Monthly Archives: November 2010

It is your concern: Catholics in the Middle East

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With the recent martyrdom of Iraqi Catholics during Mass, the state of the Church in the Middle East has received more attention in the press during the past few weeks. Before our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I had something of a curiosity about and concern for the Christians in the Middle East who are in danger for practicing their faith.

But it wasn’t until I lived in the Holy Land for two weeks that I felt solidarity with them. I realized that the difficulties facing Catholics in any part of the world are my concern. St. Paul reminds us:

Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If (one) part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy. Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it. (1 Cor. 12:22-27)

This is a basic tenant of our faith! Are you living it?

During our pilgrimage, we were privileged to have a private audience with His Excellency William Shomali, auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Of course, we wanted you to join us in the audience, so please enjoy the video below. Bishop Shomali is an excellent host, and presented us with a summary of his experience during the Middle East Synod of Bishops and of the Synod fathers’ final Message to the People of God (that means you).

We Are One Body

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On the last day of our pilgrimage, we spent the day in solidarity with some of the local Christians in the Holy Land – specifically in Jordan. Pilgrimages are not just a matter of seeing the holy places accompanied by prayer. Pilgrimages are unique opportunities to build up the Body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12). Part of what that means is to meet, pray with, and learn about the lives of local Christians.

Today, we celebrated Mass at a Jordanian church, St. Jean Baptist – in the spirit of John Baptiste de la Salle. (Click here for today’s photos.) Our spiritual director concelebrated the Mass with the parish priest, who also stayed to speak with us about the Holy Father’s recent Synod on the Church in the Middle East and about the situation of Jordanian Christians. “Abuna” (Arabic for “Father”) gladly told us that Jordan is a model for peaceful cohabitation and cooperation in the Middle East between Muslims and Christians. Although Christians are only 3% of the population here, 9 out of 80 positions in the lower house of Parliament are reserved for Christians. All Christians are free to practice their religion.

After eating a local dish called shawarma, we headed off to the home village of our parish contact, Bassima, who had graciously arranged for us to witness the Jordanian voting process. Today is voting day, a holiday in Jordan, and we squeezed between cars and people who crowded the streets around the voting site. Inside, Bassima went through the voting process, demonstrating that it is free, open and public for Jordanians to exercise their right to vote. We also met a local candidate for Parliament, who happened to be a woman, a Christian, and the youngest running: Mona Makhamreh. After she spoke with us, we presented her with a gift on behalf of the Pilgrim Center of Hope and ENDOW, “Letter to Women” by John Paul II.

The day was a once-in-a-lifetime experience; we ate, worshipped, sang, and laughed with our Jordanian brothers and sisters, and we learned about their life here. Not only that, but we feel what they feel. We come to know their joy and their struggle. This is the meaning of solidarity.

Before this pilgrimage, when I prayed for people around the world, for Christians who are persecuted for their faith, for peace, for the bishops around the world, I prayed with sincerity. But now, as I go back home and prepare to pray those same prayers again, I know that I will see the faces of those for whom I am praying. I will see their smiles and the wrinkles on their faces. I will see the little children running through the narrow streets of Jerusalem. I will see the limp of the beggar in Bethlehem. I will feel the guns of Israeli soldiers grip my heart. I will hear the thick accent of Bishop Shomali.

Thanks be to God for this experience. I have experienced what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ.

Papa Mio!

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Have you ever seen something so magnificent that you suddenly felt like singing? Or so humbling and beautiful that you felt like a child again? That happened to many of us today as we experienced one of the seven wonders of the world: Petra. (Click to see today’s photos.)

Built in the first-century B.C., Petra is a mammoth city carved out of sandstone. Homes, shops, temples, royal palaces, an amphitheater, extravagant tombs, an impressive water system, and more were all carved into the rock by the mysterious Nabataean civilization. The natural rock formations themselves were impressive, inspiring spontaneous hymn-singing and remarks like, “Wow, the power of God…” On the tough, uphill walk back to the bus, Petra motivated me to jump from rock to rock with a smile from ear to ear – like a little child in a playground that my Father had built.

On the way to Petra, we were graced with the chance to hear our spiritual director, Fr. Valentine, tell his “vocation story” – the story about how and why he became a priest.

This all reminded me of how glorious and good it is that we have a Heavenly Father. He gives us so much. He invites us to love Him. He personally calls us to respond and witness to His love. He gives us His Spirit and the life of His only Son. How much more could we want?
It’s a good question to ask ourselves every now and then: Do I realize how blessed I am? How often do I want more when I already have more than enough? How often do I take for granted my Father’s gifts to me?

