The Pilgrimage Has Begun

Bishop Edward Weisenburger was among 18 U.S. bishops who traveled to Israel and the Palestinian Territories in September 2014 on the "Bishops' Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace in the Holy Land." He shares his daily experiences here:

Sept. 9: My pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine finally has begun!  And I am truly grateful for the opportunity.  It might be worth noting from the start that a pilgrimage is not the same thing as a vacation or a tour.  On a vacation or a tour, the goal is the destination.  For a pilgrim, the real goal is what happens in the heart along the journey.  I would note too that every vacation tour I’ve been on has made an effort to make things as comfortable as possible—within my oftentimes limited price range!  After all, a vacation is supposed to be easy and fun.  Pilgrimages, on the other hand, have always entailed some measure of hardship, struggle, and perseverance.  Indeed, there’s something about dealing with the crises along the way that makes the pilgrimage all the more meaningful.  Perhaps in this way the pilgrimage becomes something of a paradigm of life—serious challenges to be met, but untold blessings encountered all along the way.  But maybe the most important difference to note is that the pilgrimage is not primarily dependent on our efforts.  Rather it is what God is doing in us that defines the sacred journey.  For this reason a pilgrimage cannot be undertaken successfully without prayer; and prayer is indeed powerful! For the pilgrim it is prayer that attunes us to what God wants us to see and embrace along the way.  Indeed, undertaking a pilgrimage without prayer would be like going to a concert and watching the musicians but plugging your ears with cotton. You might think you’re seeing a lot but you’re missing what matters most.

All the world knows of the Holy Land’s recent violence.  For many, the situation seems hopeless.  But in every age of human history we have always discovered that hope is essential if peace is to come about.  Indeed, prayer nurtures hope and hope enables people to imagine a different and brighter future.  The United States Conference of Catholic Bishop, along with the Holy See, have long advocated for a two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.   This would entail recognition and security for Israel and a viable and independent state for Palestinians.  If the bishops making this pilgrimage can contribute in some small way to bringing prayer, hope, and eventually peace to the good peoples of the Holy Land then the journey will have been a great success.

Prayer is always the starting point and the bishops of this pilgrimage have already planned occasions of prayer with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious leaders.  In those prayerful experiences we also hope to listen to the aspirations of all the peoples of the territory.  We also hope that our presence will be an expression of our full solidarity with the Mother Church of Jerusalem.  In addition to meeting with faith groups there also will be encounters with Israeli and Palestinian civil society groups.  An added interest for me is that I anticipate seeing first-hand the impressive work of Catholic Relief Services—a group I have always admired greatly.  The days will be full but surely meaningful.

A great many people have asked if I am nervous about going to the Holy Land at a time of such turmoil and violence.  The truth is that I’m not concerned at all for my personal safety—although I’ve received generous assurances from authorities that my fellow pilgrims and I will be kept safe.  I would humbly admit however that I do have some apprehension.  It’s not about violence or danger.  Rather, I’m left to wonder how I will respond to what I find there.  I’m wondering if I might be looking into the faces of others who have experienced unspeakable suffering and whether my words or my presence will be able to convey something of the love of Christ.  Moreover, I hope that I will be able to focus myself on God in prayer and thereby see not only the holy sights but what God wants me to see within myself.

My gut tells me that the best way to deal with the anxieties is to name them and then let them go.  In that spirit I hereby remind myself, at the beginning of this sacred journey, that the real goal of the pilgrim is to be prayerful and passive – passive in the sense of letting God be in charge of what unfolds in the days ahead.  And that’s something, which those of you who know me well can verify, has never come easily to me!

And so … God is indeed going to have his hands full.  Please know that the good people of the Diocese of Salina will be remembered every step of the way.  For any who may be reading this, if you have a moment, please remember me to God in prayer.  At the same time, may I humbly ask that you especially remember the suffering people of Palestine and Israel.  And lastly, call to mind and heart the bishops and staff from the United States Conference of Bishops (U.S.C.C.B.) who will be journeying with me.  If the company we keep defines who we are then I am indeed a blessed man.

 

Yours in Christ,

+Edward J. Weisenburger

History of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Sept. 11: Of all the spots venerated by Christians in the Holy Land, the tomb of Christ — the Holy Sepulchre — is perhaps the most cherished, and it is here that our pilgrimage truly begins.  

Upon arriving at the Church we knelt briefly and kissed the spot immediately inside the doors that marks where the dead body of Christ was anointed before burial. We then headed a little further into the Church to visit the actual tomb of Christ. The tomb is only large enough for four visitors at a time, and there is usually a wait. Being there is a powerful experience, and there’s no question that it’s worth the time in line with pilgrims from around the world. Kneeling by the slab of stone with three other bishops, I whispered a brief prayer with two intentions — peace for the world and blessings for the good people of the Salina Diocese.

