and for this reason it was a melding of many peoples and cultures. The name Bethlehem means “house of bread.” It was also the famed “City of David,” the place where the prophet Samuel anointed David to be Israel’s boy-king. We also have the prophecy from the Old Testament Book of Micah, Chapter 5, where it is prophesied that the Messiah one day would come from the small and seemingly insignificant community of Bethlehem.

By the time of Jesus’ birth, the town had actually decreased in population to the point of becoming a truly insignificant village. You might recall that at the time of Jesus’ birth, Caesar Augustus decreed that a census be taken. Everyone in the Roman world had to travel to the place of the pater familia’s ancestral town to register. As Joseph was of the Davidic line, he was required to go to Bethlehem to register, and thus it was there that Mary gave birth to Jesus. The town was probably overflowing with others who were likewise registering in compliance with the census, which explains the biblical “no room at the inn.”

Today, with a population of about 60,000, Bethlehem is more similar in size to Salina than Kansas City! The population for many decades was 80 percent Christian and 20 percent Muslim, but those numbers today are reversed. For many and complex reasons, Christians are fleeing Israel and Palestine. In 1995, the city came under the control of the Palestinian National Authority, and the city has experienced not only irregular growth but a constant flow of tourists and pilgrims.

Of course, the city is home to one of the great churches of Christendom. The Church of the Nativity was built by Constantine the Great (some authorities attribute it to his mother) and is actually one of the oldest surviving churches in Christendom. The church stands over a cave that is thought to be the very spot where Jesus was born. The entrance is not especially impressive, but there is a massive courtyard that is filled not only with visitors but with a superabundance of vendors! A 14-point silver star marks the place where the manger is thought to have stood. The original church was partly destroyed by the Samaritans in 529 A.D. and then rebuilt by Emperor Justinian. A fascinating tidbit of history I found is that the church was spared destruction from the Persians in 614 largely because the invaders saw the depictions of the Magi on the walls! It is also significant to note that the historically good will between the Muslims and Christians of Bethlehem is a reason the church was not destroyed during al-Hakim’s rule in 1009.

As noted above, after Mass we visited Marie Doty Park  in Bethlehem. Members of the New York City Archdiocese, George and Marie Doty (now deceased) visited the Holy Land years ago. While visiting they noticed that Palestinian children had no outdoor spaces to play except in the very narrow and over-crowded streets. They observed this in Bethlehem, Gaza and Ramallah. Working with the Patriarch of Jerusalem, they provided the finances to construct three beautiful outdoor parks. Visiting Marie Doty Park in Bethlehem was very moving — it had the feel of an oasis of charity for a portion of the world’s children who have known too much suffering in their young lives. As noted, the Dotys likewise made possible Family Park in Ramallah, one of Palestine’s most crowded communities, as well as Brotherhood Park in Gaza. The Dotys were equally committed to their local parish and archdiocese in the U.S. In March, Cardinal Timothy Dolan blessed a new parish gymnasium dedicated to the memory of the Dotys, who were members of his archdiocese. In his homiletic remarks, the cardinal commented: “I knew them a long time before I became archbishop of New York, because every priest and every bishop in the world knew George and Marie Doty. … The Doty family name is synonymous with Catholic values, synonymous with Catholic ideals, synonymous with generosity.”

That was the morning. The afternoon began with lunch and a visit of Bethlehem University. The university is thoroughly Catholic in identity but warmly welcomes persons of all faiths into the student body. The casual ease with which the students study together and share in one another’s lives was immensely refreshing. What an incredible treasure for the Holy Land. I sat at a table with two students, and they were a delight. I must note, however, that they all have grave worries about their future. What is happening in the Holy Land has shaken them no less than anyone else, but perhaps the optimism of youth was the refresher we bishops needed to see.

From Bethlehem we headed to Hebron, a city famed in recent years for violence, spreading Jewish settlements in a Muslim territory and human rights issues. We met with representatives from B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights, and it was an eye-opening experience. From there we finished the day at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, which is sponsored by Notre Dame University. We again enjoyed not only a generous meal but a healthy dialogue between the bishops and local religious leaders, including members of Rabbis for Peace.