Let’s not let today pass by without giving God praise.

All Things New

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“You cannot go home the same after experiencing all that we have experienced,” said Sylvia during today’s lunch. “It’s impossible.”

A pilgrimage is not a tour. It’s not visiting as an entrée and prayer as a side dish. It’s an encounter with the Lord Jesus, the Living and True God. I’m learning the truth of this statement with every day that goes by.

Today, we visited Mount Nebo, where Moses saw the Promised Land (click here for video), and visited the city of Madaba, wherein lies St. George Orthodox Church, built around a sixth-century mosaic map of the Holy Land (click here for video). (Click to see today’s photos.) We all feel the pilgrimage winding down and coming to a close. We’ve been enjoying each other’s company and wondering how we’ll be able to “digest” all that we’ve seen, touched, tasted, smelled, and heard during these past two weeks. (Pilgrimages are really quite exhausting.)

As we stood on top of Mt. Nebo, I thought more about Moses. His story really is extraordinary. After experiencing this pilgrimage, Moses has become more of a human being to me and less of a Charlton Heston. He wasn’t perfect, but God chose him. God revealed Himself to Moses in a tremendous way. After experiencing the burning bush and hearing the name of God, Moses would never be the same.

The same is true for us as pilgrims. We have touched the very stones where Jesus sat and walked and taught and healed, and we’ve been touched by the “living stones” – the native people of the Holy Land. The places of the Bible have become places of our own, and the people of the Bible have become real.

How do you view the Bible and the words within it? (Is it a history book, a book of fairy tales, something not really relevant to your life, a book of holy words and teachings, a personal guidebook?) How often do you read it? Have you studied and learned about the Scriptures? Encountering God’s Word in a new way has been one of the fruits of this pilgrimage for me, personally. I hope that, by our sharing this pilgrimage with you, you have been challenged and inspired to deepen your own faith in a way that is best for you.

Baptism in the Jordan River

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The Jordan River is not a spectacular scene worthy of a movie set. It doesn’t have extraordinarily blue water nor is it surrounded by fantastic rock formations, flora or fauna. It’s really just a river. (Click for today’s photos.)

And yet, God chose it for His own baptism, and for the initiation of the Sacrament of Baptism. It was at the River Jordan that the Holy Trinity was first revealed to the world (see Luke 3:21-22).

Everyone is loved by God. That’s without question. So what’s the big deal with baptism? Isn’t it some sort of sign that the person is a “child of God”? Isn’t everyone a child of God? What happened to me when I was baptized? Why be baptized in the first place?

Walking through the wilderness today, after having visited the site of John the Baptist’s birth, I tried to imagine John in the flesh. I’ve always heard him described as the ‘wild man’ prophet, Jesus’ cousin (see Luke 1). So this wild man was “crying out” a message of repentence and baptism for the forgiveness of sins – what a remarkable individual. Only the Spirit of God could compel someone to live such a radically simple lifestyle, totally dependent upon God.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church answers the questions above. Baptism is “the seal of eternal life” (CCC #1274) and “constitutes the sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn” (CCC #1271). Beyond that, baptism is where God graces us with the theological virtues, gifts of the Holy Spirit, and empowers us to live a moral life (CCC #1266). This is why we are baptized, with Jesus setting the example for us. He gives us a glimpse of the life that we can have, both here and in Heaven, through baptism. By this public sign and sacrament, persons become united to God and the faithful in a new and powerful way.

Of course, the sacraments are mysteries. If anyone knew this best, it must have been St. John the Baptist. He relentlessly sought God in his life and for others’ lives. He unashamedly proclaimed the coming of the Messiah. Still, he knew that Jesus – his own cousin – was beyond his understanding:

…One mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. (Luke 3:16)

Today we renewed our baptismal vows at the site where Jesus was baptized. How often do you think about the significance of your baptism? Do you realize that it has changed you forever? Are you lead by the Holy Spirit like St. John the Baptist? In what ways? What habits do you have which do not proclaim the coming of Jesus?

Ask the Holy Spirit to renew the gifts that God gave you at your baptism. While you’re at it, ask St. John to pray for your fervor and commitment to Christ.

Listening and Praying

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Do the Mount of Olives or the Garden of Gethsemani sound like some distant places from the Bible? They did to me, until today.

