Challenged to Hope

Pope Benedict's visit to the Holy Land was a message of hope to the persecuted and dwindling Christians of the region
by Br Nicholas Sheehy, LC | Source:

Pope Benedict XVI went to the Holy Land last week as a pilgrim.

A pilgrim normally seeks to strengthen his own faith, but in this case, the Pontiff also sought to strengthen the faith of the local Church. In fact, so much attention was placed on relations with Muslims and Jews during the visit that one would be forgiven for thinking that Benedict was there especially to visit the Christian minority present in the region and show them his support.

Christians are fleeing the Middle East . In 1948, 20% of Jerusalem residents were Christians, compared to 2% today. Bethlehem was 80% Christian during centuries and is now only one-third Christian.

The Christians have compelling reasons to leave. The wretched economy hits them harder since they are the forgotten minority in a region scourged with racial conflict. The Holy Father mentioned his concern for the situation during the interview on the flight from Rome to . “We wish above all to encourage the Christians in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East to remain, to offer their contribution in their countries of origin: they are an important component of the life and culture of these regions.”

How does the Holy Father propose to do this?

He makes clear that the Church is not a “political power, but a spiritual force.” Pope Benedict is concerned with helping the peace process of and Palestine and wishes to contribute to Christian-Jewish-Muslim relations. For example, most Christian pilgrims visiting never stop by the Dome of the Rock, the most important Muslim holy site in Jerusalem . Pope Benedict went out of his way to do so, becoming the first Pontiff ever to visit the mosque.

But the trip was not just about Muslims and Jews. So it was important for this Universal Pastor to reserve some time for the Christians in Jerusalem . This was the purpose of the Mass in the Valley of Josaphat on Tuesday.

The homily was his message to the Christians who have remained in Jerusalem and in the region.

These are the men and women who know “the cost of that hope.” Shoby Makhoul, a Maronite Christian who lives in Bethlehem , leads a group called Works of Faith that has 400 families who make rosaries and other religious items out of olive wood. But every conflict places their livelihood at risk. Sometimes, tourism will suddenly drop by 95%, with drastic effects on their pocketbooks.

Pope Benedict speaks of St. Paul as an example of hope but witnesses the same hope in the audience before him. St. Paul knew the “price in suffering and persecution for the sake of the Gospel, yet he never wavered in his conviction that Christ’s resurrection was the beginning of a new creation. As he tells us: ‘When Christ, who is your life, is revealed, you too will be revealed with him in glory!’ ( Col 3:4).”

St. Paul , and in his turn, Pope Benedict, urge us to set our minds on the things that are above. This is not an easy task, especially when daily tasks and worries are so prominent.

The homily brings to mind the passage addressing hope in the midst of suffering in Spe Salvi. The Christian faith has shown us that God “desired to suffer for us and with us.” This could be well applied to the men and women of the Holy Land . In a special way they are able to accompany Christ, being in the land where he lived and preached. “Man is worth so much to God that He Himself became man in order to suffer with man in an utterly real way.”

Is there any doubt that Christians in the Holy Land are suffering? When the trials are small, “a kind visit, the healing of internal and external wounds, a favourable resolution of a crisis, and so on” are enough to encourage us and spur us on to continue in spite of difficulty. In the real moments of testing, “where I must make a definitive decision to place the truth before my own welfare, career and possessions, I need the certitude of that true, great hope.”

Pope Benedict provides the first consolation, while pointing to the second. He has encouraged, visited and spoken kindly with many. Yet he is always pointing to the ultimate solution, Christ, at the same time.

The Church is committed to helping Christians like Shoby Makhoul. Although there are only 77,000 Catholics, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem has 372 Catholic priests, 498 men religious and 1,144 women religious dedicated full-time to residents and pilgrims.

How many damaged families, discouraged youth, unemployed, elderly persons, and physically and mentally sick, need the message of hope, of the great Hope that is contained in the Gospel? The Holy Father’s message is challenging to the Christians of the Middle East . He asks them to persevere in a situation that is trying. They suffer economically and socially, for their faith and for their ethnicity.

Christians in the Middle East need hope to persevere in living in a difficult situation, because the Middle East needs them. Christians in the West need hope to courageously proclaim their faith in a secular and hostile society, because the West needs them.

Today, the entire world needs hope. Hope has a name: Jesus Christ.

Br Nicholas Sheehy, of the Legionaries of Christ, studies for the priesthood in Rome.



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