Walking through the Church, I couldn’t help but ponder that the tomb is not only the place that speaks of Jesus’ death but also the place that bears witness to his resurrection. Perhaps from that vantage it is an eternal reminder that regardless how dire or hopeless any situation may seem, there is always hope for healing and life. Our prayers at the Mass that followed were focused on God’s blessing of peace for the Holy Land — and peace is indeed possible. But it will require the grace of the risen Christ alive within receptive hearts. May all who are reading this please join with me and my brother bishops in our prayer as well as our resolve to be, in some small way, Christ’s presence today — calling others to hope, to life and to lasting peace.

For those a little more interested in the site we visited today I would note that it was the custom of the Jews in Jesus’ day to bury their dead outside the city walls of Jerusalem. The area in question was an ancient quarry where graves were carved from the earth. The Christians of Jerusalem are believed to have held liturgies regularly at the tomb of Christ from the time of his resurrection until Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 66 AD. Almost a century later, the Roman Emperor Hadrian had the quarry filled in to provide a secure foundation for a temple to Aphrodite! The tomb remained hidden beneath this pagan temple until the conversion of the Emperor Constantine the Great, about 312 AD. Constantine had an intense interest in the sacred sites associated with his new-found religion. He had the temple to Aphrodite cleared away and the area of what was once the hill of Golgatha (also known as Calvary) as well as Jesus’ tomb were uncovered. It is worth noting that Golgatha was a natural rock pinnacle which stood just outside the city walls of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day. The site of the cave excavated for his burial (the tomb) is only about 35 meters northwest of Golgatha. Pilgrims are oftentimes surprised at the nearness of these locations which, in the western mind, are often presumed to be miles apart.  

Constantine soon commissioned churches to be built throughout the Holy Land, the most important of which was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, begun about 326 AD. Beginning with Constantine’s efforts in the fourth century, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre became one of Christianity’s principal pilgrimage sites. Over the centuries the resulting churches on this site were badly damaged or even destroyed by fires as well as battles between Muslims and Christians, including the Crusaders. There also were renovations throughout the years. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre today contains a somewhat confusing conglomeration of more than 30 small chapels and shrines. Under a decree imposed by the Ottoman Turks in 1757 AD, ownership of the Church is shared principally by three Christian Churches: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Armenian Orthodox. The smaller communities of the Coptic, Syriac and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches have rights to worship in certain areas. Despite having lasted for two and one-half centuries, the co-ownership of the church has been tumultuous over the years, and one senses a somewhat uneasy peace lingering among those who profess to follow the Prince of Peace.  

It is worth noting that the Franciscan Order has custody of the Sacred Sites in the Holy Land. The history of their presence is traced to about 1335 AD, and it was in 1342 that the honor of protecting the Holy Places was bestowed upon the Franciscan Order by Pope Clement VI.

The Patriarch of Jerusalem

Sept. 12: We began our second full day with a whirlwind tour of Jerusalem. The city is divided and the historical districts were pointed out to us. It was only a year or two ago that Palestinians and Israelis felt secure walking through each other’s territories, at least during the day. That has ended as recent months have seen increasing violence and fear on both sides.

One of the most challenging moments of a very full day was visiting “the wall,” which runs through the Palestinian section of Jerusalem, effectively severing 300,000 Palestinians from their family members, terminating employment for them, commerce, etc. While no credible person questions Israel’s right to security, it nevertheless should be recalled that the United Nations condemned Israel’s building of the wall, and the general consensus is that the devastation and resentment it caused has only (and greatly) deepened the enmity of those good people who are walled off from much of what was their life. It is a gaping wound in the Holy City. It has not increased peace.

From there we visited the Patriarchate of Jerusalem — a patriarchate is like a diocese but headed by a patriarch, in this instance, His Beatitude Fouad Twal. He spoke movingly of our brother and sister Catholics under his care and the desperate efforts of his clergy and people not only to provide sacramental life but also, in many instances, basic social services. Their main mission is to run a great many schools in Palestine, Jerusalem and Jordan — schools which are open to children of all faiths. In some instances certain schools have more non-Catholics than Catholics. The good will, understanding and sense of universal brotherhood being fostered is their great hope for a better future. Incidentally, I have been a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre for many years. Knights and Ladies who make pilgrimage to Jerusalem receive the formal “pilgrim’s shell.” I was deeply honored to receive it from the patriarch himself. The Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre provide much of the funding of the patriarchate and its schools. It’s an exceptional order in the Church.

