Today marks the last full day of our pastoral visit to Jordan, as tomorrow in the mid-morning we will conclude with a final visit with the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, who work with Iraqi refugee families, some of whom we will meet.
We arrived in Amman last night, exhausted from our travels through Petra. This morning, after a good night’s rest, we departed for Our Lady of Peace Center, which is located about 30 minutes outside the city of Amman in an agricultural area that shows signs of some development in the future, according to Ra’ed Bahou, our regional director for Jordan and Iraq.
We were warmly greeted by the founder of this facility, Bishop Selim Sayegh, Latin Patriarchal Vicar in Jordan and the spiritual and moral personality associated with this facility. Our Lady of Peace offers many programs for mentally and physically handicapped youths. Since the center opened in 2004, it has become the anchor facility for a host of satellite programs and other mini-institutions.
The bishop escorted us inside to meet Sister Adriana Biollo, the director of the center and the obvious driving force that makes everything happen. Of course, we had the usual Arabic coffee ritual, as every Jordanian would typically offer to visitors.
Then it was on to the hall for a special Christmas show performed by a group of very special children. They presented a number of musical songs sung with great enthusiasm and some delightful dances, complete with big smiles and even a few winks for yours truly. I was able to get some wonderful candid photos of the kids, just enjoying themselves as they entertained.
And a big highlight for them and for us was a visit from Santa Claus. The kids went wild when he came into the room, especially when the sisters approached with some big boxes of gifts. Each child came forward and received a gift. The children loved the attention, gifts and Santa, but they really loved Bishop Selim. In fact, the love that Bishop Selim Sayegh has for these special children cannot be contained. He smiles from ear to ear in their presence and many freely run to him to receive a big hug from him. This center has been a dream of his and now, as he approaches retirement after having served more than 30 years as vicar, he can enjoy the fruits of his labors, as reflected in the smiles of these precious little ones.
Next stop was a special visit to Mt. Nebo. I have to tell you, this was an emotional experience, not just because of the panoramic view of the Jordan Valley below, but just the overwhelming reality that I was for the first time sharing a glimpse of the Promised Land as shown to Moses. This is the real deal, this is my faith being excited, live and in person. Welcome to the Promised Land!
I spent some precious moments just taking it all in and trying to capture the fullness of this mini-recollection. The church on the mountaintop is being renovated, so we viewed some archeological remnants of the original discoveries of this Byzantine treasure. I was delighted to see a plaque in front of an olive tree planted by Pope John Paul. Here again, it reminded me of how holy is this ground. Wow.
On to Madaba, a charming city that has a very dynamic yet ancient feel to it: Byzantine mosaics and ruins surround you, including the famous church of St. George, which houses the oldest map of the Holy Land and the Holy City of Jerusalem. Refounded by a priest in the 19th century, Madaba has a large Christian community, which is rare in the Hashemite Kingdom, with a vibrant spirit of brotherhood amongst all the churches and Muslims.
A leading figure in much was our host Archimandrite Innokentios, a priest of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem who heads the school system in Jordan for the Orthodox Church. His affable personality has obviously motivated many people to support his numerous efforts to educate the young. As he says eloquently, the future of the Christians in Jordan — and in the Middle East — is through good education.
The archimandrite also showed us a lovely center that can house about 100 pilgrims, many of whom come to the area to see Mt. Nebo and to study the mosaics that lie throughout modern Madaba, including that famous map.
The pastor of the parish of St. George and his wife invited us for a wonderful lunch in their home. Bountiful does not quite describe the display of food on the table. They were the most attentive hosts and as I was tutored by Ra’ed, a host will not take “no” for an answer very easily. In this part of the world, you must decline requests for more food about three times to stop the flow of food.
Both Father Guido and I learned so much from the archimandrite, who is very learned in church and civil law, in the culture of Jordan and the political and religious realities of life in this country.
We closed the day by visiting our staff in New York (about 55 employees) through the wonder of Internet and video conferencing. For Father Guido, Ra’ed and me, we were excited to share with our family in New York some of the joys and uplifting experiences of our time with our family in Jordan.
So tomorrow we will move on the third and final part of our pastoral visit, as we enter into Palestine and Israel, where we will meet our host and regional director, Sami El-Yousef.
By the way, please know that as I had my best private moment on top of Mt. Nebo, I remembered all the CNEWA family in a brief prayer. You were with me when I saw the Promised Land.