ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Turning Point for Christendom

The dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre undergoes a much needed face-lift.

“If there is one piece of man’s work on earth that should be durable and perfect, a marvel of gold and precious woods, it is the vault on high, covering this most sacred shrine.”

So wrote Harry Harewood Leech in his Letters of a Sentimental Idler concerning the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, also known in the Christian East as the Church of the Resurrection.

Leech’s words reflect his disappointment with the shrine, first built over the site of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century and rebuilt later, in the 12th century, by the Crusaders. In the 1860s, when Leech wrote his account, the church was shrouded in darkness: the windows were boarded up and the great dome braced by scaffolding.

After more than 100 years of decay, the dome was repaired in the 1970s, but the scaffolding remained. The three custodians of this shrine had yet to agree on the interior decoration of the great dome. Thus, the tomb remained veiled in darkness.

However, on 17 August 1994, Diodoros I, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, invited his brother custodians, the Rev. Giuseppe Nazzaro, O.F.M., Custos of the Holy Land, and Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, Armenian Apostolic Patriarch of Jerusalem, to the patriarchal hall of the Greek Patriarchate. Also invited were Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA and President of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine (PMP); Brother Donald Mansir, F.S.C., Vice President of PMP; the Rev. Denis J. Madden, Director of the CNEWA-PMP Jerusalem office; and Mr. Ara Normart, artistic consultant to PMP. An agreement had been reached.

In preparation for this “historic day,” as Patriarch Diodoros described it, numerous meetings between the custodians of the Holy Land and the representatives of CNEWA and PMP had occurred. Discussions with individual custodians led to the creation of parameters by which the artist was guided. A flurry of faxes and courier mail traveled between New York and Fresno, California, home of the artist, as thoughts on the design, which had to follow the directives established by each custodian, were exchanged. The final version, which embodied common elements of the three communities, was presented by Msgr. Stern to the custodians on that historic day.

The approved design represents the glory of God enveloping the risen Christ. It consists of 12 streams of gold, representing the 12 Apostles. From each ray branch three streams of light, symbolizing the Trinity. Light from the dome’s central skylight, as well as from concealed artificial sources, adds glowing brilliance. The mother-of-pearl background, a reminder of the biblical description of the luminous cloud of the Divine Presence, brightens as it ascends. The artwork will draw the pilgrim’s eyes away from the tomb: as the angel declared, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

Specifications for the project were completed by the Campbell Reith Hill architectural firm in London. The firm’s representative, Mr. Stuart Goodchild, accompanied Father Madden to a meeting with the custodians on 9 November 1995 at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. Mr. Goodchild’s detailed presentation was approved by the custodians. And, through the gracious auspices of the Greek Orthodox community, a site office has been set up in a room in the bell tower. The work is scheduled for completion before the end of 1996.

The project is on schedule: the plaster has been cleaned mechanically and lighting placed in the void between the outer and inner domes. Meanwhile, in the United States, Mr. Normart is supervising the casting of the decorative elements. He is also working with the gilders to finalize the 22-karat gold applications.

It is appropriate that this holy place be decorated beautifully, “durable and perfect, a marvel of gold.” However, the agreement, which marks the first joint project of its kind, is perhaps more important.

In order to accomplish this task, the principals had to maneuver through the protocol of 1852, known as the “Status Quo,” which reaffirmed regulations, dating back to 1740, concerning the holy places.

Perhaps no concern overshadowed the Ottomans’ rule in Palestine more than the proprietorship of the Christian holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. As the prominence of several ecclesiastical communities represented in the holy places waxed or waned, often based upon the favor of the sultan, so also did their rights to the sanctuaries fluctuate. For example, between 1630 and 1637, at the whim of Sultan Murad IV, the right of preeminence in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre alternated between the Greek Orthodox and the Latin Catholics no fewer than six times.

On 8 February 1852, the Ottoman government detailed the rights of the ecclesiastical communities concerning the holy places in a firman, an official decree. This firman attempted to untangle the numerous and conflicting decrees that, over the centuries, had been drawn up by the sultan, the Russian tsar (the traditional power broker on behalf of the Orthodox), and the French (the protector of Catholics in the Ottoman Empire).

The rights and privileges of the ecclesiastical communities, promulgated by this “Status Quo,” continue to maintain the delicate balance among the religious communities and their access to and custody of the holy sites.

However, this arrangement paralyzed discussion among the custodial communities, prompted a scrupulous adherence to detail, contributed to the outbreak of the Crimean War and scandalized the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities.

These centuries-old disputes, and the often conflicting decrees, make it difficult to focus on the fact that the Holy Sepulchre is the holiest of Christian shrines, built on the site of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Conscious of these conflicts, our “sentimental idler,” Mr. Leech, nevertheless writes:

…once within the sepulchre, these doubts and clouds, as if by magic, rolled away from my soul, and spontaneously I fell down on my knees to pray, which means to believe, for without faith there can be no prayer.…

In that place, I could not comprehend that religion was a thing of geometry, that could be demonstrated by a number, or destroyed by an argument…no, not by reason but rather…‘Because I am penetrated to the fibre of my heart by the force of immortal truth; because I am weak and would be strong; because I love, and all love springs from God!’ This is a why I believe and am a Christian.

The agreement is the result of the good will and fraternal love among the current custodians, who have acted collectively as one Christian leadership.

Another indication of the unity of the Christian leadership in the Holy Land is the plan for the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, which was officially inaugurated in Jerusalem on 21 December 1995.

Meeting at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the patriarchs of the Greek, Armenian and Latin communities stated that an interdenominational committee has been formed to plan activities for the anniversary. They were joined in the statement by vicars and bishops of the various Christian communities in the Holy Land, including the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem, the Greek-Melkite Patriarchal Vicar and the Custos of the Holy Land.

“Now is the time for the Prince of Peace to reinstate peace in his so troubled land,” the statement read. “With such desire and good in our hearts, we shall not spare any effort to make the celebration of this great event in the history of salvation a means for ushering in the light of peace…[a] full, just and lasting peace.”

The 1994 agreement is at its core a virtuous ecumenical act that has taken courage, trust and prayer.

“This agreement,” declared the Armenian Apostolic Patriarch of Jerusalem recently, “is a turning point for all Christendom.”

As the scaffolding is disassembled and the luminous cloud appears on the great dome, may all pilgrims who visit this holiest of sites share in the “sentimental idler’s” words and may God’s grace penetrate to the core of their hearts.

Brother Donald Mansir is Vice President of the Pontifical Mission.

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