Seminarians in the Holy Land

BEIT JALLA, West Bank (CNS) — After a morning of visits to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and a local Catholic parish, U.S. Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien was overcome with emotion during his meeting with seminarians at the Latin Patriarchate seminary.

“I can’t think of a more encouraging moment than this,” he told the young men who had gathered in their common room to greet him.

The cardinal, grand master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher, said that, having served as a seminary rector for 12 years, he was “well aware of the work and sacrifices involved in creating the goodness I see here.”

“What better place to be formed than here?” he said. “There is a lot of energy in this room, and I am grateful and enriched by your presence and young enthusiasm.”

He said the seminary was a “hopeful sign.”

Though Jesus’ formation was very different than the young seminarians, the base of “selfless, dispossessive love of people” was the same, he added.

“Dispossessive love is unique for Christians and should be unique for priests,” he said. “You are going to set the standards for our good people for selfless love. You will make saints in this area.”

The cardinal, a former archbishop of Baltimore whom Pope Benedict named to lead the chivalric order in August 2011, arrived in the Holy Land Nov. 26 for a weeklong pilgrimage.

His itinerary included Jerusalem; Bethlehem, where he inaugurated the education department of Bethlehem University, which is supported by the knights; Nazareth, Israel, and the neighboring village of Rameh, where he was to inaugurate the parish school. He was also scheduled to visit Catholic parishes and holy sites in Jordan before returning to Rome.

On Nov. 27, Cardinal O’Brien was greeted by Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custos of the Holy Land, and Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal during his visit to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher — his first visit as grand master.

At the Church of the Nativity Nov. 28, Franciscan Father Stephane Milovitch, rector of the adjacent St. Catherine Church, led the cardinal through the holy site, recounting its history and archaeology. In a private moment, Cardinal O’Brien kneeled at the silver star in the grotto marking the spot traditionally believed to be where Jesus was born.

Pilgrims prayed and sang “Silent Night” in Italian. The cardinal lit candles in front of the Altar of Our Lady Mary in St. Catherine Church.

At kindergarten classes in Beit Sahour’s Our Lady of Fatima Parish School, children were busy gluing cotton balls on pictures of Santa Claus, and another class sang an Arabic Christmas carol for the cardinal. He asked the students if they liked coming to school.

“Yes!” was the resounding response.

Afterward, Cardinal O’Brien said he was certain that Jesus also “looked down on (the children) as brothers and sisters who were born in the same place as he was and are experiencing a lot of the same things as he was.”

In a meeting with teachers from the school, the cardinal said that though at times they may feel alone, there were people abroad “with awareness, concern and prayer” for them who knew how important their work was.

“You have a lot of friends all over the world. There are 60 different countries represented in our Knights of the Holy Sepulcher who are all dedicated to the work you are doing, and they make great sacrifices to keep the schools open, the parishes strong and keep them growing,” he said.

Father Iyad Twal, parish priest, noted that although any visit from a cardinal to the parish was a sign of solidarity, the visit of Cardinal O’Brien as grand master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher was specifically significant because the order is “practically a part of the patriarchate.”

“It is a visit of a father to his children,” said Father Twal.

Cardinal O’Brien told Catholic News Service that the church does “a world of good … (planting) seeds for the future.”

Pondering the future of the children he had visited, the cardinal said: “It could be tragic and it could be joyful and peaceful. It is up to us to make it the latter.”

He said he had come out of his visit “more informed and inspired” and hoped he would be able to better speak from his firsthand experience about the work carried out by the order.

“We need to have a greater presence with the native Christians. Christian presence has to be encouraged,” he said, and the Christians abroad need to show by their presence the need to address the pressing issues facing the church.

Having come to the Holy Land just a week after an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire between Hamas and Israeli took hold, Cardinal O’Brien said the violence would continue unless the “rights of all people are addressed, including those in the West Bank.

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