After lunch we met with the “custos” (custodian) of the Holy Sites of the Holy Land. For almost two centuries the churches and sites here have been entrusted to the Franciscan Order. The custos had exceptional insights into the pilgrimage sites as well as the general situation unfolding. He, along with the patriarch, would seem to concur that we are going through a time of great suffering. Everyone’s efforts to achieve a two-state solution are greatly needed.

Late in the afternoon we attended a Sabbath service in a reformed synagogue and met some wonderful parishioners there. It helps to immerse oneself in the culture from as many perspectives as possible. Over dinner we had a presentation from Michael Ratney, the U.S. consul general for Jerusalem. He has been in office here for two years (the 50th consul general from the U.S. — a long history). His understanding of the politics as they are unfolding and America’s role confirmed much of what we have learned from the senior religious authorities.

In essence, the two-state solution, which is endorsed strongly by the Holy See and the U.S government, is probably the only realistic hope for a lasting peace built on any semblance of justice. But as Israeli settlements are continuing to be built on Palestinian land, the window of opportunity seems to be slowly shutting. The Holy Land, and the world, needs the two-state solution to happen. One of our best speakers today noted — after decades of living here — that the uneasy coexistence of Jews, Christians and Muslims was really what Jerusalem was all about. Hearing an Imam chant prayers as Orthodox Jews visit the Western Wall and Christians are making the “Way of the Cross” — all that blended together is what this city is all about. To think that two of the world’s great religions can be removed or relegated to museum-like insignificance is not realistic. Renewed efforts for a peaceful coexistence are necessary, and fortunately there are men and women of good will in all three religious groups who see this truth. The key is not letting their good efforts be sabotaged by those who refuse the notion of coexistence in peace.

Prayer. Prayer leads to hope. Hope makes it possible to envision other/better possibilities.

For those interested, a little history on the Jerusalem Patriarchate and His Beatitude, Patriarch Fouad Twal. His Beatitude, Fouad Twal, is a man of great devotion and faith. He was born in Jordan, entering the seminary in 1959 and being ordained a priest of the Latin Patriarchate in 1966. He obtained his doctorate in canon law in 1976 and began working in the diplomatic service of the Holy See in 1977. He then served in the Vatican’s diplomatic posts in Honduras, Cairo, Berlin and Lima until 1992 when he was appointed Bishop of Tunis. He then succeeded Patriarch Michel Sabbah as Patriarch of Jerusalem, only the second Arab Patriarch since the office was reestablished in 1847.

The title “patriarch” is not common to our vocabulary. The term “patriarch” refers to the father or chief of a clan, family or race. The word is found throughout Scripture as well as in secular texts. By the eighth and ninth centuries the word became a formal title, signifying a rank in the hierarchy. It was the patriarchs who watched over the metropolitans (commonly referred to as archbishops), just as the metropolitans watched over the bishops of the dioceses in their region. In the Western world it was viewed as the rank immediately below the bishop of Rome.

It might interest some to note that in the earliest centuries of the Church there were five great patriarchs found in the following centers of civilization and faith: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. While it is greatly oversimplifying very complex matters, I would note that the relationship between the patriarch of Rome and the other four patriarchs was a major part of what resulted in the division between the Roman Catholic (Latin) Church and the “Orthodox” Church.

In looking specifically at the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, we must begin by noting that the Church of Jerusalem came to life on the day of Pentecost. It was recognized as a patriarchate by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. There was relative harmony until 1054 when the Churches of the East (Orthodox) and those of the West (Latin/Roman Catholic) separated from one another. When the Crusaders arrived in 1099, the Greek Patriarch Simon fled to Cyprus, leaving the See of Jerusalem vacant. The Crusaders installed one of their own as the first Latin Patriarch, a situation that remained somewhat stable until 1187 when Jerusalem fell to Saladin. It was actually 1847 before the Latin Patriarch was restored by Pope Pius IX, who sent Patriarch Giuseppe Valerga to Jerusalem as Latin Patriarch in 1848.

Church of the Flagellation

Sept. 13: With today being the Jewish sabbath (Saturday) our schedule was less packed than yesterday's marathon.  After a quick breakfast we headed to the famous Church of the Flagellation — a famous site on the Way of the Cross, walked by a great many Jerusalem pilgrims.  The church is actually located at the site known from archeological remains to have been the location of the Roman fortress near the temple.  We were indeed at or very near the place our Lord experienced humiliation and brutal violence. The homilist for the Mass, Bishop Paul Bradley (bishop of Kalamazoo, Mich.) reflected on the great suffering of Christ at this site.  The Son of God's own redemptive suffering, which came to fulfillment on the cross, is a mystery that has moved many to embrace their own crosses with patience and hope.

