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Saint Paul and the Collection for Jerusalem

Perhaps one of the great mysteries of salvation history is that the Lord chose Jerusalem as the place to accomplish it. This landlocked city has always been insignificant from the perspective of politics, commerce and culture. During the period of the Roman Empire, it was no great reward to be sent to govern this backwater province filled with a troublesome, rebellious population. Yet, Jerusalem is revered as holy by followers of the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Jesus was not at all optimistic about Jerusalem’s future. The Evangelist Luke recounts that when Jesus first caught site of the Holy City, he wept over its future destruction:

“Yes, a time is coming when your enemies will raise fortifications all around you, when they will encircle you and hem you in on every side; they will dash you and the children inside your walls to the ground; they will leave not one stone standing on another within you…” (Lk 19:43-44)

“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you must realize that she will soon be laid desolate. Then those in Judea must escape to the mountains, those inside the city must leave it, and those in country districts must not take refuge in it.” (Lk 21:20-21)

It did not take a political genius to make such a prediction. At the time of Jesus, the region was occupied by the Roman Empire. The population was restless and anxiously His prediction proved to be true: In 66 A.D. the Jews rebelled against the Roman occupiers. Emperor Nero dispatched an army under the general Vespasian to restore order. By 68 A.D., the rebellion had been suppressed in the northern part of the region. Upon hearing of Nero’s suicide, Vespasian returned to Rome to be declared emperor and left his son, Titus, to subjugate Jerusalem. By 70 A.D., the army had breached the city’s outer walls and began to ransack it. The Temple was destroyed, thousands killed and the survivors enslaved and dispersed throughout the Empire. (Some historians believe that the looting of the Temple and the exportation of slaves provided Vespasian and Titus with the funds and labor required to build at this time the Great Coliseum of Rome.)

In approximately 132 A.D., another rebellion broke out under the leadership of Bar-Kochba (who had messianic claims and persecuted Christians for not accepting him). The Emperor Hadrian besieged the city and put down the rebellion three years later. Jerusalem was laid waste and a new Roman city, Aelia Capitolina (complete with a temple to Jupiter on Mt. Moria), replaced it. No Jew —Jewish Christians fell into this category — was allowed under pain of death inside the city. The Christian community was, therefore, comprised of Gentile Christians and it had become a place of memories when visited by Saint Helen later in the fourth century.

However, before all this devastation took place, the region was to suffer a famine and additional sufferings. It is this period that will be the focus of our reflection today.

The Jerusalem Collection

Today, we are focusing on the support of Christians in the Holy Land. It is interesting that support for the needy of Jerusalem dates to the apostles themselves. During this Pauline year, it is appropriate that we reflect on Saint Paul who dedicated a significant portion of his ministry to a collection for the poor believers (the “saints”) in Jerusalem.

Saint Paul took pride in the fact that he was able to provide for his own personal support, but did not hesitate to approach the Gentile, i.e., non-Jewish churches for funds to help the believers in Judea. It should be remembered that throughout the ministry of Saint Paul, Judea was an occupied territory, with a population that was hard-pressed to survive. The economic situation was exacerbated by a famine that occurred in the region within 10 years of Christ’s death and resurrection. For that reason, for more than a decade Saint Paul was zealous and diligent in taking up a collection for the community in Jerusalem.

Although the chronology is not entirely clear, it seems Paul and Barnabas visited Jerusalem in 46 A.D. to see the situation and deliver aid:

“…Agabus, seized by the Spirit, stood up and predicted that a famine would spread over the whole empire. This in fact happened before the reign of Claudius came to an end. The disciples decided to send relief, each to contribute what he could afford, to the brothers living in Judaea. They did this and delivered their contributions to the elders in the care of Barnabas and Saul.” (Acts 11:29-30)

At the end of a contentious discussion about whether the non-Jewish converts needed to observe Jewish customs, the only thing James, Peter and John (the leaders of the Jerusalem community) urged of the non-Jewish Christian communities to “remember to help the poor.” (Gal 2:10) For a decade, Paul devoted himself to soliciting funds among the Gentiles communities for the Jerusalem community, an initiative commonly referred to as the Jerusalem Collection. It seems that the collection was completed in 57 A.D. when Paul delivered the final gift. In his letter to the Romans, he explains,“I hope to see you on my way to Spain…First, however, I must take a present of money to the saints in Jerusalem, since Macedonia and Achaia [Christian communities of non-Jewish Christians] have decided to send a generous contribution to the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.” (Rom 15:26)

Why did Paul make such an effort?