The dream and hope of all is nothing less than a true and equitable justice that becomes the foundation for a true and lasting peace.

Church of the Visitation in Jerusalem

A place of veneration for most all pilgrims to the Holy Land is the Church of the Visitation in the Ein Karem region of Jerusalem. This church marks the place were Mary, the Mother of Jesus, met her cousin Elizabeth after the angel Gabriel revealed himself to Mary and told her she was pregnant with the son of God. The angel also revealed to Mary that her elderly cousin Elizabeth was likewise expecting a baby, who would be known as John the Baptist.

Still in awe and wonder at the experience and the news, Mary rushes to be with her dear cousin who resided in Ein Karem, located southwest of Jerusalem and also known as “the city of Judah” in the New Testament. Upon hearing Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth felt that the infant within her womb (John) “bowed” to the Christ child within Mary’s womb. In response, Mary gives voice to a prayer of great thanksgiving that has become a part of Christian liturgy prayed every evening by priests, religious and a great many devout members of the faithful. The words of this prayer are known as the Magnificat:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: 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 filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 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.” (ICET translation)

It is worth noting that there are two famous churches in Ein Karem. The Church of the Visitation was considered the “summer home” of Elizabeth and her husband Zacharias. It is on the slope of a hill just south of Ein Karem and thought to be where many of the inhabitants would head for the summer in order to escape the heat. The other site is the Church of St. John the Baptist, identified as the other home of Elizabeth and Zacharias and the location of the baptist’s birth. At the entrance of the Church of the Visitation is a magnificent sculpture depicting the very slim figures of Mary and Elizabeth at the moment of their greeting. This is one of the many churches of the Holy Land which has an upper (main) level and a lower (or crypt) level. The present church, designed by Antonio Barluzzi and completed in 1955, is built upon the remains of Byzantine as well as later Crusader churches. Its richly decorated artistic interior is considered by many as one of the most beautiful of all the Holy Land sites.

Immediately after Mass today we had a meeting with an Israeli government representative, Akiva Tor, who is the head of the Israeli Bureau of World Religions. Following that meeting we gathered together with members of the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land. To see intelligent, committed and thoughtful representatives of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish community enjoying one another’s company was redemptive. These are men with a long history of working together, and the groundwork they are laying for a better future is a blessing for all the peoples of the Holy Land.

The afternoon was spent at the National Holocaust Museum. If I recall correctly, it was opened in 2005 and is quite different from the site I visited when I was here in the Holy Land as a seminarian (30 years ago!) The architecture is masterful. One enters in an area flooded with natural light but then descends into a stark, concrete space — symbolizing the descent into madness of the Nazi era. Through various rooms that use multiple media to bring the experience to life, one slowly enters into the experience of the Jews in their worst moment of persecution. The effort is to reveal that these were individual human beings, not just numbers. Faces, names, artifacts and suffering come together to help the visitor grasp the horror of such persecution. Eventually one begins to ascend back into a region of natural light, having “come through to the other side.” Adjacent to the museum is the Garden of the Just, where trees are planted in memory of those non-Jews who helped Jews during the persecution. There is a walkway next to the garden made from cut white limestone that radiates the light of the midday sun. I noticed the tree in memory of Oscar Schindler as I walked by.

Nazareth, Ramallah and Tel Aviv

Having spent the previous night in Nazareth, our group began today with Mass at the Basilica of the Annunciation. The Church is the crown jewel of the city. Let me explain the rest of the day, and then I’ll revisit the basilica in greater detail.

Our first official visit of the day was in Ramallah, the headquarters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and a drive of about 90 minutes from Nazareth. We were exceptionally privileged to meet with Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, a long-time PLO council member and director of the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy. Many of you would recognize her from her many years of high-profile interviews on CNN and other news sites. She shared some personal facts: She has two aunts who are nuns and has met with four popes — her first meeting having been in 1964! Her family line is from the historic Christian presence in Palestine.

