By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published March 29, 2007
Descend from the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem on the “Passover Walk,” the route Jesus took to enter the city before He was crucified, and meditate in the Garden of Gethsemane by the ancient, gnarled olive trees where Jesus anguished before his arrest. Then prayerfully walk the Stations of the Cross up the streets of the Old City along the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where the Lord was buried, almost hearing the jeers of the crowd and contemplating Christ’s exhaustion and pain. Nearby, experience the devotion of pilgrims and Israelis as they pray, study Scripture and wedge paper slips with prayers into crevices of the holiest existing shrine in Judaism, the Western Wall. Behold above it where once stood the Second Jewish Temple, the golden Dome of the Rock, the mosque where Muslims believe the prophet Mohammad ascended into heaven. To the north of Jerusalem, hike the Mount of the Beatitudes and sail the Sea of Galilee and imagine Jesus pacifying his anxious disciples, or visit the ruins of the over 2,000-year-old synagogue and the fourth to fifth century one built overtop it in the ancient Jewish fishing town of Capernaum and hear Jesus teaching with authority and healing the man with the unclean spirit.
Drink the pure water of the Spirit in this crossroads of East and West that is Israel, this mosaic of immigrant cultures of Hebrew, Arabic and English, this museum of civilizations from Roman and Greek to Crusader and Ottoman. This is the fascinating convergence of Judaism, Islam and Christianity where Catholic pilgrims can connect the dots of their religious and historical knowledge and explore like nowhere else the roots of their faith and deepen their appreciation of Scripture. In Israel, many Christians attest, something clicks.
Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, the Latin patriarchal vicar for Israel, stressed that the church of the Holy Land, as the original church, is there for all of the world’s Christians.
“We are very, very grateful to the universal church, to the bishops, to the bishops’ conferences who help us in going on with our mission and many situations in the Holy Land. There is a wonderful ecclesial communion. Our church is the mother church. It’s the first church from which all other churches were born,” affirmed the bishop from his office in Nazareth. “This is the very country of the Christian faith. The church was born here. Christians here are not coming from abroad; they are original people here. The first Christians were Jews, and Jesus Christ, Himself, He was a Jew. Little by little the church became universal, and the name ‘catholic’ means universal.”
And they have a “very precious patrimony” to be kept and presented to the entire world. “It is very historical, the responsibility for us to keep the holy places of Jesus Christ, of the apostles,” he affirmed. “And it is not easy. We have the big merits of people who died in preserving and keeping the holy places through history.”
Tourism in Israel is slowly recovering following the war with Lebanon last summer that caused the number of visitors to plummet, said Pini Shani, Ministry of Tourism director of North American operations. The ministry recently relocated its Southeast regional office to Atlanta. Shani reported that among tourists from North America in the first six months of 2006, 38 percent were Jewish, 27 percent Protestant, 15 percent Catholic and the rest nondenominational Christian. North American tourism to Israel in January and February 2007 is down 13 percent from those months last year. Generally more Protestants travel to the Holy Land than Catholics, who appear to “first go to Rome and then they might consider going to Israel. Obviously we’d like to see more Catholics come to Israel,” he said. The big challenge is stabilizing tourism as “when there’s a crisis over here, Christians cancel. The Jews come to see family and friends.”
On a journey like pilgrims through the centuries, six Catholic journalists from across the United States absorbed this church and biblical history as they toured towns including Nazareth, Capernaum, Jaffa and Tiberias on their way from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, on a trip sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism.
Throughout the region, the quiet presence of the Franciscans—who are the Catholic custodians of holy sites—of Catholic schools and guest houses, of Jerusalem crosses and inscriptions in Latin throughout the land, are comforting signs of the vital presence of Roman Catholicism.
Pilgrims Sail Sea of Galilee
At the Caesarea National Park, the group of journalists caught a glimpse of the Roman Empire when Christ lived as they wandered through ruins of the town built of stone and protected by a moat in Caesarea. Overhead two strikingly long lines of birds soared across the blue sky, as Israel is a major migration route between Europe and Africa. Roman ruins include an aqueduct, capitals, the hippodrome, King Herod’s palace and a copy of a stone declaring Pontius Pilate was Roman procurator of Judea, the only evidence of him outside of the Bible. The group traveled through the lush countryside and up the Galilean foothills to Nazareth, where the massive Church of the Annunciation has a shrine identified as the cave where Mary lived, and the main church features Marian artwork donated by many nations. The town has large Christian and Muslim populations and also a Jewish quarter.
