Nature, if I look at it with an open mind, a patient heart and a passionate spirit, kindles a question inside of me. The contemplation of this great and terrible force puts us on the edge of a hidden mystery and fills us with a question: “Who are you?”.
Already when I was three or four years old, and my family lived in the city, I looked out the window at the trees in the courtyard and watched the shadows swaying, shaken by the night wind. They filled me with a sense of wonder and terror. A few months after, we moved into a small village, situated in the heart of a forest of tall trees. Once, on a cold and windy day, while my sister and I were walking in the woods, she stopped me and said: “Listen”. Then I heard the deep creaking, almost moaning, of the gigantic trunks that leaned almost imperceptibly in the wind. “They are talking to us,” she continued. I never thought that the trees were strange monsters speaking in code. I understood that they were the active signs of a mystery that was making itself known to us through them.
Certainly nature does not show us only a benevolent face. I will always remember a dialogue I had with a family that had lived on the slopes of Mount St. Helens, a volcano that became active again in 1980. They did not want to talk about that catastrophe, and they told me that they could not stand hearing platitudes about beautiful and kind nature. That destructive power inspired awe, but certainly not good feelings.
Still, that same power of creating and renewing life also speaks to us from an unstoppable positive and imaginative force. For five summers I worked as a teacher in a Catholic summer camp. How easy it was to speak of God, as we watched the clouds of stars in the sky after a long day of exploring the river, or admiring the great blue heron that glided over us, or after having had a close encounter with a bear, surprised to bump into our sleeping bags.
Once, during a walk with a girl, I was taken aback. “Why must you always bring God into it when you talk about nature? Why can’t you just see the trees as trees?” she asked harshly. I did not know what to say.
Today I would say that the mystery is the essence of the appeal of nature. It makes us want to know it and understand it, giving us a kind of nostalgia for its face, that it reveal itself and reassure us. Today like yesterday, when I close myself in my house to escape the icy wind that howls outside, there I can still hear a voice, and the question still arises: “Who are you?”.
Of Jewish origin (through his mother); an Islamic scholar; formerly a Buddhist adept. Now, a Catholic priest in the Holy Land, after working in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. If you wanted a poster boy for the postmodern concept of globalization, you could find it in this missionary from California, a “beanpole” of almost 2 meters (“6 feet 2 inches, to be exact”) who can’t be missed in the alleys of the Holy City. He is Fr. Vincent Nagle, priest of the Fraternity of St. Charles, stationed in Jerusalem since 2007. After first teaching English at the Catholic University of Bethlehem, he then headed the Catholic parish of Nablus: “The patriarch sent me. No priest would look after the place,” he says. He is now the assistant pastor at Ramallah in the Palestinian Authority, also serving as the spiritual father to two houses of Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s sisters.
“I am certain of Christ.” Padre Nagle often repeats this phrase, which manifests a faith rooted in long experience. But what can it mean in the Holy Land – that place of contradiction, of division among Christ’s followers, crisscrossed by perennial hatreds between individuals and peoples? “Here Christians are 1.3% of the population, and one can feel isolated. But I can’t come before Christ and think of myself as other than being in an ongoing experience. Often I say to myself: if I am here in the Holy Land, it is not to improve the situation of Christians, but because Someone sent me. I see this from the changes in the lives of some of those around me: when there is someone who no longer has reasons to live, and at a certain point he finds them, I know Whom he has encountered. When I see patriarch Twal confronting impossible questions and then, after a night of prayer, go out ready to face the situation, I understand that I am certain of Christ”.
This “Christian certainty” has its roots in Fr. Vincent’s life story, which is colored by adventure. “I was born in San Francisco into a family with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, the 6th of 8 children. The first 4 received a Christian education (Catholic school, parish, etc.), but the four younger ones, myself included, much less so. My dad had begun to have “problems” with the Church, given his far-left orientation. I was 4 when the family moved to the country, still in California, near the sequoias. It was there that 1968 hit … three years earlier was ’65, when there began to be hippies and flower children. My mom followed a guru; at 15 my oldest sister became a fervent Buddhist, and for years, I went to Buddhist meetings. We were immersed in the spirit of the times.”
Vincent began high school near San Francisco, and a friend who attended a Catholic parish invited him to a meeting: “But the content of the faith wasn’t there. The Church in the United States at that time was soaked in the dominant progressive culture.” The awareness of being Jewish remained very alive in the young Californian: “When they asked me if I was going to join the army, I said no. But I added: for Israel, yes! My mom instilled in me a strong Zionism: I knew all about the Holocaust, the Nazi persecution…”. Vincent then began to attend college: “I understood that there was Someone in the world, that religion could not be reduced simply to living together happily, that there was something that could change people’s hearts. A priest said to me that this was Jesus Christ. I had never read any Christian authors, because I thought they weren’t worth my time, so convinced was I that they were ‘anti-human’. Then my mom’s guru, during a discussion on the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, blurted out: ‘But of course it’s true! If we have come from the divine, we must return there with our bodies.’ It was at that point that I began to read Christian writers.”