Dr. Hanan stressed that Palestine is bigger than itself — it belongs to all of humanity. Because of the profound religious, cultural and ethnic diversity, it must be a witness to the universal rule of law. She spoke movingly of the pain of families separated from one another, as well as what she sees as inhumane and derogatory treatment by Israelis. She is especially concerned that Israel has quadrupled settlements in Palestine since 1991, which she strongly sees as Israel’s attempt to avoid a two-state solution. She was complimentary of Pope Francis’ visit and identified three aspects flowing from the visit:
• It showed that Pope Francis is deeply concerned for the Christians of Palestine. She highlighted that there are about 2,000 Christians left in Ramallah, but 40,000 have fled throughout the years and are living in the U.S.! She noted it would be a crime if Palestine lost all of its Christian people, her own heritage.
• His message of peace resonated deeply with the Palestinian people
• He reveals that only the Church can “speak to power.” By this I believe she means that the Holy Father’s moral authority goes beyond that of any secular leader, as there is no self-interest. For that reason his words are far more powerful.

From there we met with the PLO Prime Minister Dr. Rami Hamdallah, who echoed much of Dr. Ashrawi’s comments. He too was an eloquent speaker but noted issues we had not heard before. He pointed out how Palestine is not permitted an airport, a seaport or the ability to develop its natural resources and help its own people. And thus the dire poverty remains along with a pervasive sense of hopelessness. What the resulting desperation among a people enduring occupation can lead to is well-known.

Over lunch we enjoyed an ecumenical meeting with leaders of different religious groups in Ramallah. From there we headed to Tel Aviv, where we were most honored to meet with Israel’s former president, Shimon Peres.

Mr. Peres is 91 years of age and embodies Israel politics, as well as its modern history. He was eloquent and gracious in meeting with us. While the current political issues were not addressed, he did speak warmly of his recent visit with Pope Francis and his hope for universal peace. Toward that end he asked the Holy Father to consider implementing a sort of United Nations composed of religious leaders, as opposed to political leaders. It is his hope that such a group could accomplish more for world peace and stability. We actually met in a beautiful building named for Mr. Peres — the Peres Peace Center.

All in all it was an extraordinary day. It began and ended with prayer but included substantial discussions and what I suspect is a greater grasp of the real situation by my fellow pilgrims and me. And now, just a little more on that magnificent basilica in Nazareth.

Luke 1:26-38: “In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph […] The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Hail, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” […] “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.”

Many are quite surprised to discover that Nazareth was a relatively isolated village in the time of Jesus with a population estimated to have been around 200! Jesus spent his childhood in Nazareth before beginning his public ministry, at which point he moved his home to Capernaum. From the Scriptures we know that Jesus returned at least twice to Nazareth to teach in their synagogue. The Scriptures also reveal, in stark terms, that he was rejected both times, and on one of the visits the residents of Nazareth were so outraged by his teaching that they tried to throw him off a cliff! The Scriptures are remarkably silent about Jesus’ childhood, but we can trust that his early years were probably very similar to those of most young boys of the era. He learned his father’s trade, was immersed in his Jewish religion and knew the loving affection of family. We can only wonder at the inability of his former neighbors and friends to hear the inner truth of the Gospel he preached. Perhaps it is a lasting reminder that a part of our vocation is to recognize the sacred in the midst of the ordinary.

There is considerable evidence of Christian worship at Nazareth throughout the centuries. A Byzantine church was built on the spot believed to be the place where the angel Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary. The Franciscan Order, which has custody of the Holy Land sites, had yearned to build a magnificent church that would honor the great mystery commemorated at Nazareth. The resulting Basilica of the Annunciation is actually the largest Church in the Middle East! In 1951 the noted architect Giovanni Muzio presented his plans for the church, which incorporated the venerable Grotto of the Annunciation, as well as much of the ruins of the earlier churches. The resulting basilica is sort of a church-on-top-of-a-church! The lower church (crypt level) preserves the Holy Grottos, as well as the remains of the Byzantine and Crusader churches. The upper church is the Roman Catholic parish church of Nazareth. The main feature of the upper church is the grotto, with its striking dome, recalled as the very spot where the angel appeared to Mary. The basilica was completed in the late 1960s.

