To confirm us in our faith
Posted by Vincent Nagle on 16 July 2009 ·
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.