Vincent continued his studies at the University of San Francisco, which is a Jesuit university, but he found little of Catholic inspiration there. He signed up for humanities, devouring the classics of western thought. After finishing his studies, he went to Morocco to teach English, from 1981-1983. “My colleagues were members of the Muslim Brotherhood (one of the most important organizations in radical Islam, ndr). It was they who forced me to take seriously the question of God. I remember one night when we were talking, they said to me: God is God; he is not according to your idea of him.’ And I understood simply that He is God, and I’m not. I had done a lot of Buddhist meditation, but I had never prayed. I wrote to my mother, asking her to send me something to pray with: she sent me a missal from a Catholic goods store. Later I found a rosary, and began to use it.”
Vincent then experienced a rather intriguing parenthesis: from 1983-1985 he taught English to Saudi Arabian spies at a secret center near Riyadh. Then, back in the U.S., he studied literature at Berkeley. There he encountered his old milieu, that of the American left: environmentalism, the homosexual movement, supporters of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. “I read the writers of the Catholic dissent, Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx. But I felt I was onto a treasure, a diamond that was in the Church, even if it was covered by 30 feet of mud – but it was there. And I wanted to know more. I understood that many of those around me had no interest in this diamond – they only wanted to remake the Church. I looked for someone who would help me rediscover that treasure. I began to spend time with some traditionalist Catholic students, but this began to make me always angry at progressive Catholics, because I thought they wanted to destroy my treasure. It was at that point that I met Communion and Liberation. For me it was precisely – a liberation! I understood that everything about Christianity simply boiled down to a question: come and see!”
From there, everything flowed for Vincent like a waterfall of grace: he entered the seminary of the Fraternity but, having already studied theology in the U.S., was directed to study Islam at the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies (PISAI), where he had Maurice Borrmans and Samir Khalil as teachers. Then he was transferred to the U.S., where he was a hospital chaplain, and finally to the Holy Land. “I am certain of Christ.” After such an adventure, the certainty of this truth for Fr. Vincent is a diamond to be invested in over time.
A new documentary video covering the Fraternity of St. Charles’s mission in and around Jerusalem is now available for sale. Watch the trailer here, and purchase the DVD at www.dischiespartiti.com or www.itacalibri.it. The video is available in English, Italian, and Spanish.
I have been peripherally involved in the Holy Father’s Holy Land visit since November, when it was first openly discussed in a meeting between Patriarch Fouad Twal and some priests. The meeting became a bit angry, with opposition being hotly expressed. This opposition was based on the inevitable comparison that one makes between the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 that of John Paul II in 2000. That visit of John Paul II’s came at a time of hopeful celebration, especially for the Christian community. The peace process based on the Oslo Accords was a path to Palestinian Statehood that had made real progress. Though it was already stalled, yet it was still functioning and Palestinians in general felt that they were on the right road at last. Plus, it being the 2000th birthday of the Lord, there was a general feeling that this should usher in a period of peace and prosperity, with huge investments in tourism being made by the local Christians. So, although the Palestinians felt that the image of the Pope had been monopolized by the Israeli media for its own propaganda, yet the sense was that it was a time to confirm a positive path and celebrate a present hope. The visit was the pinnacle of that positivity.
Very little, if any, positivity is to be found in the Christian community today. This is partly due to the steadily worsening conditions for the Palestinians in general, with the virtual disappearance of any realistic prospect of a Palestinian state due to vast settlement movement in the West Bank and the building of the Separation Wall seeming to carve in stone the loss of Jerusalem and much other territory as well, as well as definitely separate a great number of families. Even more than that however, is the literal flood of Christian emigration following the outbreak of the second intifadah. Today the Christians are a very much reduced minority with disappearing prospects for peace or normality. The feeling then, at the meeting, was, “What is there to celebrate?” and “Won’t the Israeli’s just use the visit, like last time, to make propaganda, justifying themselves in front of the world, making the Pope’s presence into a valediction of their policies?” The general sentiment in regards to the proposed visit was decidedly negative. And then came the war on Gaza.