They arrived that night at the northern resort town of Tiberias near the Lebanon border at a hotel overlooking the sea. The next morning, they sailed across the Sea of Galilee (technically a large lake) along with a group of Romanian-American pilgrims praising God through songs, including “Shout to the Lord” and “The Man From Galilee.”
On the other side of the lake, they visited the Yigal Allon Center, which offers a wooden Galilean boat from the first century that was discovered on the bottom of the lake. The group visited the Mount of Beatitudes with a vista overlooking the verdant countryside laced with flowering mustard seed plants and fig trees. As shops closed Friday evening for Shabbat, the Hebrew Sabbath, children in Tiberias donned costumes to celebrate Purim, the Jewish holiday marking Queen Esther’s deliverance of the Jews in 356 B.C. from Haman’s plot to annihilate all Jews of the Persian Empire. Later, the journalists passed the hillside identified as where Jesus drove the swine into the sea.
Franciscan Welcomes Pilgrims at Biblical Site of Transfiguration
Another scenic vista was atop Mount Tabor where Jesus was transfigured before his disciples. One pilgrim, Lucy Ogoke, meandered from the Church of the Transfiguration and spoke of her joy and sense of fulfillment upon finally visiting the Holy Land, which she had studied since her childhood in Nigeria. She found “la Terrae Sanctae” to be refulgent with God’s love and glimpses of the heavenly kingdom.
“When I was a child I thought (Jerusalem) was in heaven. It’s so amazing to be here. I’m so excited. I pray for myself to be transfigured, too, and use myself as a point of contact for others who can’t be here,” she said, standing in the sunshine on the mild, fresh March morning.
She now lives in Amman, Jordan, and added that more Muslims, who revere Jesus as a prophet, should visit Israel. “If they’d come here they’d see the love of Jesus in the Promised Land.”
Also in her tour group was Frances Perera, a Catholic from Sri Lanka. She recalled participating more profoundly in the Mass at the Basilica of the Annunciation. And as she sailed on the Sea of Galilee she imagined Jesus walking on the water and telling his disciples to have faith and not to be afraid.
“Christ walking on the water, you could visualize it, going out on the boat. It was very serene, calm and beautiful,” she reflected. “So far it’s been amazing. We have studied the Gospels, the Bible, in school, and now we can relate (the sites) to what we study and the religion.”
Standing nearby, American Father Joshua Doyle, wearing his brown Franciscan robe, quietly greeted visitors to the church. The modern structure was built over the ruins of a Byzantine church and features a gold mosaic depicting Jesus being lifted up to heaven. As the Gospel states that Elijah and Moses appeared at the Transfiguration, small chapels in the church honor them. It is also the site where the prophetess Deborah in the Old Testament Book of Judges leads a war with the Canaanites.
Celebrating his 25th year of priesthood, the Franciscan was delighted to be assigned here last year. He explained how the order’s founder, St. Francis of Assisi, visited the Holy Land in 1219-20 during the Crusades and saw how the sacred shrines were falling apart. He asked for permission for the order to safeguard them.
“Since 1222, before the death of St. Francis, we’ve been here” without interruption. Franciscans persevere in that mission while also providing support to many of the only 400,000 Christians, about half of them Catholic, that remain in the Holy Land regions of Israel, Palestine and Jordan, through affordable housing, education, college scholarships and financial support.
Father Doyle is pleased that tourism is recovering and reported that in the past week they saw visitors from Africa, Singapore, Germany, Holland, France, Italy, the United States, the Philippines, and Fiji. They have had 9,000 Nigerians visit in just the past month.
“The list is just incredible,” he said. “A trip to the Holy Land is a time, if not for conversion, a time for developing the faith and a time to grow in friendship with Jesus,” he said, and indeed “many people are going through conversions.”
He enjoys welcoming people of other faiths as well and recalled guiding a group of attentive students from Harvard and after blessing them learned they were Jewish.
“I try to be a presence for everybody, and I love showing the church to Jewish people and to be kind to Muslim people. If they come and there is a liturgy, they are very respectful.”
Dead Sea Scrolls Discovered in Caves of Qumran
Heading south from Galilee along the east, visitors can spot camels grazing and see Jordan across the Jordan Valley. The terrain becomes browner as it turns into the Judean Desert. In Qumran, as mountain climbers rappel cliffs, pilgrims in the visitors center learn about the life of what is believed to be the Essene Jewish sect that lived in the region.
