I have been in the Holy Land since Saturday and send you all greetings. Though this is not my first visit here I am aware of certain special blessings on this trip.
Mass on Calvary– Today I had the privilege of celebrating Mass at the top of Mount Calvary (Golgotha). As many of you know, the site of the crucifixion and burial of the Lord is well attested to archaeologically and historically. A large Church was built over the site at first in the Byzantine period (the period just after the Edict of Constantine). Parts of the current Church date back to the 7thCentury. At one end of the Church is a tall hill, covered over by the Church structure but reachable by steep stairs. At the top of the platform high up in the church the rock face of Calvary is exposed and there is a hole (under the Orthodox Altar) which pilgrims can reach through to touch the spot where the cross stood. Just six feet to the right of that is the Roman Catholic Altar. I was privileged today to celebrate Mass at that very altar with my parish group. You can see it in the photo to the right. In the photo the altar with the red cloth is the Orthodox altar directly over the site of the Crucifixion. The Roman Catholic Altar is to the right with a white lace altar cloth. In a previous pilgrimage we used a chapel in an annex of the church far away from Calvary. But today I got to celebrate right on Golgotha. It is one of the highlights of my whole life.
The Holy Land is Catholic – Another strong impression of my visit is that to visit the Holy Land is “enter” the Catholic Church, at least physically. At almost every site, the place is dominated by a Catholic Church: At Capernaum, the place where the loaves and fishes were multiplied, Cana, Nazareth, the Mount of the Beatitudes, Mt Tabor, in all these places there is only one Church building, it is a Catholic Church Building. In Jerusalem too, most all of the sites have a Catholic Church: The Mount of Olives, Dominus Flevit, the Garden of Gethsemene, the upper room and on Mount Sion (DormitionChurch and site of the Last Supper), the house of Caiaphas, the palce of the trial before Pontius Pilate etc. I wonder what Protestant Christians experience as they visit site after site and see, once again, a Catholic Church, (Blessed Sacrament and all) either at the site or literally on top of it? And in the few sites where the church is not Catholic (Bethlehem and Holy Sepulchre) it is the Orthodox who oversee it and in both cases there is a strong Roman Catholic presence as well. I do not intend to convey a triumphalist attitude but only to say I feel very proud and happy to be a Catholic here in the Holy Land. Almost every site is fundamentally a Catholic site.
Grateful for the Franciscans– Lastly I want to say that we ought to be very grateful to the Franciscans of the Holy Land for the wonderful care they give these holy sites. They have surely been most kind to our group in allowing us to say Mass as well. At each site they are hospitable to everyone and keep the Churches clean and the holy sites in good repair. They have also been respectful of archeology and been most helpful to the process of verifying the authenticity of the sites. I contrast the wonderful care of the Franciscans with the less than impressive condition of the several places controlled by the Orthodox. I am sadly surprised at the poor conditions in those places and would expect more from our Orthodox brethren (more on this in a future post). Bottom line here is: We have much for which to be grateful to the Franciscans of the Holy Land. It is through their kindness that I have been able to celebrate Mass not only today but each day at many sites: Mt. Beatitude, Mount Sion and Holy Sepulchre.
These are just a few thoughts as I send you greetings from the Holy Land.