As you can imagine, from any human point of view, there was no reason to welcome this visit. But my friends, and the Patriarch quickly reminded me that we start from something, from someone else that comes first. I quickly acquired an excitement and joy as it became clear that what I needed to live was to know and recognize this other who is my hope. The trip of the Pope, no matter what else it might or might not be, is for this: to confirm us in our faith. I could sure use that! “Come Holy Father! I am waiting!”
But how was I to communicate this to my parishioners in the besieged city of Nablus? The Christian community has in the past fifteen years declined from around five thousand to around six hundred people. The city has been closed since 2003. Many of its young people have died on its streets, in the sight of all, and many more have disappeared into Israeli prisons with no set sentence, just indefinite incarceration. They are always anxious to see any sign that they are making some progress towards freedom. The papers and television tell them that the Pope is only coming to make nice with the Jews.
More than a month ago at the Easter mass, I asked the visiting priest who had come to sing the mass (I am pretty good at celebrating the mass in Arabic, but have not yet arrived to singing the mass) to say an encouraging word about the Pope’s visit at the end of the service. He said, “I am against the Pope’s visit, and I know that you are, too. But he is coming and we are Arabs and Christians, so it our duty to welcome him.” I did not think that that was helpful.
From that time on I preached every sermon only on the coming of the Pope. For example, when Jesus repeats his blessing, “Peace be upon you,” is he or is he not the one able to give us peace? Is peace simply the product of a political/military process, or is it a gift from God? If it is from God, then we need to know this gift, that is we need to know Christ in order to share the gift of peace with everyone. Thus we need to be helped in our faith. We need the Pope to come. Most of my regulars warmed up a lot to the idea. But I could see that some, especially the parish council, who are more politically active, were not. Indeed I had not a few hot words with them. Their final word was, “You are not a Palestinian so you cannot understand.” The tension made my stomach hurt.
I was afraid that almost no one from the parish would be coming to the mass in Bethlehem, but we filled two busses with over one hundred people. There are only 250 in the whole parish. And when I saw my people at the mass, they were joyful, really joyful. They had truly seen that something else does indeed come first. We do not have to wait for this political outcome, or that mass media victory, or a military success. When he comes, he makes us glad. And our changed hearts give us the opportunity to walk forward in a different way, bringing the gift we have received.
Because once he was here, once his words of compassion and wisdom, his witness to faith could be seen and heard, then it was not about what the papers were saying, but about what my our hearts are waiting for. As I attended the different events with the Pope, and watched the events I was not present at on television, it was obvious that he was cutting to the heart of the matter. The question was above all God and man meeting in Christ, and man changed by this encounter to build a world that is human.
When he first spoke to the Christian community in Jerusalem he began with, “Christ is risen, Alleluiah.” He had to stop because of the long applause that greeted this declaration. He went on to say, “the Christian community in this City … must hold fast all the more to the hope bestowed by the Gospel, cherishing the pledge of Christ’s definitive victory over sin and death, bearing witness to the power of forgiveness.” In Bethlehem he said to the Christians, “Christ brought a Kingdom which is not of this world, yet a Kingdom which is capable of changing this world, for it has the power to change hearts, to enlighten minds and to strengthen wills.” To President Abbas he said, “no peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness.” To President Perez he said, “security is a matter of trust, nurtured in justice and integrity, and sealed through the conversion of hearts which stirs us to look the other in the eye, and to recognize the ‘Thou’, as my equal, my brother, my sister.”
Perhaps people did not know that they had been waiting for the Pope to come, but when he came, they knew it was for them. That became clear to me especially at the mass at Nazareth, which had a record attendance for a Christian gathering in the Holy Land. People, order to get their places before security closed everything, had been up all night and now the sun beat down with force. Yet when, after communion – which frustratingly most people did not receive – there was an announcement asking for a minute of silence in order to offer God thanksgiving for communion through His Son, a wonderful thing happened. There in the midst of this enormous crowd, silence descended. I could hear birds, even far away birds sing. Nothing else. It was a sign that after all the noise, all the tension, all the skepticism, criticism and argument we were in the end simply grateful for this communion. And when one finds a true gratitude in his heart, his life starts anew.
“Jesus did not eliminate human suffering: He came to suffer together with us.” With these words Fr. Vincent Nagle introduces his readers to his work in the hospital where he has served for years as chaplain. Trite phrases just don’t cut it when families are confronted by the mystery of suffering. “When I go into a hospital room, I go in with a broken heart, willing to share this adventure with these patients whose very selves are broken apart by illness. I don’t want to give them false comfort, but real hope.” Brief and intense fragments of hospital life are alternated with the fascinating story of Fr. Vincent’s own journey to faith and the priesthood. “When I understood that in order to be truly alive I needed to return to the faith, my condition was that God not let me be separated from the difficulties of life.” And God took him seriously.