|3/21/2012 9:52:00 AM|
|Most Rev. John Vlazny|
Archbishop Emeritus of Portland
Yes, Shalom, Israel! That certainly was the fervent prayer of all of us pilgrims who spent 10 wonderful days in the Holy Land on pilgrimage earlier this month. At our final Mass on the Mount of Olives I suggested to the pilgrims that an appropriate theme song for our journey could very well have been one made familiar in the Sound of Music decades ago, namely, “Climb Every Mountain.” On our pilgrimage we climbed many mountains, Mount Tabor, Mount Zion, the Golan Heights, Masada and the Mount of Olives. All were significant ports of call on our journey.
There were 97 of us who made the pilgrimage. We were blessed with wonderful guides and bus drivers. People we met along the way were hospitable and friendly. We ate more than our fair share of falafel and chicken sandwiches. We met many Franciscan Friars who take care of most of the holy sites. Sometimes we had to make adjustments in our schedule because of times available for daily Mass. In almost all cases we were welcomed graciously and deeply impressed with the outpouring of pilgrims from all over the world whom we met along the way.
Every day we celebrated Mass, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon. Nazareth, Capernaum, Mount Tabor, the Cenacle and several sites in and around Jerusalem, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Bethany, Gethsemane and Bethlehem, provided us with truly unforgettable experiences. Sister Jeremy Gallet coordinated the celebrations of the Eucharist each day. Very quickly a small “choir” of pilgrims from the cathedral choir and other parishes led us as we lifted our voices in praise of the great God who made that precious land so holy. But as special as all the Masses were, probably one of the most prayerful moments occurred in our daily recitation of the rosary on the Sea of Galilee. While we were enjoying the pleasant ride, the captain of the ship turned the engines off and we sat there in the middle of the lake praying the rosary in silence, surrounded by beautiful hills. It was a blessing to pray on the holy waters where Jesus once walked and talked.
Our visit to the Galilee lasted nearly three days and helped us appreciate all the more the simplicity and solitude of the life Jesus led before he embarked upon his public ministry. We learned much about the apostles, Peter’s primacy, Christ’s sermon on the mount and his frequent miracles. We were blessed with such fine weather which made the surroundings all the more attractive. In fact, there was not a drop of rain during our pilgrimage until we sat in the airport awaiting our flight home.
Our visit to Bethlehem was a highlight for us since it is the birthplace of Jesus. But there was also a tinge of sadness because of the harsh restrictions imposed upon the Palestinian residents of that historic place, now surrounded by walls, more to keep the residents in than to keep visitors out. We were able to visit the Church of the Nativity which is under the auspices of the Greek Orthodox Church and we celebrated Mass in the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine next door. We also had some time to shop for remembrances of the pilgrimage for ourselves and also for our friends and relatives back home.
The final five days of the pilgrimage were spent in and around Jerusalem. Most memorable, of course, was our early morning walk along the Via Dolorosa praying the Stations of the Cross. We began that walk at 6:30 a.m. and wound up with the celebration of Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Then we were able to visit the site of the Lord’s Resurrection and burial, all within that historic church under the control of six different Christian churches, including our own. It was surprising that there was so little security around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, much unlike what we experienced in Bethlehem.
We also had a visit with the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude, Fouad Twal. He greeted us in the chapel of the Patriarchate. During our visit with him he conferred the pilgrim’s shells on Leonard and Marylee Vuylsteke, pilgrim members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. I wore my own pilgrim shell proudly that day, one that I had received on my previous visit to the Holy Land in 1994.
Sunday was a very warm day. We traveled south to the Dead Sea area where we spent considerable time at Masada, an interesting Israeli historic site commemorating the last stand of Jewish zealots who had retreated from Jerusalem when the Romans were besieging the city back around the year 70 A.D. You may have seen the very famous movie about that struggle. Israelis promote this site as a monument to their historic quest for independence. After the visit to Masada we went to the Dead Sea where many of our pilgrims on a rather warm summery afternoon took the opportunity to go “floating” on the salty waters. Other pilgrims, including myself, just relaxed, enjoying the beautiful surroundings, or took a nap!
The one disconcerting note of the whole pilgrimage was the obvious ongoing struggle that the Christian community, so small in number nowadays, is suffering as members find themselves caught between their Jewish and Muslim neighbors. One Christian described their plight as something akin to being caught between “two hammers.” Jerusalem itself is divided into quarters, Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Muslim. Christians are now down to 1% of the population whereas years ago they were as many as 45 percent of the population. Christians flee because they feel unsafe and move to other lands where they will be more secure. It is a most unfortunate reversal of what happened to the Jews themselves, when they had to flee the land of their origins to other countries where, sad to say, they were not always welcomed.
The pilgrimage was a true blessing for all. I was honored that I had the opportunity to celebrate Mass every day and to preach to all these good people. We all came home enriched by the experience and grateful for our Catholic faith. Our reading of the Scriptures will never again be quite the same because now we have seen where the wonders of the Incarnation and the Redemption all occurred. Yes, Shalom Israel. We love you all the more and we pray that peace, healing and reconciliation will one day prevail in your beautiful land.