On our penultimate day in the Holy Land we started with a fascinating discussion with David Neuhaus, SJ, director of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem and Patriarchal Vicar for the Hebrew-speaking Latin Catholics in the Holy Land. Most Catholics, both Latin and Eastern, are Arabic speaking in Israel, Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Cyprus, the area covered by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. But, there are also a significant number of Hebrew-speaking Catholics of the Roman church, and he is their go-to guy.
It was only a brief overview of the complexities of the church in the middle east. On top of the complex details of the Status Quo ecumenical “treaty” governing the holy sites, the internal Catholic complexities converge with language, rite, church, ethnicity and nationality. And Fr. David has to transverse borders of all kinds in the execution of his ministry. Some of the interesting pastoral notes were the mandatory minimum 2-year RCIA period, often longer, for people converting to Christianity from Judaism or Islam, in large part to make sure it’s a manageable process for the family. Another is the case of Hebrew-speaking Israeli children, at Hebrew schools, where all their classmates are doing Bar Mitzvah. How do you respond when they say they want one too?
We then went on our walk through the Old City of Jerusalem, through the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian Quarters, including a stop at HaKotel, the portion of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount which has become the primary site of prayer for Jews in the last couple centuries – the closest they can get to what was once the Holy of Holies in the Second Temple, now the site of the Dome of the Rock.
Following the post-crusader pilgrimage route of the Via Dolorosa, we did a brief walking tour of the original Stations of the Cross, ending at the Holy Sepulchre, which is a massive church complex visibly divided by the broken state of Christianity. Various parts of the church (and of the other holy sites) are cared for and controlled by various churches – Catholic (Latin Franciscans), Greek, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Syriac Orthodox. Some areas are common space, which means nothing can change without the consent of all parties. The doors to the church are protected by Muslim families entrusted to the charge since Saladin, one has the key and another guards to doors to keep them open during established times. As we got to the main entrance, you can even see a ladder set on a ledge that has not been moved since the Status Quo was established. While we were celebrating the Eucharist on the first day in Jerusalem and started to chant the alleluia, we were shushed by some sisters who had come in to join us – apparently singing is forbidden to the Latins during the normal schedule, because back in the day the only singing happened at “high mass” and only “low mass” (unsung) were permitted…
For the evening Shabbat meal, we traveled out toward the Judean desert, in view of the crusader Good Samaritan fortress inn, to Ein Prat Midrasha. The midrasha is a place where young Israelis -mostly after high school and before military service, or after military service and before university –spend four months living in community and studying Torah, philosophy, other religious texts. It seems like a profoundly formative opportunity. We were joining them for their final Shabbat meal together before ‘graduation’, and got there just in time for small group studies.
Just before the sun sets, they head out to a bluff overlooking a desert valley, facing west to welcome the Shabbat (the Sabbath), which arrives with the sunset on Friday and ends only when three stars are visible on Saturday evening. This is done first with the singing of psalms and dancing, practices which I think originate in the mystical tradition from around the 16th century. Following this, before the meal, are the more traditional and common prayers that begin the Sabbath. As I commented to one of the students I ate with, the Sabbath practice is one of the great gifts Judaism has for the world, and is especially powerful for my fellow Americans and our intensive, frantic business and inability to slow down much!
It was a beautiful evening, and I was blessed to share it with the community here.