A Reflection from the Holy Land
A letter to the Minister Provincial from Fr. Justin Biase, OFM Conv.
Peace and all good things from the Holy Land! The Mass at the Holy Sepulcher was wonderful, although a bit tight with seven priests and three women packed into the inner room, and a few more folks in the outer room. It was very moving and a moment to cherish forever. I remembered (special intention) at Mass as well as … all of the friars. Thank you so much for this marvelous opportunity to be here for six weeks. I apologize for not being in touch more often, but I have been trying to stay away from the computer and sending e-mails, etc. so as not be too distracted from this special time in the Holy Land. Nonetheless, prayers for you and all the friars have been plentiful at each and every holy place.
The program is wonderful — with time for lectures, visiting the holy sites together with free time to pray, relax, be quiet or wander around the city. The lecturers are first class and include Christians, Jews, Palestinians and Muslims. Two weeks ago we went to an Orthodox synagogue for services and then we broke up into groups of two and went with a family for their Shabbat Dinner. Both were quite the experiences, especially talking with the family and their children — very devout and knowledgeable about their faith and unlike many, very knowledgeable about Catholicism.
We spent a week in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. Despite the weather – cold, cloudy and rainy – we did get a chance to visit all the sites at a leisurely pace – with time in each place for quiet prayer and reflection — though at times it was difficult because of the crowds of pilgrims. We had a wonderful guide, a Palestinian Christian who was extremely knowledgeable, friendly, humorous and deeply spiritual. We returned to Jerusalem to find six inches of snow on the ground — the bus couldn’t get up our steep hill from the road, so most walked up to the building, but a few of us older folks were taken up in a cart pulled by a tractor! It was a sight for sore eyes!
Our group numbers 15 and includes 10 priests (2 Jesuits, me and the rest diocesan), two sisters, one minister and two lay women. It’s a very diverse group for sure, but we all get along very well and have our share of laughs along the way…
As you would imagine, there is no escaping coming face to face with the great suffering of the people here as a result of the current political situation. From whichever angle you look at it, it is so sad and breaks your heart. It is terribly complicated and difficult to understand. The longer you’re here the more you see how deep are the divisions and conflicts. The staff and the program provide multiple opportunities to explore the many dimensions of life in these parts.
Our place is near Bethlehem, right by the Wall and the Check Point. Looking at the wall is depressing enough, going through the checkpoint is heart-breaking. It is literally like going into a jail. We visited Bethlehem University run by the Christian Brothers. Marvelous! Seeing and meeting young Christians and Muslims together, side by side, with so many hopes and aspirations for peace, was more than inspiring. Much prayer, generosity and hard work at peacemaking are surely needed. Last week, we also visited Hebron which was particularly sad because of the multiple checkpoints and random checks and the suffering of the people. We visited the tomb of Abraham and Sarah (now officially a Mosque, but divided in two –one side for Jews and one side of Muslims). We followed that visit with meetings with groups of Muslims, Christians and Jews who are taking initiatives to bring people together to talk, get to know one another and work towards reconciliation. Uplifting for sure — met some of the most impressive people I have ever encountered.
Last week we also went to the Old City and had the privilege of not only walking around the Temple Mount, but also entering the Dome of the Rock and entering the Al Aqsa Mosque – both were very moving. Attached is a photo of a small boy praying.
A few days ago, we had a lecture on Eastern/Byzantine spirituality by the Abbot of Dormition Abbey here in Jerusalem. It was fantastic — he was from Belfast and was very articulate, knowledgeable and witty (as most Irishman are!!). In addition to talking about the history of the Roman/Orthodox traditions – he spoke about the spirituality that flows from the Orthodox liturgy. On Sundays, we go to different Churches for Mass. Twice now I went to the Melkite Catholic Church in the Old City — mostly because it is a friendly and welcoming community, but also because the Archbishop is an older man who radiates peace, joy and deep faith.
We had a wonderful day visiting St. George’s Monastery in the Judean Hills below Jerusalem. Had to walk down a steep hill and then back up the other side to get to the place — beautiful. From there we hiked into Jericho along a path along the side of the hill. It took about an hour and a half with spectacular scenery all along the way. From there we visited Jesus’ Baptismal site. Thankfully I have had no problem with my knee, except having to pace myself going up or down hills. On the hike to Jericho, I had a cane to keep help keep me balanced — since the path was very rocky, but other than that, no problems at all. Of course, being the ‘oldest’ in the group, everyone is very solicitous!!
Gregory [Hartmayer] and I were able to get together on Sunday evening for a leisurely dinner at what else but an Italian restaurant!! Recommended by the hotel where he was staying, it wasn’t half bad! It was a fun evening. His group was literally on a marathon since they only had a week. Makes me appreciate all the more the six week spread that allows for time for prayer and relaxation, as well as multiple visits to favorite places.
Just returned from an overnight to Nablus — and the site of Jacob’s well. In the middle to the West Bank, it was amazing to see how friendly and warm the people were to us. It was the exception when people didn’t say ‘hello”, “good morning or afternoon”. Children would spontaneously wave to us and smile. Marvelous and much different than Jerusalem.
Hard to believe that I leave here for Padua in a couple of days. Unfortunately, I will miss the trip to Qumran, Dead Sea, Masada and Mt. Sinai. Not so bad since, except for Sinai, I have been to all the places before… But for now it is good to be here, in a totally different place and environment, and to be connected in a special way to Christ in the land that was His, complicated and messy as it is at the present moment.
Okay for now, my brother. Thanks again to you and the Province for allowing me this special time away. I will be in touch from Padua and then from Assisi. Assisi following the Holy Land — can’t get much better than that! From there to Bari on Easter Monday for a visit to the home town [of my family] and then on to Rome before heading back to the States on April 16th.
Note: Fr. Justin was the last Minister Provincial of the Immaculate Conception Province.
After the union of the Immaculate Conception Province and the St. Anthony of Padua Province, creating the new Our Lady of the Angels Province, he has spent some time on a much deserved renewing sabbatical, including his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Please continue to pray for him and for all of our friars.