We spent the entire day on the Mount of Olives, which is one of the tall, fairly steep mountains surrounding the Old City (the heart of Jerusalem, as I see it). We started out near the top, at Pater Noster, the place where Jesus taught his disciples how to pray (see Lk. 11: 1-4) and reflected on the Lord’s Prayer (read this reflection here).

Our next top was Dominus Flevit, the church commemorating the place where Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem (click here for video). Standing there, we looked over the city and practiced Lectio Divina over the Scripture which describes Jesus’ lament for Jerusalem:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling! Behold, your house will be abandoned, desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ (Mt. 23:37-39; see parallel Lk. 19: 41-44)

The word that speaks to me here is yearned. Jesus desired so much for the people to be close to his heart. He desired to shelter them, protect them, care for them, lead them, and love them. But they did not let him, and so he wept, knowing the destruction that would come to them.

How often we reject Jesus’ love: when we refuse to soften our stony hearts (see Ez. 36:26), broaden our minds, break our bad habits, humble our hearts, and repent of our sins. Inside Dominus Flevit, a Franciscan brother posed a question to us for consideration: What can I do so that Jesus will not weep? I must carry my cross. This means to grapple with the very things mentioned above: bad habits, frequent temptations, and vices. If we carry these crosses, we will lose our life, as Jesus did.

And yet, we will live (see Mt. 16:25).

After this profound meditation, we spent several hours of silent prayer in the Garden of Gethsemani. This was the place where Jesus famously spent his last hours as a free man, his Agony (see Lk. 22: 39-46). We ate a simple lunch that the Lord himself would have eaten: water, pita bread, cheese, olives, and an apple.

This may have been one of the highlights of the pilgrimage for all of us; it certainly was special for me. God works all the time, but it’s easier for us to hear Him when we get back to basics. Simplicity and silence are friends that open us up to God’s graces. Through my Gethsemani experience, I’ve come to understand and appreciate why Jesus often withdrew by himself to pray. He knew that our human condition is prone to distraction.

If the Son of God needed to get away from the rest of the world to hear the voice of His Father, how much more do I need to make that time.

He is Alive

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It was dark.

We carried a wooden cross from Herod’s Gate through the narrow streets of Jerusalem in pairs. Old food scraps and trash were scattered on the stones. A putrid smell occasionally wafted up to our sniffling noses. The walkway was uneven, with plenty of places to trip and fall. We were not being driven from behind with whips and shouts, but were followed by the eyes of soldiers stationed on corners, guns tucked under their uniformed arms.

The dark grew into morning, and we reached the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Click for pictures.) Our group of 40 crowded into the Tomb of Christ, which has two chambers: an outer chamber, where family members would mourn the dead (about a 10 foot diameter) and an inner chamber, with only enough room for about 7 people standing close together. In the inner chamber lies the stone slab on which the body of Jesus was placed after his death. Over it, an altar has been erected. In front of that altar, Fr. Valentine, Deacon Pedro and Deacon Valentine stood. Behind them, three to four people. Since we had only 30 minutes for the Mass of the Resurrection, we took turns rotating a few minutes in the inner chamber with the priest and deacons.

What an awesome experience: to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus in His tomb. Because I’m the blogger and we wanted to share this with you, I was given a few seconds alone in the inner chamber, and it was enough to create an indelible mark on my mind and heart. I wept after crawling into the inner chamber, realizing where I was.

In a way, our experience was ironic. Jesus’ body is no longer in the Tomb – He has ascended into Heaven. Yet, He has remained with us always (see Matt. 28:20) in the Eucharist. We experienced both the death and the resurrection of the Lord during that Mass, such that I’m sure Mass can never be the same for me again.

Life, death and life after death is all a beautiful mystery. How often do we take it for granted? The life, death and resurrection of Christ is hope for each of us. How often do we take it for granted?

Think about this: It is holier to visit Jesus in the Eucharist than to travel thousands of miles to see his Tomb in Jerusalem. His tomb is empty. He is alive. Have you visited Him? (Click for pictures from the rest of the day.)

Living as a Pilgrim

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Have you ever woken up and prayed that somehow the day would turn out well? Today was one of those days for me.

The night before, I had started to feel upset and lonely. It felt like everyone in the pilgrim group was traveling with a friend, spouse, or family member except me. I was tired of missing my significant other. I was tired of being hassled by street peddlers on every street. I was tired of having little time to digest the pilgrimage alone. My arthritic symptoms were coming back. This morning, despite my best attempt to avoid it, I cried at breakfast. So, on top of all my frustration and sadness, I was embarrassed.

