I’ve been thinking of this post for two or three weeks — another pilgrimage reflection — a bit of humor. A visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem — the place where ‘the little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head — away in the manger.” Here our group was divided in half as we awaited our appointed time to enter the Grotto of the Nativity to celebrate Mass. As we waited, our leader, Fr. John Abela, corralled us around like his flock of sheep — come closer. We were in the midst of a great amount of iron scaffolding. The scaffolding surrounded the perimeter of the church interior and reached high into the rafters — the church that sits over the Grotto of our Jesus — the Star of Bethlehem.
Fr. John gestured our gaze up to the ceiling and declared, “You are looking at a miracle!” We were curious. He continued with great drama, “You are looking at a miracle — the roof is being repaired! It has been 70 years under discussions.” What? Really? The Church of the Nativity shares its custody with the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic (Franciscan Friars), and Armenian churches and are under a “status quo” arrangement that requires an equal sharing. It is like walking into a house and each room is decorated by designers of completely different tastes. We await our appointed time for Mass as we only have 20 minutes and must start on time. If we are not on time we will be in the “report” at the end of the week when they review “time.” Really? I found a current article on the topic that is titled “Warring clergy unite to repair leaky roof in Church of the Nativity.” Warring clergy? Really? Not the Franciscans. It is an interesting conundrum — no doubt — but “squabbling over who cleans what?” Apparently cleaning something can be construed as ownership and all things being equal — well — neither of the Christian churches would want the other to claim they alone paid for and repaired the leaky roof. It is so complicated.
I think of Fr. John Abela as I read this article and can almost hear his laugh. Just before Thanksgiving we learned that Fr. Abela had suffered a heart attack in Rome. Just yesterday, we learned that he had untimely (in our eyes) passed away on Sunday, Dec 19th — the Fourth Sunday of Advent. He will be buried in his home country of Malta on Christmas Eve. It amazes me how, even weeks beyond the end of our pilgrimage, the significance of our relationships continues to unfold. We were most blessed and graced to have been Fr. Abela’s last Holy Land pilgrimage group. Sometimes people cross our paths for only a minute, hours, or days and yet they leave an unforgettable mark. I think of the times I moved closer so that I could hear all that Fr. Abela was telling us. His love and knowledge of the Holy Land so apparent. I think of the holy hour he led at the Church of Gethsemane — the thought provoking reflections on the Gospel accounts of the agony in the garden.
Had I known Fr. Abela would soon leave this world, would I have listened even closer? Would I have made sure to take my journal and make notes. I think of the disciples who were sleeping in the garden — specifically asked to remain awake and watch while Jesus prayed. Had they known what was about to unfold, the kiss of betrayal, would they have slumbered any way?
So, Fr. John Abela will be interred on Christmas Eve — the Eve of the Star of Bethlehem. At least the Star of Bethlehem is getting a new roof — and maybe now a Friar to watch over it all.
The below photo was taken in Nazareth on October 27th, 2010. It is iconic of our pilgrimage — Fr. Abela gesturing as he taught us so much. The Holy Family is watching over him.
Check the links below for more information posted on the OFM web site of the OFM Province of Malta
A little over ten years ago I made my first Holy Land Pilgrimage. I concluded that it would be a once in a life time trip. Never say never. The opportunity presented itself to go on another pilgrimage in late October with the priests of my parish and a few parishioners. We were joined by other family and friends that wove itself into the group with six degrees of separation — practically everyone knew someone through some association. The trip was led by Franciscan Pilgrimages. The chance to travel among the companionship of friends and many other Franciscans was an easy sell for me.
What has not come easy is documenting my impressions in written form. Not only did I fail to take a writing journal, I managed to misplace my writing pen for a day. Last night I reread the excerpts from the journal of my first pilgrimage — the excerpts I posted here during Lent 2009. This trip was different — the Toys R’Us and McDonald’s were no surprise. I knew some of what to expect and yet some things had changed in ten years time. This time I was more inner reflective and less outwardly emotional. Things that moved me easily to tears ten years ago have aged and matured to a depth beyond tears. I watch — I listen — I absorb everything — I’m not distracted by the act of immediately committing my thoughts to paper. I’m still working on those thoughts — I did make random notes of things I don’t want to forget. I’m more conscious of the social and political issues. There was no wall around the occupied territory ten years ago. The calls to prayer from the minarets — I don’t remember from before.
Location — Location — Location
Franciscans in the Holy Land have it — location. Our journey began in Nazareth, where we stayed at their Casa Nova Nazareth — directly across the street from the Church of the Annunciation. A location that was just a brief stop on a day trip ten years ago became the view I saw outside my bedroom window for three nights stay. Our third night gave an opportunity to attend a holy hour at the Grotto of Mary. In Bethlehem we were to stay at their Casa Nova Manger Square — next to the Church of the Nativity. A last minute change had us at a nearby hotel instead. But, we had lunch at the Casa Nova Manger Square and spent quality time there. In Jerusalem, we stayed at their Casa Nova that is just a short walk from one of the entrances to the Holy Sepulcher Church.
