MADISON -- Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the Holy Land has helped shine the spotlight on the situation of Christians in the homeland of Christ. The number of Christians has been steadily decreasing. Those remaining must often deal with conflict and economic challenges.
How can we help our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land? The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem has been working since the 11th Century to foster solidarity with Christians there.
Archbishop Fouad Twal, the current Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, encouraged members of the North Central Lieutenancy of the order (which includes the Diocese of Madison) to form sister parish relationships with parishes in the Holy Land.
“He emphasized that this is the key to our mission as Knights and Ladies: to build connections with Christians in the Holy Land so that through solidarity, they may not lose hope, thinking they are alone and isolated from the universal Church,” said Patrick Stiennon of Madison, a member of the order.
Stiennon talked with St. Paul's University Catholic Center on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus about establishing student pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
Stiennon solicited funds for the project and raised $3,500. Based on student input, it was decided to develop a specific pilgrimage opportunity and encourage students to apply.
Stiennon worked with Rateb Y. Rabie, a member of the order and CEO of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, to develop a plan to send a student to live for two months in Bethlehem, a short distance from the Church of the Nativity. During the two months the student would perform volunteer activities and visit the holy sites.
To choose the student and to encourage better understanding of the plight of Christians in the Holy Land, a contest was organized based on writing an essay after reading Behind the Wall by Canon Donald Fraser. Several members of the local order judged the essays with Fr. Eric Nielsen, pastor of St. Paul's, making the final selection.
Beth Mueller selected
Beth Mueller was chosen for the pilgrimage. From Germantown, Wis., Mueller is finishing her junior year at UW-Madison. She plans to graduate in December with majors in history and journalism.
She is active at St. Paul's University Catholic Center, where she sings in two choirs, leads a small group Bible study, helps on the Liturgy Team, and is a sacristan. Next fall she will be assisting with the RCIA program at St. Paul's and in the spring she will be an intern there.
Mueller will be leaving the U.S. May 28 and returning July 22. She commented on the pilgrimage, "I'm nearly overwhelmed with excitement and gratitude to be going on this trip. It amazes me that God would bless and surprise me with such an incredible opportunity and I am so thankful. I simply cannot wait to walk in the places where Christ walked and to serve the Christians there in his name. I was so overjoyed to find out that I will likely get to go to daily Mass . . . in the Church of the Nativity!"
A second student, inspired by the contest, also decided to pay her own way. Patricia Kosmalski, a UW-Madison undergraduate student studying Spanish and pre-medicine, is a member of St. Paul's University Catholic Center. She hopes to volunteer at local hospitals in the Holy Land.
Following is the essay for the Holy Land pilgrimage contest that Beth Mueller wrote:
“If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. May my tongue stick to my palate if I do not exalt Jerusalem beyond all my delights,” the psalmist writes.
By his hand and mouth, the parts of his body by which he makes music and the holy psalm itself, he swears to remember his home and the home of his faith.
Christians must similarly hold the Holy Land dear, for it is the homeland of Christ. It is there that God saw fit to touch the earth, to walk upon it with humanity.
The Holy Land needs Christians as we need it. In the last century as in much of the last millennium, the home of Jesus Christ has been degraded by conflict, by violence, all sickeningly done in the name of the same God.
Nowhere is the truth of forgiveness and compassion more desperately needed. Nowhere is the work of Christians, aspiring to live as Christ did, in self-sacrificing charity, more needed.
Where Christians walk the face of the earth, peace ought to follow. The Holy Land needs Christians, embracing suffering and proclaiming the forgiveness as Jesus did in that place.
Canon Donald Fraser writes about the vacuum of forgiveness in Israel and Palestine, called by the Patriarch a “chronic evil.” In all, it is Christ who fights evil and His living body in Christians who bear Him to the world.
How, then, can Christians who were not born in the Holy Land bear their King to his homeland? How can we, on the outside, unite with the members of His Body who live, in dwindling numbers, in such stress? We must live with them daily in solidarity.
Christians achieve solidarity with their brothers and sisters as they feel united to them. They are already united in reality, but their solidarity grows as they comprehend that unity.
So, naturally, awareness and education about the lives of Christians in the Holy Land are crucial. Far-away eyes must be drawn to see the land of Jesus and all his people who suffer there.
Books, films, and presentations can spark this attention. But nothing beats the face-to-face. Christian pilgrimage in the Holy Land is more than pious tourism. Pilgrims must worship in awe at holy sites, but must also embrace and encounter the Body of Christ in their fellow Christians living in the midst of great struggle.
Just as a relationship with the person of Christ in Scriptures and sacraments lives at the heart of the interior life, so must personal connections bind members of His mystical body. This initial connection sparks solidarity, and it must be kindled with prayer, mindfulness, expression, and action. Prayer and remembrance of Christians in the Holy Land unites Christians with Christ and one another. Praying for those in the Holy Land, for peace there and for the spread of the Gospel there, calls the heart of Christ to compassion and the hearts of Christians to awareness.
True, Christians outside the Holy Land must support those within through public action and material support, but prayer should be the truest voice of their cry, to God and one another.
Political statements or financial support make a difference, but how could that compare to an appeal to the heart of God? St. Peter reminds the disciples, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” In this and all things, we go to Him, and He sends us.
Beth Mueller is a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a member of St. Paul's University Catholic Center.