Some of you in this room will tomorrow make a solemn promise to support the Christians and churches of the Holy Land. Paul spent a significant amount of his life doing just that. So it might be useful for us to reflect on his motivation to embark on such an arduous undertaking. Simply put, why did he do it?

The first factor motivating Paul is almost too obvious: there was a real need that demanded his attention and assistance. His brothers and sisters in Jerusalem were living under foreign–Roman–occupation. Even worse, they were a religious minority rejected by the Romans as just another troublesome Jewish messianic sect and persecuted by the Jews as blasphemers. The economy was always precarious and the famine created great hardships for this social and religious minority. For Paul and the Christian communities outside Judaea, this was enough — they had to do something to help. Saint Paul was not so much concerned about preserving Christianity in the Holy Land as he was about helping Christians living there!

Another motivating factor was a little more subtle, but just as important: the solidarity of Christians. One of the big challenges facing Paul and the early church was the division between Jewish converts and non-Jewish converts to Christianity. At first the church leadership wanted the non-Jewish converts to become Jews before becoming Christians, that is, to submit to circumcision, and to submit themselves to the Jewish dietary laws. Paul opposed this and said that all were subject to a new law, the law of Christ, and that there were no longer any distinctions between Jew and Greek, male and female, freeman and slave. All are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28-29). Because we are all part of one body, when one part of the body suffers, the entire body suffers. Because of this interdependence, it is the responsibility of each part of the body to be concerned about the whole.

Lastly, Paul was concerned about the poor believers of Jerusalem because Jerusalem is the Mother Church. Believers all over the world who receive the spiritual possessions from the poor people of Jerusalem have a duty to help them with temporal possessions. (Rom 15:27)

The parallels between the factors motivating Saint Paul to struggle for the poor in the Holy Land and the circumstances of the Christians today in that region are so obvious there is almost no need to draw them. However, it is interesting to do so.

The Christians in the Holy Land are a small religious minority caught between an overwhelming religious power — Islam — and an overwhelming political power — Israel.

Islam knows no distinction between Church and State, between religion and politics; therefore, Christians can only be tolerated in the society and never participate fully in the political life. In some places, Christian communities are subject to severe strictures regarding any public manifestation of religious worship. For example, in Egypt a church or any building used for a religious purpose cannot be built or repaired without a laborious approval process ending with the signature of the president of the republic.

The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and the construction of the wall have devastated the Palestinian economy with an unemployment rate of 40% and 67% of the population living below the poverty line. Every day we hear of abuses regarding the confiscation of land and resources.

The peace process between Israel and the Palestinians has occupied the headlines for years and is commonly viewed as a Jewish-Muslim conflict. What place do the Christians have in all this? Do we Catholics in the West have a sense of solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ? Do we have a sense of gratitude and obligation to our Mother Church in Jerusalem?

Christians in the Holy Land

It is somewhat difficult for us in North America to appreciate the situation of the churches in the Holy Land for at least two reasons. The first is that North Americans generally experience “church” as members of the Roman Catholic tradition or as members of those communities that descend from the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. For most of us, to be Catholic is to belong to the Latin Church composed of ethnic immigrants and their descendents from western and central Europe and their colonies. Catholics are Irish, German, Italian, Polish or Latino. However, that is not the case in the Holy Land. The demography of the Holy Land today is similar to that of the first Pentecost (Acts 2:9-11) with people coming from all over the world.

It is also difficult for North Americans to apprehend the possibility that the church or Christians more generally might be in real danger of extinction. While many decry secularism and the influx of Muslims to the West, it is difficult for us to consider these phenomena as threats to our existence. However, as we shall see, the Christians and churches of the Holy Land find themselves in precisely that situation.

Since the 19th century, Christians have left the Holy Land for a number of reasons: economic, political and social. But Christians have endured particular hardships since the middle of the 20th century. Enormous numbers left the region in 1948 and 1967. The result is that the Holy Land is practically depopulated of its Christian population, families who were among the first to embrace the faith:

  • In Israel, out of a total population of 7 million, there are 147,000 Christians, or 2.1 per cent of the total population.
  • In the Palestinian Territories, with a population of 3.8 million, there are an estimated 40,000 — 90,000 Christians, or 1.1- 2.4 per cent of the population.
  • Out of approximately 6.1 million people in Jordan, the Christian population is approximately 355,000, or around 6 percent. This “large” number can be partly attributed to the immigration of Christians from Iraq.