I enjoyed the ‘urban-ess’ of this trip — much more time walking among the streets of the cities where we lodged.
It was difficult to return to work the first few days — wondering how my 9 to 5 in a cubicle was contributing to World Peace.
More thoughts another day.
Continuing with Day 8, and the final installment, of excerpts from my February 2000 Jubilee year Holy Land pilgrimage journal.
Day 8 – Tuesday, 2/22/2000 Jerusalem/Emmaus
Our day begins with early breakfast as we proceed to begin the Stations of the Cross. In groups of three, we take turns carrying a cross between each station. Father read the stations as we pause at each one. The Holy Sepulcher Church is built on top of Calvary. We are invited to go individually and touch the rock of Calvary on which Christ was crucified on the cross. I am crying. Wiping tears from my eyes with my hand, I touch the stone. My best offering at this moment is my tears. Next, we touch the slab of His anointing where I place my grandfather’s medal to be blessed. We are then invited around the empty tomb as Rula gives us all candles. She lights a candle from the tomb and lights Father’s candle. We light all our candles. On the Saturday before Easter, Rula says Christians have an ecumenical candle ceremony in the church. We are asked to keep our candles and light them on Holy Saturday this Easter. Our Mass today is in the Holy Sepulcher church. I have the first reading here and it is very emotional for me. I think of the song “The Old Rugged Cross” which begins “On a hill far away…” I’m thinking, today that hill isn’t so far away. It’s in this very place – this church. The reality of this is incomprehensible to me. We travel out to Emmaus to visit the Church of the Breaking of Bread. We walk a short piece of old Roman road that is located in the enclosure of the church grounds. Our last site of the pilgrimage is St. Ann’s church. We depart for the airport at 3AM to head for London. I’ve not slept at all this night.
I’ve been home several weeks now and still can’t believe I was really there. I read scripture now and so many places come to real life for me. I still get emotional and cry, if I think too much about it. I miss the routine of community Morning/Evening Prayer and Daily Mass. The places in scripture I’ve only read about all my life have become realities. I feel I’ve been re-baptized in the Spirit — like a candle that is redipped many times to reach its fullness. I feel a special grace has been given to me. Every step I take reminds me I walked in Jerusalem — drifted on the Sea of Galilee — knelt at His manger — strolled down the Palm Sunday route — felt His agony in the Garden and in the dungeon — carried the cross — and stood on the place called Mount Calvary where Jesus died for me…..
How fitting that I close my series of journal exerpts on Palm Sunday – the beginning of Holy Week. Just this afternoon, I led our RCIA group in the Stations of the Cross. I still cry. My memories are powerful and make themselves present. The Christian practice of making a Holy Land pilgrimmage dates back to early medieval times. During periods of time where access to the Holy Land was closed, it became a practice to errect replicas in churches. On November 21, 1342, Pope Clement VI entrusted the Holy Land to the Order of Friars Minor. Read the Bull. A lot of information on the history of this can be found on the Custody web site. Resulting from this was that Franciscans were given exclusive permission to build Stations of the Cross. Special indulgences were given to pilgrims praying the Stations in Franciscan churches. Below is a small quote from a very good article on the history of the Stations of the Cross.
Devotions to the Way of the Cross began in earnest after 1342, when the Franciscan friars were given custody of the holy sites in the Holy Land. The Franciscans have been closely identified with the devotion ever since; for years, Church regulations required a set of the stations to be blessed by a Franciscan when possible. — Tim Puet — Read rest of article
I made my pilgrimage in February 2000. By the Summer, there was again unrest in Israel – the sort that affects tourism. On April 2, 2002, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was taken in a 38 day siege. Franciscans were barricaded inside the church. I was stunned. I watched the endless Cable live news reports. I cried. What had changed for me is the fact I had been there a little over a year ago. It was news like that written in the quote below that was piercing me.
At least 200 young Palestinians, some of them armed, others simply civilians who found themselves cut off from their homes, took refuge in the Church of the Nativity, believing that the Israeli army would not dare to shell or storm the sacred spot. Forty Franciscan brothers, four sisters and about 30 Orthodox and Armenian monks found themselves locked inside with them. They were not hostages, however. According to Fr. David Jaeger, a spokesman for the Franciscan friars and nuns inside the complex, the Franciscans chose to remain because, as traditional custodians of the Christian sites in the Holy Land, they felt it their duty to stay and protect the shrine’s sanctity. Read rest of article at Messenger of St. Anthony
My pilgrimage made this very personal to me. I gained a new respect and understanding for all the Friars who greeted us in all the sacred sites. As we begin Holy Week, know the Way of the Cross and from where we have come.