On March 25, 2000, celebrating the Solemnity of the Assumption, St. John Paul II preached a homily at Nazareth’s Basilica of the Annunciation. What follows are snippets of his moving text:

Our jubilee pilgrimage has been a journey in spirit, which began in the footsteps of Abraham, “our father in faith” (Rom 4:11-12). That journey has brought us today to Nazareth, where we meet Mary, the truest daughter of Abraham. It is Mary above all others who can teach us what it means to live the faith of “our father.” In many ways, Mary is clearly different from Abraham; but in deeper ways “the friend of God” (cf. Is 41:8) and the young woman of Nazareth are very alike. Both receive a wonderful promise from God. Abraham was to be the father of a son, from whom there would come a great nation. Mary is to be the Mother of a Son who would be the Messiah, the Anointed One. “Listen!” Gabriel says, “You are to conceive and bear a son … The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David … and his reign will have no end” (Lk 1:31-33). […]

But we have also come to plead with her. What do we, pilgrims on our way into the Third Christian Millennium, ask of the Mother of God? Here in the town which Pope Paul VI, when he visited Nazareth, called “the school of the Gospel”, where “we learn to look at and to listen to, to ponder and to penetrate the deep and mysterious meaning of the very simple, very humble and very beautiful appearing of the Son of God” (Address in Nazareth, 5 January 1964), I pray, first, for a great renewal of faith in all the children of the Church. A deep renewal of faith: not just as a general attitude of life, but as a conscious and courageous profession of the Creed: “Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est.” […]
In Nazareth, where Jesus “grew in wisdom and age and grace before God and men” (Lk 2:52), I ask the Holy Family to inspire all Christians to defend the family against so many present-day threats to its nature, its stability and its mission. To the Holy Family I entrust the efforts of Christians and of all people of good will to defend life and to promote respect for the dignity of every human being.

The Western ('Wailing') Wall and Mount of the Beatitudes

As many are aware, beginning early in the 18th century, a custom arose of leaving written prayers on scraps of paper tucked into the cracks and crevices of the Western Wall. Sources indicate that more than a million notes are placed in the wall each year by pilgrims and tourists. The notes are removed twice a year and buried in the nearby Mount of Olives.

Leaving a prayer at the wall — a deep desire of the heart to be entrusted to God — has become customary of all persons of faith who visit Jerusalem, and very recently our Holy Father Francis did so while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I was honored and humbled to do the same, and the experience moved me more than I had anticipated.

The Western Wall is actually the last remnant of King Solomon's original temple. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians about 587 B.C. but rebuilt by the King of Persia some 70 years later. According to Jewish custom and tradition, it is believed that the temple mount was the place where Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac and where Jacob had his famous dream with the ladder. The temple built upon this mount housed the Ark of the Covenant. Moreover, faithful Jews yearned to make pilgrimage at least once in their lives to celebrate Passover in the holy city of Jerusalem, offering a lamb for slaughter at the temple. For all these reasons many would assert that this site was intertwined with the very heart of the Jewish faith. In the year 69 A.D. the Romans destroyed the temple, leaving only this remnant of the outer perimeter, the western wall which is commonly referred to as “the wailing wall.”

Many Jews argue that the term “wailing wall” is a misnomer that has come down mostly from the non-Jewish world. Not understanding a distinctively Jewish style of prayer, some outsiders viewed it as wailing and thus the name stuck. Jewish people have been praying at the wall for centuries and no doubt for a multitude of reasons, but in general it is asserted that they pray there because they feel God’s presence at this sacred site in a unique way. And thus, the Wailing Wall is actually a place of prayer and hope.

