Journey to the Holy Land: On To Galilee

This would be our last half-day in Jordan. We left in the morning to visit with the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, who run a number of programs for Iraqi refugees out of their house. These Franciscan Sisters have a long relationship with CNEWA/Pontifical Mission and have served to coordinate many of our humanitarian efforts here. They are really a beloved part of our mission family.

Waiting to greet us was Sister Wardeh Kayrouz, a sister from Lebanon who serves as superior and director of the programs run there. We were introduced to the other two sisters, one from Italy and one from Kerala, India. We engaged them in a wonderful discussion of the circumstances confronting the Iraqi refugees and how they strive to meet their needs. Programs revolve around social services and helping with food and clothing; healthcare assistance for basic needs that, unattended, can lead to serious illness or death; child care programs, especially for children who are marginalized by the public education system; and youth-oriented programs. Two areas that they seemed most proud of were catechetical training and the formation of lay leaders.

The sisters led us into a room of children singing Christmas songs and welcoming us with big smiles. The sisters, assisted by a corps of volunteers (all of whom are refugees), seemed to bring a certain calm to these youngsters. I was given the honor of presenting each child with a wrapped Christmas gift. They were most grateful, but I could not help but notice not one of the children opened his or her gift. I asked the sisters why. I was told that, in the eyes of these little ones, it would not be proper to open these gifts until after Jesus was born. How does that compare with our experiences of “Black Friday”?

From our visit with the dear children, we entered a basement hall crammed with about 250 adults of every age. And guess what they were doing as we entered? Finishing their recitation of the rosary. Devotion was written all over their faces.

Sister gave a formal welcome in French, as her English was limited, and said some very kind and thankful words about CNEWA/Pontifical Mission and all of you. She related how Pontifical Mission, especially through the efforts of “Mr. Ra’ed” over many years, had become an integral part of their ministry in Jordan.

Following her remarks, a young Iraqi girl, now studying dentistry, gave a testimonial that I found very moving. She shared in her own words, crafted in English, a beautiful expression of the gratitude of all for our solidarity with the suffering Iraqi people — especially those who fled the country. That number, by the way, is probably around one million. I must admit I had a lump in my throat when she spoke, and had to regain my composure before it was my turn to offer some remarks.

And I simply shared with these lovely people how much we loved them as members of our CNEWA family and how we pray in solidarity with all of them. And I told them that we all accept our challenges, sufferings and sacrifices because of an infant whose birth we soon celebrate: Jesus Christ, the Son of God. To all of you, they extended their love and their prayers. Father Guido and I gave them a blessing and thanked them for their loving welcome.

Here we would officially end our pastoral visit to Jordan — and what a visit it has been! My dear brother Ra’ed has been a most welcoming host, always making us feel at home and helping us to understand both culturally and spiritually the many experiences I enjoyed. His entire staff has been superb, and Father Guido and I will aways be indebted to Ra’ed and his team. God bless him, his staff and all the wonderful people of Jordan.

From Amman, we proceeded to the border with Israel, about two hours distant. After some multiple levels of security checks, we arrived on the Israeli side of the Jordan River to be met by the smiles and welcoming hugs of our host Sami and staff member Tony. We were in Israel! It was wonderful to have arrived, and to feel secure in the good hands of our hosts.

Within a few minutes, I was reading highway signs with names that popped out: Tiberias, Sea of Galilee. And I witnessed some people being “re-baptized” in the Jordan River. I could help but think: “Am I really here? This is the HOLY LAND!”

This visit to Israel would afford me not only the opportunity to be present pastorally to those whom we serve and assist, but it would be for me a personal pilgrimage, as I had never been here before. Already it was exciting in me a desire to put biblical names, places and events into some real life story. And it would be an added blessing to have my dear brother Father Guido along, as he is a very accomplished tour guide in the Holy Land.

Not having too much time before dark, Sami and Father Guido suggested we first visit the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves, just at the bottom of the Mount of the Beatitudes. Imagine, this is where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount on the hilltop above, and then where he multiplied the loaves and fish as a sign of the eternal food to come, his body and blood in the Eucharist. It hit me again: “I am really here.”

Next we visited the site called “The Primacy of Peter.” I must confess: I did not even know of this venue, which was visited by both Pope Paul VI and John Paul II. This holy place commemorates the site where Jesus three times asked Peter: “Do you love me?” How appropriate for two popes, as successors of Peter, to visit and venerate this site — and here I was entering into the same chapel they visited, built right over the site along the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Tomorrow morning Father Guido has arranged for us to celebrate Mass on an altar located right at the shore. What an honor. You will be with us and your intentions will be lifted up on the paten during Mass. From the Holy Land, blessings to all of you.

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