Reflection: Traveling to the Holy Land

HNP Communications Features

As Pope Francis prepares for his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in May, Robert Lentz, OFM, reflects on a recent peace trip he took to Israel and Palestine with Jacek Orzechowski, OFMFrancis Soucy, OFM, and members of the St. Camillus Church community.

It was a Sunday morning and we had been standing in line for 15 minutes, painfully inching our way toward the marble slab that covers the stone on which the dead body of Jesus once laid. The great bell of the basilica began to toll, joined by smaller bells in a joyful peal. The Greek patriarch of Jerusalem was leaving the Church of the Holy Sepulcher after the Divine Liturgy, surrounded by his people.

“I’ve got to go,” I told my fellow pilgrims. “There’s too much more to see.” I raced out of the church, into the sunlight of the plaza, breathing a sigh of relief. Smiling faces of Palestinian Christians were everywhere, as the bells echoed off the stones of the narrow streets.

This, in a nutshell, was my experience of the Holy Land: faces, eyes and faces. The faces I will remember the rest of my life. The faces are burned into my soul. The ancient stones of the historic buildings were interesting. The stony land taught me much about Jesus and helped bring his words to life for me. All these stones were deadstones, however. The Palestinians were living stones, like those the first letter of Peter describes: “Build yourselves like living stones into a spiritual house . . .”

I cannot imagine the Holy Land without these living stones. It would become a religious theme park, a Christian Disneyland, with empty, pious tableaus. For 2000 years, Christians have lived in Palestine, since the time of the apostles. What the Romans, the Persians, the Muslims, and even the crusaders were unable to do, the state of Israel is finally accomplishing. Every year, thousands of native Christians give up the struggle to stay in their homes and immigrate to countries where they can live peacefully. The day may come when their ancient churches will be empty except for pilgrim tourists, and a few foreign clergy caretakers.

My experience during our pilgrimage was that most Israelis live in an artificial world that shields them from the harsh realities their world creates. Large red signs forbid them to enter Palestinian areas and Palestinians without travel documents cannot enter Jewish areas. The Israeli government plays on the fears of their people. Walls and security check points isolate Palestinians from Jews. Jews cannot see the faces that inspired me. Palestinians see only hostile Jewish faces patrolling their streets or interrogating them at checkpoints. Without faces, it is easy to hate.

We Franciscans like to be liked. We are the jolly, compassionate religious who show a more human face of the Roman Church. We pride ourselves on centuries of service in the Holy Land. We see ourselves as its “custodians.” The question I ask myself now is exactly what we should be protecting in Israel. Are we custodians of a pious theme park or are we responsible for churches of living stones, whether Orthodox or our own? We who live in the United States are responsible for the support our government gives the state of Israel. As we traveled, I could not help but realize that our tax dollars have built the cement walls in the West Bank, and they help pay the salaries of the soldiers who humiliate Palestinians and drive them from their homes. When we are silent and do not speak up, de we deserve the affection people lavish upon us?

More than anything else, each of us can do something to ensure that Palestinians faces are seen. If confronting Washington seems too daunting, we can do what we do so well: talk. We can help tell Palestinian stories that Israeli propaganda wants to hide. We can invite visiting Palestinian speakers to our churches and communities so they can tell us their stories. Seeing human faces is the only way the walls of fear and hatred will fall in Israel. We must do all we can to show Palestinian faces once again to Israelis and to the rest of the world as well.

— Br. Robert is a master iconographer who is currently stationed at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Md.