December 23, 2011


Good news in the Holy Land

As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, in Bethlehem, it is easy to be pessimistic about the future of Christians in the Holy Land. As the so-called “Arab Spring” turned into what some have called the “Christian Winter,” there have been numerous attacks by extremist Muslims in various parts of the Middle East.

However, we think it is important to be aware of some of the many good things that the Catholic Church is doing to maintain a Christian presence in the land where Christ was born. The Church continues to serve the poor and needy in Bethlehem and other parts of the Holy Land.

We start with Bethlehem University because it is a direct result of the visit of Pope Paul VI to the Holy Land in 1964. Decrying the fact that the Holy Land was becoming a museum for Christians, he encouraged the apostolic delegate at the time, Archbishop Pio Laghi, to find a way to establish an institution of higher learning that would meet the needs of the Palestinian society.

The university, one of several projects that resulted from Pope Paul’s visit, opened its doors on Oct. 3, 1973. It is located at the highest point in Bethlehem, and is operated by the De La Salle Christian Brothers.

From 112 students in 1973, its enrollment has grown to 2,936 students. It has 11,470 graduates, most of whom are serving the Palestinian society in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza in various professions and leadership positions.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem is the designation for the Latin Rite Catholic Archdiocese of Jerusalem. Patriarch Fouad Twal has jurisdiction for Latin Rite Catholics in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Cyprus.

His residence is near the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, which also serves as his cathedral. The archdiocesan seminary is in Beit Jala, located two miles from the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

The patriarchate has dozens of projects, including the maintenance of schools, hospitals, housing programs and youth centers throughout the archdiocese.

Since the time of St. Francis, the Franciscan Friars Minor have been responsible for the Custody of the Holy Land. At the first General Chapter of the Friars Minor in 1217, Francis decided to send his friars to all nations. The present Custos of the Holy Land is Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa.

The Custody’s activities are defined as “apostolic and missionary.” Above all, it provides pastoral care for the local churches, including Masses, confessions, retreats and other spiritual assistance for the Catholic communities.

The Franciscans’ projects are supported by the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, based in the United States. Its president, Franciscan Father Peter Vasko, is frequently in Indianapolis raising funds for the foundation. The Criterion has reported on some of those visits.

In recent years, the Franciscans also have opened new schools, especially in Bethlehem. Those who attend the schools promise to remain in the Holy Land as adults, and Father Peter reports that most are doing so.

Finally, there are the knights and ladies of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, an order that traces its history back to the time of the crusades. Its mission today is to try to maintain a Christian presence in the Holy Land.

Perhaps you have seen some of the local knights and ladies at various liturgical ceremonies. The knights are dressed in berets and colorful capes with the Jerusalem cross, and the ladies wear black mantillas and black dresses.

The Order of the Holy Sepulchre is based in Rome. Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, formerly the Archbishop of Baltimore, was recently appointed grand master of the order. He is succeeding another American, the late Cardinal John Foley, who had to resign for reasons of health. Cardinal Foley died on Dec. 11.

It is an international order with more than 28,000 members in 58 jurisdictions.

Before his resignation, Cardinal Foley reported that, in the year 2010, the order received 10.3 million euros—$13.7 million—in donations for projects in the Holy Land. Among the expenditures, about 5.5 million euros went to projects and expenses of the Latin Patriarchate, 3.1 million euros went to schools, and 350,000 euros went to Bethlehem University.

Good things are happening in the Holy Land.

—John F. Fink

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