Like a great many holy sites in Israel and Palestine, the site is shared by three great religious traditions: Jews, Muslims and Christians. Upon the temple mount, in place of the temple, now stands a very famous Islamic mosque known as the Dome of the Rock. It is the third most holy site in the Muslim tradition. It is believed by faithful Muslims that Muhammad made a miraculous nighttime journey to Jerusalem and from this site ascended into heaven. The Dome of the Rock is actually built over a sacred stone — the site at which, as noted above, Abraham is believed to have prepared to sacrifice Isaac. The temple mount is deeply sacred for Christians as well. Our belief that Jesus is the new temple, restored and made perfect by his resurrection, does not lessen the significance of the place where God’s great love for his creation was celebrated for centuries. Indeed, it is our faith that the Hebrew Scriptures [Old Testament] pointed to Jesus as the fulfillment of all that was hoped for on this holy spot.

After our visit to the Western Wall, we eventually made our way to the Church of the Beatitudes. Pilgrims are known to have venerated this site from the 4th century onward, associating it with the most famous of all homilies — the Sermon on the Mount. It is not surprising as a natural amphitheater emerges from the way the land slopes down toward the nearby Sea of Galilee. It would have been an excellent location for Jesus’ great sermon. The well-known fourth-century Spanish pilgrim, Egeria, speaks of a church here in her writings, and the ruins of a fourth-century Church have been discovered very near the present church. A portion of the ancient mosaic floor, thought to be a part of the fourth century church, is actually on display in Capernaum. The current Church on this site — a minor basilica — is exceptional. It was built in the late 1930s under the direction of the famous Italian church architect Antonio Barluzzi. The verses related to Jesus’ great sermon are written on mosaics on the floor of the church as well as around the altar.

I find it hard to imagine anyone truly attempting discipleship of Jesus without spending time reflecting on his great teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, as we find it in both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel (Matthew 5 and Luke 6). I’ve always preferred Matthew’s version, quoted here from the New American Bible:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”

The term “beatitude” comes from the word that begins each of these nine maxims. What emerges from the heart of Jesus’ teaching is that the typical values of the secular world are not the values of God. The world values the materially rich as well as the rich in joy; the world has no use for those who mourn, for the meek or for those whose hunger reminds them of what could be their own. The world places no value in poverty, mercy or living by integrity. Winning wars and battles matters more to the world than making peace. And perhaps of greatest significance, those who live by God’s values will find themselves gravely at odds with those who embrace a purely secular life.

But the beatitudes end on a note of great hopefulness. While our way of life may be hidden, misunderstood or suspect, it does lead to life — everlasting life. And for this we truly can rejoice and be glad for our reward is heaven! And so, let us be one with those who suffer now, or mourn, or do not draw the world’s attention, or who yearn for justice that seems out of their reach, or show mercy when indulging in revenge would boost the ego, or live lives of integrity, or value peace over violence. And if it brings us into conflict with the world, so be it. As followers of Jesus all we can do in that case is … rejoice.

Into Gaza

Eight months ago, long before the recent 50-day war between Israel and Gaza, the bishops on our pilgrimage applied for visas to enter Gaza.  While they were granted at that time, in recent months we did not expect to be able to use them.  I was greatly surprised and pleased to discover that Catholic Relief Services was able to get five of our bishops into Gaza, including me. Our visit was greatly anticipated and desired by the tiny Christian presence in Gaza. Our goal was to have Mass with the Catholics of Holy Family Church in Gaza, visit with the people, and see first-hand the damage from the recent conflict.