The term critical mass is defined as the size or amount of something required before an activity or event can take place. Has the Christian population in the Holy Land been reduced to such a low level that Christianity can no longer “take place?”

It is unlikely that — despite our best efforts — we shall reverse the demographic reality of Christian emigration. This does not mean we shall not continue to try. A return of Christians to the Holy Land in the near future is also unlikely. The right of return (aliyah) for Jews is a matter of Israeli public policy. The Palestinians, with their Muslim majority, want to return. But we Christians are not promoting the “right of return” as a solution to the problem. It is undeniable that a few hundred thousand Christians of different — and at times antagonistic — communities cannot make a difference. One must also take into account that a significant number of these believers are unemployed and live below the poverty line.

On their own, they are politically powerless. Today, the real strength of the Christians in the Holy Land lies beyond the boundaries of that region. People like you are concerned and want to help by sharing your resources and influencing political leaders in this important issue of justice and human rights.

In 1847, Pope Pius IX re-established the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem as a residential bishop, appointed Joseph Valerga to hold the position. His Beatitude Fouad Twal, a Jordanian, is the current Patriarch. The patriarchate, encompassing Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Cyprus, has a total Catholic population of 77,000 in 65 parishes. The communities are served by 79 diocesan priests, 293 religious order priests, 313 religious brothers and 1,144 religious sisters. As one might expect, the Holy Spirit has been working overtime in the area of vocations: there are 22 seminarians. There are also 166 schools and 37 charitable institutions.

Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre

Pius IX also re-vitalized the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem to collaborate in support of the Latin Patriarchate. Pope Pius XII, in 1949, gave a special mission to the Order, a first since the Crusades:

  • The preservation and propagation of the faith in Palestine
  • Assistance to and development of the mission of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, providing for its charitable, cultural and social undertakings
  • Defense of the rights of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land.

These are three big tasks. You came here this evening presuming that you were getting an honor, only to find out that you had been given a job! Today, we are not asked to die for, but to live for the Holy Land. We are being asked not to use arms, but to use every legitimate peaceful means to safeguard the rights and interests of the church in that holy but troubled place.

Today the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre includes 22,000 knights and ladies, organized into 50 lieutenancies and 2 delegations (quasi-lieutenancies). There are 9 lieutenancies in the United States. We can take pride in the fact that our Holy Father has recently appointed Philadelphia-born John Cardinal Foley as Grand Master of the Order.

Every year, the lieutenancies from the United States send $5 to $7 million to assist the patriarch with 44 elementary schools, the seminary and his pastoral programs. The order also assists Bethlehem University, a Catholic university administered by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, with scholarships and construction projects. Orphaned children are cared for at the Creche in Bethlehem, at the House of Peace in Jerusalem and the Home of St. Vincent in Bethany. The elderly are given a dignified home at Our Lady of Sorrows in Abu Dis, Jerusalem. Churches have been renovated and, through the generosity of a particular knight and lady, playgrounds have been built and furnished in (important respites of safety and peace in a land of tension and violence) Ramallah, Bethlehem and Gaza.* * *

To return to the issue of a critical mass, there is no “critical mass” for Christianity, for the love of Christ, to work. After all, the movement started with a few frightened people huddled in an upper room. The Spirit of Christ impelled them to spread the Good News. As Catholics, our primary concern must be that the love of Christ continues to shine forth in the land where he walked.

NOTES

1According to Jewish tradition, Jerusalem has been the center of the Jewish faith for the past 3,000 years, with the conquest of the city by King David. It is the site of the First Temple built by Solomon and the Second Temple built after the Persian exile, to be expanded by Herod and destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.

2In addition to being the focus of the Jewish faith, Jerusalem holds a special place for Christians since it is the place of the death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord.

3According to the Qu’ran (17:1) Muhammad travelled from the Sacred Mosque in Mecca to the Farthest Mosque (Al-Aqsa) in Jerusalem, from where he ascended into heaven. Before changing to Mecca, Jerusalem was the first focal (Qiblah) to which the Muslims turned to pray. It is reported that the Prophet Muhammad named mosques in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem as pilgrimage destinations.

4Arab Christians — 119,000; Others — 28,000. Source: CIA — The World Fact Book, s.v. Israel, last updated 21 August 2008.

5Source: CIA — The World Fact Book, s.v. Jordan, last updated 4 September 2008.

6 Pius XII, apostolic brief Quam Romani Pontificis, 14 September 1949.

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