The scrolls, dating between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100, discovered in 11 caves here between 1947 and 1958 describe the life of the community and the Old Testament, meticulously copied by professional scribes on kosher animal skins. Tour guide Rivka Cohen-Berman explained that it contains the oldest manuscripts from the Bible and is written in close to the same Hebrew that is spoken today.
“We are reading the same Old Testament as our ancestors, including Jesus, read 2,000 years ago. That is the most important thing,” she emphasized.
Hazel George was among a group from Ormond Beach, Fla., strolling through the barren, mystical terrain of Qumran. She had planned to go in 2000, but her trip was cancelled after the “intifada” broke out with Palestine. Back home the 78-year-old, who has traveled extensively, walks four miles a day before dawn by the ocean. She has read the Bible through 19 times.
“This is the thrill of my life. I’ll be 79 in July. I’ve wanted to come always. When you love the Lord Jesus so much, to be able to walk where he walked. We were baptized like he was in the Jordan River. This has been an outstanding trip. It really has,” she said, sporting a “Jerusalem Tours” baseball cap. “This is the fondest dream of my life.”
Nearby is the Dead Sea, which is the lowest point on earth and has a 33 percent concentration of salt that enables swimmers to lie on their backs without treading water and simply float. On shore, visitors break off chunks of mineral-rich mud to rub on their skin for nourishment. Its shores have remains of prehistoric civilizations.
Climb the Tower of David Overlooking Jerusalem
The group continued up to Jerusalem through the Judean Desert, passing shack settlements of Bedouins, who are traditionally nomadic Arabs. On Sunday morning in Jerusalem, Father Juan Solana, LC, offered a spiritual reflection for pilgrims as he proclaimed the story of the Transfiguration at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, which offers Sunday Mass in English. Just as Jesus was transfigured before his followers to encourage them before his descent to Jerusalem to experience the Passion, Father Solana challenged those gathered to continually nurture their faith to remain steadfast as they undergo suffering.
“Life is long enough to have sooner or later the cross in our lives, and God knows that and comes in front of us at some moment in our life and He gives us a hand and says, ‘I am with you. I am God and I will support you, whatever you have in your life.’ Can we expect some kind of transfiguration in our life? Of course we can. Maybe not on top of a mountain in the cloud in some terrifying experience, but I’m sure God talks to the heart at some times in our life. Maybe it will be a second, like a shining star. We come back to that experience, and it will be telling us, do not be afraid, do not worry.”
And he encouraged them to grow close to God in nature, what Pope John Paul II called the first book of revelation.
“We live in such an artificial world that we have lost the beautiful experience of God through nature. If we lose the capacity to enjoy the little flower, the sunshine or sunset and to experience the mystery of God, then we are not ready to have a transfiguration.”
After visiting the Western Wall, the remnants of the retaining wall of the Temple, journalists wandered the labyrinthine alleys and narrow streets of the Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish quarters of this ancient city of limestone, rebuilt 16 times and continually inhabited for over 3,000 years. Passing among Hasidic Jewish men with black hats, side curls and beards, Muslim women with head scarves and others, they shopped for olivewood crafts as vendors sold everything from mint, cumin and cardamom-spiced coffee to Arabian dresses and shawls of gold threads. One treat is the Israeli fast food falafel of ground chickpeas and tahini sauce of sesame seeds topped with sweet peppers and olives, as is hummus and warm pita bread.
In Jerusalem, the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem is built around a 2,000-year-old citadel and features artifacts, art and depictions of the city’s 3,000-year history. The Crusader area features fascinating art such as a status of the Knights Templar, an order protecting pilgrims, a diorama featuring Muslim ruler Saladin in his tent outside the city as Crusaders pay ransom to leave the city, and a wood-carved relief of French and English rabbis returning to Jerusalem in response to Saladin’s call. The strategically placed tower offers a view of the city. The Jerusalem Archaeological Park features a short film depicting how devout Jews traveled to the temple in Jerusalem to present their animal or bird sacrifice following a bathing ritual of purification in the Second Temple Period from 332 B.C. to A.D. 70. One can visualize the boy Jesus discussing Scripture there with the rabbis as his parents traveled to the city for Passover.