A little necessary background:  Gaza is about 24 miles long and two to four miles wide, with a population of about 1.8 million people — making it one of the most densely populated places on Earth.  It is built on an almost unusable aquifer, meaning drinking water is brought in!  It is sealed up on three sides with solid barriers (a wall) and faces the Mediterranean on the fourth.  The Oslo Accord determined that for their fishing industry a minimum of 20 nautical miles off shore in the Mediterranean was both normal and essential. They were limited by the Israeli government to three miles for many years.  Recently it was expanded to six miles but the area has been so over-fished it has little meaning.  Electricity ran typically 8 to 12 hours per day before the conflict.  Following the conflict it runs 4 to 8 hours per day.  The citizens of Gaza have long referred to their situation as "the world's largest open air prison."  A great many would love to leave but they cannot get an exit visa and the border is strictly controlled.  Even with my pre-approved visa it was a lengthy process and involved three passport checks, an interview, X-rays and long waits.
Now I don't pretend any great expertise in the relevant political background but am 100 percent certain that anyone who has a simple answer to so complex a situation is going to be wrong.  Still, there are painful facts we cannot dispute, foremost among them: over 2,000 dead in Gaza from 52 days of fighting with Israel, and 70 percent to 80 percent of the dead were civilians with a disproportionate number of the dead being children.  

We heard of how Gaza homes shook through the night — for nights on end — glass shattered, buildings would collapse, and they couldn't answer their children's questions about why they had to live in Gaza or why their family members and other little children they knew were dying.  Children were traumatized and there was nowhere safe to take refuge or hide.  UNICEF indicates that more than 200,000 children are in need of urgent counseling, suffering from the trauma of what they experienced and saw.  Today (Sunday) was the first day of public school, and educational endeavors have been suspended as their school system has determined that the children have to deal with the emotions and try to heal a little before they can learn.

I was a chaplain at the Murrah bombing site in Oklahoma City. Gaza today was Oklahoma City a great many times over.  I snapped pictures with my iPhone.  The two stories of rubble from a collapsed (bombed) 14-story building was startling.  The rebuilding dollar amount is in the billions, and the time it would take to rebuild the territory's damaged buildings, if I recall correctly, was set at 20 years or more.  At one point we had a view of devastation lasting for several blocks.  Some of the people in the streets were going about their business.  Others seemed still shell-shocked, in front of the burnt ruins of former homes or businesses.  I could only pause and share a little in their grief.

Clearly we didn't see all of Gaza in one day; a main goal was to see what the devastation looked like.  We felt we owed it to be in solidarity with those who were suffering.  From taking it all in one cant help,but ask "where is it all going, and how will it all end?"  

One of our goals is to do our best to hear the different sides of this conflict as there is truth found in both sides.  On our way home from Gaza we stopped a few miles away on the Israeli side of the wall and were met by a representative of the Sederot village.  As it is so very close to Gaza it was a prime site for the crude and largely inefficient missiles hurled out of Gaza by Hamas and others.  While there was no devastation to be seen in Sederot we were told — and it was covered on national news — that these rockets did do some damage in Israel and some Israeli lives were lost.  Yes, both sides of this conflict have an important story to tell, and both peoples deserve to live unmolested in peace.  In that spirit, a common theme emerging from some of the people on both sides of this crisis is that there is a growing desperation among the innocent victims of this violence.  The devastation wrought in Gaza and elsewhere may not be in Israel's long-term best interests.  Increasingly it is clear that a two-state solution, where all human beings have the potential to live freely and safely, is the only realistic hope.

Despite all the damage, trauma, and death recently experienced, the people of Gaza, and most especially those we met at Holy Family Church, would want us to know that Gaza is not a refugee camp.  They have lives to live even if it's in this small, badly scarred, and densely populated  place.  They still have their children, who they love as do all parents, and they will not let hope for their children be taken from them.  They do not want our pity but they do want us to understand their suffering.  If our voices can help bring about positive change for all the peoples of the Holy Land, then we must raise our voices in truth and justice.

In closing for today I would note that the Mass in Gaza was celebrated by the people with great zeal.  The presence of five bishops from America meant a lot to them. They insisted on hosting us for coffee and cookies after Mass.  I had been warned on my first day in Israel to avoid taking pictures of people's children.  I took a risk and asked the school principal, a Sister from elsewhere in the Middle East, if any of the parents present with children would let me take one picture with them.  I was startled at the volunteers!  They want us to know about the children in Gaza.  

Actually, each parent wanted you to know about THEIR children. They are beautiful.  I have hope for them, and I pray that we can help them to grow up in a better world.

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