From there we were received by the Armenian Apostolic Patriarch of Jerusalem, Nourhan Manougian.  His Beatitude actually served in several Armenian Apostolic church parishes in the U.S. and his English is perfect.  His comments focused largely on the immense suffering of the remaining Christians in the Holy Land, the decades long exodus of Christians of all denominations from Jerusalem, and his growing fear that peace was growing out of reach.  His words echoed those of so many others.  Efforts for peace are critical.  The success or failure will have ramifications that could affect the entire world.

Over lunch we had a presentation by Father David Neuhaus, a local Catholic priest, whose ministry focuses largely on asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants.  As Israel's economy is quite strong there is a huge market for the cheap labor provided by undocumented persons.  In this respect I feel Israel shares much in common with America!  There's no shortage of labor for these people who are paid a fraction of what a citizen would earn in their stead.  The more critical issue he deals with involves providing care for the asylum-seekers (largely from Somalia, the Philippines, and Africa), especially their children.  He spoke of mothers working 14-hour days and children left in large numbers with a sole caretaker during the day.  Many, after years of inactivity and poor nutrition, cannot use their limbs like ordinary children when they show up for school. Israel requires education for all children, age 6-18 and regardless of documentation (a huge blessing!) but educational success for these children is chaotic at best.  Too, many are literally without a country as Israel does not grant citizenship to the children of non-citizens.  The situation is incredibly unstable for them as they have fled horrible destitution but now live in complete uncertainty about their future.  In addition to Father David I also spoke with a religious sister at my table who received a major commendation from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her efforts related to combating human trafficking in Israel — a problem all over the world.  Again, the situation is profoundly complex.  The bright side of this picture is that the Church stands out among those making a difference.  The Catholic schools and daycare programs for the small children of the destitute are making a huge difference.  Our Catholic faith, especially our social teaching derived from Jesus' gospel, is alive in the Holy Land.

Just a few blocks from the Temple Mount of Jerusalem, on the Via Dolorosa, is found a Franciscan complex that includes a monastery, a chapel referred to as the Condemnation Chapel, and the famous Flagellation Chapel (or Church).  The Flagellation Chapel, according to sacred tradition, is the site where the Roman soldiers flogged Jesus after he was convicted and sentenced to death.

 

You might recall that in 1342 Pope Clement VI authorized the Franciscan Order as the “official custodians” of the Holy Places — an appointment that remains in place to this day.  The first Chapel built on the site of the Flagellation Church was built in 1839 and rebuilt from 1927 to 1929.  The current structure was designed by the famous Italian architect, Antonio Barluzzi, who built a great many of the great churches of the Holy Land (Mt. Beatitudes, Basilica of Agony, etc.).  Upon walking into the Church one is immediately struck by the three massive stained glass windows.  Behind the altar is a depiction in glass of the flogging of Jesus and the placing of a crown of thorns on his head.  On one of the side walls the window shows Pontius Pilate washing his hands from the sin, and on the alternate side window there is a depiction of Barrabbas rejoicing upon his release instead of Jesus.

 

It is worth noting that the Church of the Flagellation is at the second stop on the Via Dolorosa, a title that might be translated “way of grief.”  We associate it today with the Stations of the Cross.  For many who visit the Holy Land walking the Way of the Cross is a pilgrimage within a pilgrimage.  It is interesting to note that the way of the cross marked out through Jerusalem has varied greatly through the centuries.  By the 15th century pilgrims were mostly following the Franciscan route, which began at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and included eight stations.  At this same time the tradition of the fourteen Stations of the Cross was developing in Europe.  Six more stations were added to the Franciscan’s original eight in an effort not to disappoint the European pilgrims!  I would note that for most pilgrims the exact location of each event along the way is of little importance.  The pilgrimage has great meaning because of its proximity to the historical events as well as our prayerful reflection upon them along the way.

 

Today, each of the fourteen stations is marked by a plaque but in many locations they are quite difficult to find as they are on busy streets and the actual sites are not always impressive.  In his excellent book "Jesus, a Pilgrimage" (by Jesuit Father James Martin, published by HarperOne, which I heartily recommend to all), the author notes that of all the sites in the Holy Land this was one where he found it most challenging to pray.  He is quick to note, however, that many find it exceptionally moving.  Again, a pilgrimage hits different pilgrims in a great variety of ways.  What seems universal is the need for all who follow Christ to ponder deeply the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and the redemptive manner in which he embraced his cross.

Into Gaza

Sept. 14: 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.

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

Sept. 15: 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.

Nazareth, Ramallah and Tel Aviv

Sept. 16: 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.

Church of the Visitation in Jerusalem

Sept. 17: 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.

Bethlehem and Marie Doty Park

Sept. 18: 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.

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