I bet you can relate.

But this is a pilgrimage. In fact, every day of our lives is a pilgrimage. We are all on a journey. As we learned today during a private audience with His Excellency William Shomali, auxiliary to the Latin Patriarch here, every pilgrimage should focus on conversion, prayer, and solidarity with the whole Church.

Pilgrims are called to live in an extraordinarily different way than rest of the world. As pilgrims, you and I are called to recognize each situation as a grace that God has allowed. We rejoice in the good things and we have faith that the seemingly bad things are happening for some good. So this morning I prayed, Lord, thank you for everything I’m feeling. Thank you for the tears, the loneliness, and the embarrassment. Thank you for, in this way, allowing me to share in just a small taste of the suffering that You endured for the salvation of all people.

By no mistake (I’m certain), today we began our visits to the places associated with Christ’s Passion. The places where he was condemned, the dungeon where he spent the night as a criminal, the place where he was scourged, and some of our group spent the early morning hours at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which contains Calvary and the Tomb of Christ. (Click for pictures from today.)

God did allow me to deal with tears and unpleasant feelings today. But through prayer, they helped me to enter more into the history and reality of the holy places that we visited today. And whether or not you have personally visited any such holy site, I encourage you to adopt a pilgrim mindset. Strive for prayer, conversion, and solidarity. Recognize the grace in the joys and the sufferings, however small or large.

As Francis Cardinal Arinze once said, we should all go on pilgrimage to the chapel. There lives the God who is our Source and Goal.

Christmas in Bethlehem

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Today may be All Souls Day where you live, but in the Holy Land it was Christmas. For our pilgrim group, that is.

We spent the day in Bethlehem, second in line at the Church of the Nativity (behind a group of mostly young Russian widows whose husbands were killed in a mining accident – pray for them as they continue their Holy Land pilgrimage). Some groups wait up to three hours in line just to spend a few minutes at the grotto where Jesus was born and where he was laid in the manger. The birthplace itself is inside a small cave. Pilgrims kneel down and kiss the spot where God in His Fullness first touched the earth. (Click here for today’s photos.)

We were able to celebrate Christmas Mass in the active parish nextdoor to the Nativity, St. Catherine. For some reason, I was chosen to process in before Father and our deacons, holding a life-sized figure of the Christ child. Before the final blessing, I held the figurine in front of the altar so that our group was able to venerate (kiss, touch, etc.) it as a sweet sign of love for the Christ Child.

It’s interesting how all pilgrims – even you who are reading this and spiritually journeying with us – are chosen by God to experience certain special pilgrimage moments. For me, holding the Christ Child figure was one of these. My name being Angela Marie (essentially “Angel of Mary”), it was like God had ‘chosen’ this role for me. As I stood there in front of the altar and saw my fellow pilgrims show their affection for the Baby Jesus, I was reminded that I am called to do this every day; to offer the “Good News” (as the angels put it) that this Messiah is “for all people.”

The day was so full, and I only have four minutes left on my Internet card here in our Jerusalem hotel. But let this be a reminder for you: does your life reflect your baptismal call to offer the Messiah to all peoples?

Merry Christmas, friends. Goodnight from Jerusalem.

Transitioning

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Today will be a shorter entry for many reasons, but the main reason is that we are currently at a transition of our pilgrimage. We drove for two hours from the top of the Sea of Galilee to the top of the Dead Sea. (Click here to see pictures from today.)

As we did, it struck me that Jesus’ life was spent in such a fertile, lush land (the Galilee) while he had to travel through desert and up a mountaintop to Jerusalem in order to suffer and die. The contrast is stark and unavoidable.

We went through our first Israeli checkpoint tonight, as well – in Bethlehem. Two young soldiers with large guns walked through the bus checking our passports, then wished us a good night. (If only you could see this wall that the state of Israel has built around the “little town” of Bethlehem.)

How fitting – we began the day with the Mass of the Beatitudes, hearing Christ teach, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and we concluded the day by traveling through this symbol of conflict and control. We are entering into a new phase of the life of Jesus and the local Church: a time of suffering.

Learn more about the Wall from a friend of the Pilgrim Center of Hope, a local of Jerusalem, Rula Shubeita, who visited us in San Antonio not long ago. You may be surprised by what you hear.