Our final day of pastoral visiting and pilgrimage began in a most special way: Father Guido arranged for us to celebrate Mass at the Mount of Calvary located in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. It was a cherished moment for me to know that over this very location Our Lord was crucified. There were some pilgrims who joined us for the Mass and it was obvious in their faces how they, too, were so much in awe of the moment.
From there, we proceeded to pay a visit to the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Antonio Franco. We enjoyed a very animated discussion with him and he was most cordial in extending to me his best wishes in my new role as President of CNEWA. He shared with us some helpful insights on the complexities of working for the Church in an environment of conflict and tension. He said that after more than six years in Jerusalem, as the Nuncio for Israel and Palestine, he still understands only a little bit of the many problems that are part of daily life here.
After that visit, we shifted gears into the pilgrim mode, to visit some holy sites. I was blessed to have Father Guido as my guide along with Tony Za’rour from the office as our driver. We visited many sites in about six hours, so I will just mention some of the highlights.
First we headed to the Dead Sea, which at 350 meters below sea level is the lowest place on earth. We saw the famous sight of people floating in the salty water. The sea has receded so much, but still maintains its beauty and health-related benefits, as evidenced by the many skin treatment products from there that are sold throughout Israel.
From the Dead Sea, we traveled to the Qumran cave. This is where a shepherd in the 1960’s found ancient scrolls nestled in earthen jars that had been buried for many centuries. These famous “Dead Sea Scrolls” opened to the world a first-hand glimpse of life in the ancient Essene community. The geography here is breathtaking: a mountain range which has a dramatic escarpment, the view to the cave itself, and the recently excavated early community with its very sophisticated system of water storage and irrigation.
Then it was on to Jericho to visit the oldest city on earth and, like the Dead Sea, a place situated more than 300 meters below sea level.
A little gem and a favorite site for Father Guido was next on our pilgrimage: an ancient monastery named for St. George, located in a extremely remote part of the desert, between Jericho and Jerusalem, but down a deep gorge and hidden from view of the nearest road. There are just two monks living there at present and one of them has trained his donkey to go up to the nearest Bedouin village to get milk and bread. Once loaded up, the donkey is sent back down into the steep gorge with the supplies. This is a new concept in home delivery!
Then it was on to Dominus Flevit Church, built on the site where Jesus wept over Jerusalem. From this spot, we had a magnificent view across the valley looking to the walled Old City.
Gethsemane was our next site, where Jesus spent his time in prayer before being arrested. Here we remembered Jesus and his agony in the garden.
Our final stop took us to the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, where tradition holds that Jesus was denied by Peter and where he was also imprisoned before his crucifixion.
This is a most brief commentary on what was a very intense and memory-laden experience, too much to reflect in these few words. I was so grateful to have seen so much. I know that on successive visits here I will be able to visit more holy places, so I leave fully satisfied. I have been extremely blessed to have experienced so much of the best of the Holy Land.
(I also know that when I get home, I will enjoy reading some good guide books and reviewing some maps and relating them to the almost 3,000 photos that I have taken on this pastoral visit!)
Our day ended with a most uplifting video conference call to everyone in our office in New York. This was the third one during this pastoral visit. I was so excited to share some of my experiences with my staff. And it afforded the staff an opportunity to know much better our local director Sami El-Youssef, who gave a very impassioned reflection of what our visit meant to him, his staff and the people of Palestine and Israel.
I have the honor tomorrow (Saturday, December 24) of accompanying the Latin Patriarch to Bethlehem, where it will be my most precious privilege to concelebrate with him at the Midnight Mass at the Basilica of the Nativity built over the site where Jesus was born. You will all be remembered in my prayers during that Mass. Our special intention for the Palestinian people and all the people we have visited will be for a lasting peace.
I will share a final post with you after I return home on Monday, December 26. Until then, be blessed in God’s love. Merry Christmas. That expression means so much more to me now.