ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch

Archbishop James Beltritti’s goal is to find “reconciliation between brothers.”

“I have lived all the history and tragedy of the Holy Land in the last fifty years.” With these words the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop James Beltritti, is summing up not only his own life, but the lives of all Christians who, during the past few decades, have experienced the joys of the Resurrection and the Passion of Christ.

James Beltritti first came to the Holy Land when he was sixteen from a little country village near Turin, Italy. He entered a Jerusalem seminary to study since his dream was to become a priest in the land where Christianity was born.

Beltritti was ordained in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre before the Tomb of Jesus on Holy Saturday, 1933, and celebrated his first Mass on Mount Calvary Easter morning.

In speaking of those early days, the Archbishop exhibits a kind of boyish pleasure, “I was very happy to be a priest in the Holy Land, and felt it a great privilege.”

Not many bishops can or would boast of being imprisoned, but James Beltritti, who was a prison chaplain during his first weeks as a priest, was himself arrested as an enemy alien during World War II. He spent three years in jail. Today he says, “I am still a prisoner in a way, because my duties as Patriarch keep me from spending as much time in pastoral activity and direct contact with my people as I would prefer.”

The Patriarch has a deep love for his people and suffers much from their troubles. With sadness he says, “Our Christian people are leaving the Holy Land.” Political and economic pressures – as well as the harassment suffered by Arab Christians – are major factors in the mass emmigration of the young. “It is easier to leave and find housing in America, than it is to stay in the Holy Land as a Christian,” explains one of the Patriarch’s aides.

The tragic irony of this situation is that while more priests and religious are settling in the area, the laity is leaving. Already there are only sixty-six lay people for each Catholic priest. “The danger is that our churches will die and become empty museums,” says the Patriarch.

As Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Beltritti is the focal point of celebrations in the Holy Places. He has two Cathedralsone for daily celebrations just inside the Old City near Jaffa Gate, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in which Catholics of many rites, and the Orthodox, celebrate the liturgy.

Within his diocese, (which covers all the Holy Land, the Kingdom of Jordan, and the island of Cyprus) Patriarch Beltritti has 80 priests. Of these, 67 are Arabs born in the diocese, and two are auxiliary bishops – one in Nazareth, the other in Amman. Their pastoral work in the towns and villages is shared by the Franciscans who care for the Holy Places.

Many of the Holy Land parishes have a pre-gospel atmosphere – the people and places are largely unchanged since the time of Jesus, and many early oral traditions still live in Palestinian culture.

In caring for his people, whether they be modern or traditional, the Patriarch refrains from involving himself in politics. However, he speaks out against injustice. In 1971 he wrote the Bishops of America asking their help for the Church in the Holy Land, “Continued injustice, discrimination and suppression of human rights in the Holy Land endangers the peace of the world.” In 1974 he called for new insights into the problems faced by both Arabs and Jews, “Fixed attitudes should give way to wisdom. An armed truce is not peace.”

The Jews feel injustice, he says, because they believe the land is theirs by biblical mandate. The Palestinians feel injustice because their homes, lands and businesses were taken from them by force.

To all this the Patriarch has but one request, that there be “Reconciliation between brothers, which presupposes a reconciliation with God.”

In the very tense present situation in the Middle East, the Patriarch’s main obligation is to build up and maintain the Christian community, and to work towards lasting peace.

A vigorous laity, a strong priesthood, and a spirit of ecumenism and tolerance on all sides is necessary if Patriarch Beltritti’s diocese is to withstand the pressures currently bearing down on it, and remain the spiritual center of the Judeo-Christian world.

Desmond Sullivan is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East who lived in Jerusalem for years as area correspondent for the National Catholic News Service Washington, D.C.

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