Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land - 08/03/2000 info:
The Ecumenical Movement
in the Holy Land

To speak of ecumenism between the Christian communities of the Holy Land is to speak about a reality which is both rich and full of potential, but also scarred by some serious tensions. The Holy Land as witness to the story of Salvation, from the Law and the Prophets to the coming of Jesus Christ and the beginnings of the Church, is naturally a focal point for Christians everywhere. A visitor to the Holy Land finds an almost bewildering variety of Eastern and Western Christian faith communities, some which have an ancient presence and others which have arrived in recent times. Pilgrims are often enriched by these ancient Churches, and local Christians are in turn encouraged by the multitudes of believers drawn from around the world to the origins of their faith. To understand the movement for Christian Unity in the Holy Land one must study the context and see the Holy Land for what it is: a meeting ground (and occasionally a battle ground!) between both indigenous and foreign ecclesial communities who desire to be in the Holy Land because of its connection to their faith. Contacts between these ecclesial communities take place in a wide variety of situations.

The first reality to consider is the Palestinian Christian laity — the Mother Church. Most of these do not allow their allegiance to one ecclesial community to be a cause of division among themselves, principally because they are a small minority living in the midst of an overwhelming non-Christian majority. They have lived together, worked together, intermarried and shared the same hardships for centuries. As a result they are quite tolerant of each other.

Another reality to consider is the official relationship between the leaders of the ancient churches, one which at present is cordial, though sometimes marred by the memories of many historical struggles. For example, tensions caused by the sharing of various Christian holy places such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where six communities, namely the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic (represented by the Franciscans), Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox are present, still exist in varying degrees. The often difficult situation in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is built upon the site where the Death and the Resurrection of Christ took place, is an irony which serves to teach us how far we Christians still have to go on the path to full unity.

Fortunately, in recent years the level of cooperation between the Churches at an official level has steadily increased. This cooperation is seen in the number of joint statements concerning common problems and by reciprocal goodwill during the Jubilee celebrations, indications that things are slowly improving between these churches. For instance, all the Churches participated in an inauguration ceremony of the Great Jubilee on December 4th, 1999. This act of Church unity was very well received by the local Christian population. Equally vital was the solidarity shown between all ecclesiastical leaders during the dispute concerning the building of the mosque next to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The conscious need for unity in the face of various domestic challenges is growing among the Churches of the Holy Land. One of the most pressing issues is the dwindling Christian population in the Land where Christianity was born. The communities must see this as a common problem which can be alleviated by Church unity.

Another example of ecumenism is study centers present in the Holy Land that dedicate a part of their curriculum to an understanding and appreciation of the other Churches. Examples include the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, founded by Pope Paul IV, Ecce Homo run by the Sisters of Sion and the Caspari Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies, whose program includes lectures of an Ecumenical nature and visits by students of Evangelical Protestant background to representatives of the Orthodox and Catholic churches. In these and other programs, students from around the world and from different Christian traditions can have deeper contact with the ancient Churches of the Holy Land.

Also in Jerusalem are the frequent opportunities for attending seminars, often ecumenical in nature, on various topics related to Christianity. A recent example of this was a seminar on "God the Father" sponsored by Catholics but held in the Armenian Seminary. Speakers included both Latin and Greek Catholics and Armenians. Another lecture was held recently at the Swedish Christian Study Center in Jerusalem entitled, "The Syrian ancient Churches and Communities today in Tur Abdin (Turkey)". In this way, Jerusalem offers a wide range of opportunities to those interested in learning more about other Christian communities.

Another example of ecumenical endeavor are aid organizations, such as Caritas and the Pontifical Mission for Palestine which are ecumenical in their outreach. In addition, schools in the Holy Land, such as the ones run by Franciscans, promote ecumenism, in that students from different communities are able to have contact with each other.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity held in Jerusalem each year in late January is well attended by a wide range of Christians, both local and foreign, lay and clerical. During the designated week, this prayer is hosted by a different community each night from a wide range of traditions. This year, for instance, the prayer was hosted by the Anglicans, Armenians, Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Lutherans and Ethiopians. The wide participation in this celebrations by the clergy of the different churches is very encouraging.

In closing, the Holy Land with its multitude of ecclesial communities presents an excellent opportunity for ecumenical dialogue. It is our prayer that the pilgrimage of His Holiness John Paul II to the Holy Land, which will include his participation in an ecumenical gathering of the Christian communities, further the movement for Christian unity.

Athanasius Macora ofm

Created / Updated Wednesday, March 08, 2000 at 17:53:55