Jewish, Catholic Pilgrims Find Common Ground in Holy Land

Tobias Harkleroad Around the Province

Dennis Tamburello celebrates Mass at the altar on Calvary in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Photo courtesy of Tobias Harkleroad)

To strengthen the Catholic-Franciscan tradition of seeking opportunities for dialogue and collaboration with those from other faiths, Dennis Tamburello, OFM, and the principal of an elementary school affiliated with a Holy Name Province parish participated last month in a Bearing Witness pilgrimage. This article describes the significance of the experience. 

In 1217, the Franciscans arrived in the Holy Land. After earlier attempts to make a pilgrimage, Francis himself landed at the Crusader city of Acre just two years after he passed through the war-torn Holy Land on his way to seek peace at the court of Sultan al-Kamil in Egypt. It is not known what Francis said to the Sultan, but two things are certain – for 800 years, it has been part of the Franciscan tradition to care deeply about the Holy Land and to seek dialogue with those of other faiths in the hopes of bringing peace to our broken world.

Only some 52 years ago, Blessed Pope Paul VI issued the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions” as part of the Second Vatican Council. Like many Vatican II documents, this declaration – called “Nostra Aetate” – has been hailed as revolutionary for the Catholic Church and for the direction of interreligious dialogue around the world. Within the last five decades, we heard St. John Paul II pray with the chief rabbi of Rome’s Grand Synagogue and refer to the children of Israel as the “elder brothers” of Christians. We saw Pope Benedict XVI twice visit mosques and even remove his shoes before silently praying with an imam in the famed Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Pope Francis was the latest of modern popes to not only visit the Holy Land, but to pray specifically at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, which is the last remnant of the biblical temple for Jews.

Bearing Witness to Truth
Inspired by “Nostra Aetate” and especially by Pope John Paul’s outreach to the Jewish people during his pontificate, there have been many unique efforts made in recent decades to specifically bridge the divide between these sibling faiths. In the United States, one effort was started in Washington, D.C., with Catholic and Jewish partners creating a process where Catholic school teachers could learn about the realities of the often difficult relationship between Christians and Jews over the last two millennia, as well as study with hope the message of “Nostra Aetate” and the practical steps of healing that have occurred since St. John XXIII struck the prayer for the “perfidious Jews” from the Good Friday liturgy.

The Anti-Defamation League, the preeminent Jewish organization devoted to fighting bias and hate, worked in concert with the archbishop of Washington, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the National Catholic Educational Association, along with many devoted rabbis, priests, professors, and people of good will to create a weeklong intensive experience for up to 40 Catholic educators to face history, study theology and scripture, listen to leaders of hope and survivors of hate, and ultimately to build relationships and carry those relationships back to Catholic communities around the United States.

The program is named “Bearing Witness” because it asks its more than 2,000 participants to have the courage to bear witness to the truth of wrongs of the past and to bear witness to the truth of the Church’s teaching about how our relationships with Jews and all other religions should be ordered. The most concise summary of what “Nostra Aetate” urges us to do as children of God and followers of Jesus is to seek “dialogue and collaboration in prudence and love” (“Nostra Aetate” § 2) with people of other religious traditions.

In 2005, the Anti-Defamation League had the idea to seek dialogue and collaboration among Christians, Jews and people of other faiths and backgrounds by creating Bearing Witness Advanced. This group regularly invests in taking Catholic educators to Israel for up to 10 days at a time to engage in learning, active dialogue and collaboration in the Holy Land where so many faiths come together and where that close proximity is often strained. The commitment of time and resources to Bearing Witness programs, especially the annual mission to Israel, is a testament to the vision laid out in “Nostra Aetate,” and it is especially impressive that it is not the Christians who have taken the lead in this effort. It is, in fact, the Jewish community that has embraced our offer of friendship – despite centuries of sometimes bloody persecution by Christians for political, economic, and even theological reasons – and which provides us with an opportunity to live our own teachings about interreligious dialogue.

A Franciscan Experience
As Franciscans, our roots call us to respond to “Nostra Aetate.” As long as our spiritual family has been responding to Christ’s request to “rebuild my house, which has fallen into disrepair,” interreligious dialogue, especially in the Holy Land and greater Middle East, has been a special part of our mission and ministry. Finding opportunities to respond to Blessed Pope Paul’s directive to “dialogue and collaborate in prudence and love” with those of other faiths, especially in the Holy Land, is a special charism for us who follow the Poverello. This is perhaps why, beginning with Pope John Paul II, our beloved Assisi has been the repeated stage for ecumenical and interreligious prayers for peace.

It is with this Franciscan spirit that I recently had the opportunity to participate in the Bearing Witness Advanced pilgrimage with more than 20 other people from two communities: Catholic school educators and leaders from the Anti-Defamation League including HNP friar Dennis Tamburello, OFM, who served as chaplain. People of good will who serve in the Catholic and Jewish traditions went to experience Israel together.

Fr. Dennis sums up the July 4 to 14 pilgrimage as “a blessing on many levels. Not only did we learn about Israel’s geopolitical and social situation in great detail and from many different perspectives, it was a profound spiritual experience for all of us. One spiritual highlight was the Mass we celebrated in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, literally a few feet away from where Jesus was crucified.”

Our Jewish partners were with us as we celebrated Sunday Mass on Calvary, as well as when we broke bread on the Mount of Beatitudes and meditated on Christ’s words: “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

At the same time, we Catholics prayed among the Jewish men and women at the Western Wall as the Sabbath came in, and we shared the Shabbat meal and prayers with a Jewish family in Jerusalem. But our pilgrimage was not just about our interreligious dialogue with Jews – to understand Israel, our Jewish partners took us to a mosque to hear a young North American-educated Arab woman speak to us about why she chooses to live in such a challenging place. She introduced us to the Imam, who spoke as honestly as the other people we had spoken to – Israeli and Palestinian journalists, government officials and social activists, and secular and religious Jews alike.

A group of pilgrims at a mosque in the Arab-Israeli city of Taibeh near Tel Aviv. (Photo courtesy of Tobias Harkleroad)

An Opportunity for Collaboration
Truly, Bearing Witness Advanced is a gift from our elder brothers in our goal as Catholics to live the teaching of “Nostra Aetate,” which is nothing more than a restatement of Christ’s Gospel or St. Francis’ example par excellence. Dennis described it best by saying, “On several occasions, we engaged in interreligious dialogue according to the principles enunciated in “Nostra Aetate.” It was inspiring to learn that in the midst of so much tension in this land, there are many people – from all three of the major religions – who are trying to build bridges of understanding, cooperation, and compassion.”

This is a humbling reminder to us as Franciscans that our own spiritual tradition, as well as Catholic teaching renewed in Vatican II, always urges us to look for and accept opportunities to “dialogue and collaborate with prudence and love” whenever and wherever we can if we are truly going to be peacemakers in our troubled world who really hunger and thirst for righteousness as the example we see from elder brothers in the Anti-Defamation League, who made this journey possible.

— Tobias Harkleroad, a native of Pennsylvania, is in formation as a Secular Franciscan and has a long relationship with Holy Name Province as well as the Capuchins. He is the founding principal of Saint Francis International School in Silver Spring, Md., and he and his children have been members of the adjacent St. Camillus Parish for many years. Additional images and a video of the 10-day mission trip that Harkleroad and Dennis took to Israel appears on Saint Francis International School’s Facebook page.

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