My new year of 2012 began as no other year in my life. I was privileged to join a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, sponsored by the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C. It is an American arm of the Franciscan mission to the holy places — not only in Israel, but elsewhere in the Middle East. The Franciscans of the Holy Land care for both the “Stones of Memory,” that is the shrines which mark events in the lives of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and Christ’s apostles; but also the “living stones” of the Church, nearly 30 parishes where contemporary Catholics seek to live their faith in a land where simply living in peace is often a challenge.
My purpose in going was to help the Franciscans promote this mission. I also hoped to gain new insights into the four written Gospels by visiting what is often called “the Fifth Gospel,” the geographic locations associated with the Good News.
This “Fifth Gospel” is the land, the hills and valleys, desert wilderness, mountain peaks, rivers and, of course, the Sea of Galilee. Here you will find ancient ruins, many excavated by Franciscan archaeologists and others, which come from the time of Jesus and the early Christian centuries.
History in the Holy Land is a complex, layered thing. It is ancient dwellings, with ovens and cisterns and shards of pottery which speak of the life of Jesus and his followers. It is the record of where early Christians came to venerate places where Jesus walked. It is the ruins of churches built by Christian emperors and the conquering armies who came from Europe to the Middle East. Over these layers, Christians from the Greek and Armenian and Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, as well as Christians of the “Latin” rite, have built shrines which today are the focus of pilgrims.
The Franciscan Friars, from the late 13th century, have had a presence in the Holy Land, after the first visit of St. Francis himself in 1213, when he met the Muslim Sultan, and started a tradition of peaceful dialogue and reverent presence. In 1342, Pope Clement VI, set forth the Franciscans’ mission. Friars could come from any part of the Franciscan Order, and serve under the “Father Custos,” the friar who today is the head of “Custody of the Holy Land.” This international mission of the friars now draws men from all across the globe. They staff the shrines, parishes, schools, study centers and other efforts of the Franciscans. (You can see their story in Terra Sancta: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land, available at www.FranciscanMedia.org
On my pilgrimage, I was lucky enough to wear my Franciscan habit and walk in religious processions in the key shrines in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. I felt a part of an ancient tradition — in a land where so much is “ancient.” But I was also aware that our friar-mission is very up-to-date, meeting the needs of Catholics living and working in a place where three great religions meet and seek to coexist.
We toured a vibrant school in Jericho, serving 460 students, predominantly Muslim. We stopped at a facility which cares for the elderly in Bethlehem, where poverty afflicts the Arab population, who must live in the shadow of the wall marking the boundary of the “Occupied Territories” where Palestinians are seeking an independent state. We saw renovated housing, sponsored by the Custody, within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Ancient structures are being remodeled to serve families not far from where Jesus died and rose from the dead.
I have many memories — some processed, some yet to emerge fully energized — from this pilgrimage. But first of all, I am proud to be a Franciscan, and to be a small part of a time-honored mission. Look for my stories over the coming months as part of American Catholic Radio and other resources from Franciscan Media.