In the somber national memorial of Yad Vashem, the guide Dina Shefet, a child of a Polish Holocaust survivor, leads silent visitors through the dark, disorienting underground halls of the expanded Holocaust History Museum opened in 2005. The museum chronicles the Shoah with original artifacts, testimonies, photographs, documentation, art, multimedia and video art including about 90 personal stories and over 65 witness testimonies. Located on the 45-acre Mount of Remembrance, it has the world’s largest repository of material on the Holocaust. One of the first films showed German students from the best universities burning Jewish books. Shocking images included piles of bodies from concentration camps but also pictures of Jews in Greece forced to buy tickets for their deportation, men digging their own graves, and a pretty woman with a soulful look holding her child in a large crowd shortly before they all were murdered. Shefet explained that this tragedy is “to understand what makes us tick,” and noted “my father didn’t talk in the day but shouted at night.”
She said that people of her generation carry a burden as the children of survivors. “He came shortly after the Holocaust and took part in the independence war. He was proud to be Israeli, but he could not get away from the guilty feeling. He and my mother both were 47 when they died,” she said. “He died of guilt feelings. He always felt guilty he was alive; he always said, ‘I should not have left the family.’”
Muslim Guards Doors of Church of Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem
The morning of March 6, journalists atop the Mount of Olives descended the Passover Walk tracing Jesus’ journey after the Last Supper through the Kidron Valley and to Jerusalem. After the Garden of Gethsemane another stop was at the Church of Gallicantu built atop the residence of the High Priest Caiaphas. Beneath it is a rock-cut crypt where Jesus is believed to have been held after being interrogated. At the peak of Mt. Zion on the Old City’s southwest corner is a large 14th-century stone chamber, the site where Jesus is believed to have led the Last Supper. A Christian group from California sang praises to God in a circle as others shuffled through the site.
The group paused at all the churches and other markers for each Station of the Cross, reflecting on their call to pick up their own crosses daily and live to glorify God and to love their neighbors as themselves. They climbed down into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built atop where Jesus was crucified and buried. The church was built in the fourth century by the Roman Emperor Constantine, who changed Christianity from being outlawed into the official religion of the empire. The church was later restored by Crusaders. Down the narrow steps was an Ethiopian chapel where priests incensed an altar and chanted.
An open plaza lay before the church’s front entrance, where stood Wajeeh Museibeh, the custodian and doorkeeper of the church, whose family has held that responsibility since the seventh century except for 88 years when the Crusaders took over until the Muslim ruler Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria, took control in 1178. Wearing a suit on the mild sunny day, he said that he carries on a family tradition handed down from father to son. He opens the large wooden doors each day at 4 a.m. and closes them at 7:30 p.m. A Muslim, he affirmed that Islam reveres Jesus as one of the greatest prophets while not believing in his crucifixion and resurrection.
“It’s a holy place for us. … Jesus is a prophet, and Mary is a holy woman for Muslims.”
Sections of this church are controlled through arrangement by the “shareholding” Catholic Church and Greek, Armenian Orthodox, and Copt churches, who have striven to maintain their presence in the Holy Land. Several large tour groups filled it on this day and quietly passed through its chapels, including one at the 11th Station with a Catholic mosaic with a vivid green background of Jesus nailed to the cross. The 12th Station is a Greek chapel filled with golden lamps and other Eastern adornments, housing the Rock of Calvary beneath the altar marking the spot where Jesus’ cross was erected. Pilgrims knelt there to touch it while others prayed. Among pilgrims filling the church was Father Richard Yanos of Prince of Peace Church in the Archdiocese of Chicago. The tall, friendly priest said that this group of 60 is the fourth group he’s led to Israel, and that the group would also spend a week in Egypt.
“For the Christian, especially the Catholic, there is nothing more significant, and to be in the places and walk (the land) of Scripture that we proclaim at daily Mass, to put a face on the word of God we proclaim in the Old and New Testament, to be here and experience this, there is nothing more wonderful.”
He stressed the value for Catholics to study thoroughly not only the New Testament but also the Old Testament of Israel’s history and covenant with God, as Christianity grew out of Judaism.
“So much of our liturgy is rooted in Judaism, very much of what we say at Mass is rooted in the Jewish prayers. There’s a strong connection between our faith and Judaism,” he affirmed.
He said he had celebrated the Christmas Mass when his pilgrim group visited Bethlehem, and used other liturgies corresponding to places visited.
“It helps to give perspective to the Scripture that we use in our daily lives and work and prayer. To be able to read in Scripture about places you have been to (can) give you a reference and a great depth and meaning to the places we are preaching on,” said Father Yanos. Visitors “are all touched in different ways based on where they are in their faith. To see the emotional connection people make in the shrines of Jesus—this, to me, it’s a powerful experience, seeing other people’s faith.”
Next week: Catholic Church Supports Christian Minority in Holy Land