CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 16 February 2019

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We are all born in Jerusalem

The late-Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini made Jerusalem his life’s place of the heart: I found in him a model and an inspiration in the unforgettable six months, which I wish had been never-ending, that I spent in the Holy City from February to August 2013.

And from Cardinal Martini I now borrow some thoughts to describe how I lived through that period.

Throughout history many people: pilgrims and soldiers, saints and sinners, have visited Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

Among them I remember with fondness Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Charles de Foucauld, Giuseppe Dossetti and Carlo Maria Martini. I believe that in the hearts of many people there is a desire, or nostalgia for this city and this land.

Living in the homeland of Jesus, of Mary and the apostles, has a special significance for all disciples of Jesus.

The Custos of the Holy Land, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, said that there is a history of salvation, but adds he has also discovered that there is a geography of salvation. Jerusalem is at the centre of both.

One day, Cardinal Martini, who was a biblical student at the time, tumbled into a deep well during an archaeological expedition. In that moment of extreme danger, he had a sudden thought: “How beautiful would be dying here, in the Holy Land!”

And when he had been rescued, he had another strong insight: “Everyone is born in Jerusalem,” a thought inspired by Psalm 86.

In an extremely important way the earthly Jerusalem is the homeland to Christians and anyone who believes in the Heavenly Jerusalem, in other words the homeland to all people of good will who desire peace.

When I went to the Western Wall, a place of prayer for Jews just below the Esplanade of the Temple where the Muslim holy places are located, just a few minutes from the Holy Sepulchre and other places sacred to Christians, I used to recite the beautiful verses of Psalm 122.

“I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ And now we have set foot within your gates, O Jerusalem! … Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May those who love you prosper! May peace be within your walls and security within your citadels!’ For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, ‘Peace be with you!’”

Jerusalem seems to have a special relationship with peace and with the world. It seems that there will be no peace in the world until there is peace in Jerusalem.

Florence’s revered mayor, Giorgio La Pira, had this belief and worked hard for peace in the Holy Land among different peoples and religions.

But even today religions fail in this task: Jerusalem is still the place where religious ideologies, often extreme, live side by side, not for the sake of dialogue and the construction of peace, but to oppose one another, each one busily affirming its own prerogatives and consolidating its own spaces.

Groups of Jews, Christians and Muslims continue struggling, making Jerusalem a city of conflict and hatred. Here the discord of the entire world seems to be concentrated.

Jerusalem is a tough town. It challenges you, but can, if it wishes, conquer you.

During our Nighttime Conversations in Jerusalem, to which I will return later, Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz told us that no one chooses to belong to Jerusalem, but that it is this city that chooses who to accept and who to reject.

One has to stay here a little while, challenging the sense of alienation, of loneliness and confusion to realise whether, in the end, this fascinating and difficult city will decide to accept or reject you.

Only then the city may allow you to be introduced, albeit only temporarily and almost furtively, to its millenary and extraordinary history.

In Jerusalem, God touches the world. And it cannot be understood without its vocation to be a a prefiguring, or an anticipation of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Cardinal Martini wrote: “Jerusalem is our future. Great and small things take a divine dynamic here. It is an image of faith and of all its difficulties; but also of hope. Here we continue feeling that working for peace is a painful process. But also that hope is stronger than failure.”

I took advantage of what the city offers to those who want to go back to the places where the bible was lived out and written. I took part in biblical courses and excursions organised by the Studium Biblicum.

The three days in the Negev Desert were highly suggestive. I participated in the solemn liturgical moments of Lent and the Easter Season and I visited the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre almost daily, until it became a place in which I felt familiar.

I liked to go there in the evening, when the crowds of pilgrims are gone and one can experience quiet and silence, both within and outside the evocative historic basilica.

Inspired by writers such as Etty Hillesum, Edith Stein and Ann Frank, I took part in the International Seminar for Educators on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, organised by the study centre at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum.

Stretching over 20 days and 140 hours of lessons, it was attended by 40 scholars from various nations promoting knowledge of the Holocaust and other genocides.

I immersed myself in one specific reality of the Jewish world. It was a complex and difficult experience. The content of the lessons was heartbreaking; the encounter with the survivors deeply emotional; images of extreme pain hard to endure; and many dramatic questions to faith in a caring God were raised.

In the Jewish and Christian theological worlds some ask: “Is it still possible to believe in God after Auschwitz?” My classmates, even well prepared educators, as well as myself, were often left breathless and emotionally exhausted.

For me—a Catholic priest—it was quite humiliating, though still salutary, to be exposed explicitly and without any reservation to the responsibility held by numerous Christian people and clergy for this tragedy.

Prejudices were largely shared by all Christians and clergy even took part in persecutions against the Jews over many centuries. 

Christianity, sadly enough, shares a grave responsibility for the emergence of the hatred that characterises anti-Semitism.

It was distressing to visit the places where the tragedy of the Palestinian people is consumed. The wall of division and annexation submits many Palestinians to a daily series of difficulties and humiliations.

Every Friday some wonderful sisters pray the rosary along the Bethlehem section of the wall. 

Volunteers participating in Operation Dove, in the village of At-Tuwani, in the semi-desert hills not far from Hebron, are committed to protecting on a daily basis Palestinian children and shepherds.

These volunteers are really admirable, as they accommodate themselves to a deeply essential lifestyle. It is in this remote village we met hope in action, generated by the practice of non-violence as a means of struggle.

With Elisa and Lena, two young women I met in Jerusalem, the first, an architect working for the Custody of the Holy Land, and the other a biblical student, we initiated the Nighttime Conversations in Jerusalem.

Dedicated to Cardinal Martini, this initiative allowed us to meet significant people from many walks of life, who opened their doors to a sharing that lead to a deeper understanding of the city.

The 10 meetings were well patronised and really interesting. For me, it was a great gift, the opportunity to create a beautiful network of relationships.

This initiative will continue and for me, it is a reason for great satisfaction, as seeds sown will grow and benefit others.

On the day I left Jerusalem, I celebrated the Eucharist early in the morning at the Holy Sepulchre. Some friends were with me.

Leaving Jerusalem after six unforgettable months was already quite poignant for me. A few hours before, I had received the news of the sudden death of Roberto, father of two children, one of my best friends. Our long friendship started 41 years ago on the soccer fields of the seminary in my hometown of Treviso.

The mysterious and the tragic of both death and life intertwine, and many other thoughts were crowding my mind that morning.

Not long before I had read about the emotion felt by Cardinal Martini when, for the first time, he celebrated Mass at the Holy Sepulchre. It was 4.00am on a summer’s day in 1959.

He reached the tiny chapel after passing through the deserted streets of the ancient city. 

In that moment, as if struck by a flash of enlightenment, he felt like he understood something of the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus.

It was like grasping the meaning of life and the aspirations of all religions and of the whole of humanity. 

It seemed to him that in that place all hope, certainty and trust are concentrated: as the life that never ends overflows and embraces the whole universe.

The resurrection is the affirmation of life over death; the beginning and ultimate meaning of everything. Meeting Jerusalem is like starting a new life, a new beginning; it is a grace, a gift from above.


Gianni Criveller