On this day in 2003, October 4, I met Issa, Tamer, Tamara, Ranim and Mary at their Latin Patriarchate School in Beit Jala, West Bank, Palestine. It was a Saturday morning. It was a blessed event for me!
Tomorrow, Wednesday, September 2, the doors of St. Andrew the Apostle Church, Milford, Ohio, will open wide to anyone who would like to pray silently before the Blessed Sacrament for our family in Beit Jala (Bethlehem), West Bank, Palestine.
Exposition will begin at 10:00 a.m. and continue until 7:00 p.m. We invite you to join us in prayer at a time (and in a place) of your convenience. The closing ceremony will be around 6:30 p.m. with a rosary, prayers to Our Lady of Palestine, and the hymn, “Jerusalem My Destiny.”
(The photo above pictures HOPE teacher/pilgrims at Mass in the Cremisan Valley of Beit Jala.)
Postcards sometimes come in the mail with a message from our friends, “Wish you were here.”
I am hoping my friends in the town of Beit Jala, in the area of Bethlehem, in the West Bank of Palestine, will see this message, sent by me to them, “Wish I were there.”
I wish I were there.
I wish I were there with you in Cremisan Valley.
I wish I were there with you to prayerfully protest the taking of your land.
I wish I were there with you, as the Israeli government under the protection of the Israeli Defense Forces starts again to uproot your olive trees, to clear the way for the separation wall that they prepare to build on your land.
I wish I were there to genuflect with you and your priests before the altar, decorated with new olive trees in front of it and Israeli soldiers behind it; before the altar, on which rests that blue ceramic chalice that was the gift of our parish and our teachers to you, when we celebrated Mass with you in that same valley.
I wish I were there to stand beside your Catholic parish priest as he stands in front of – and stands up to – the Israeli soldiers.
I wish I were there.
(Unfamiliar with the news story of August 18, 2015: see Israel resumes work on controversial separation wall in Cremisan valley.)
Sitting in my den at 8:21 a.m. on what my mother called “Christmas Eve day,” my mind and my heart, my thoughts and my prayers wander to the Middle East, and more specifically to Palestine, and more specifically to Bethlehem, and more specifically to Beit Jala, adjacent to Bethlehem.
It is Beit Jala that warms my Christian heart and sustains, what others have called, my Palestinian soul. I have fallen hopelessly in love with Beit Jala with a love full of hope which longs for peace for my friends, no, my family, in Beit Jala.
On Facebook I found a post by my (our) friend Waseim. From Arabic his name translates as “Handsome,” which has given the two of us many smiles since I first teased him, “Something certainly gets lost in translation!” I asked him to post it on YouTube, so that I could copy it and embed it here. Within hours of his waking in Beit Jala on Christmas Eve, he honored me and my request, as he always does, and so it appears below.
The countdown is obvious to our ears, however different the sound of the numbers. The feel of Jingle Bells is the same, no matter the language. And we join in singing the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” like we (and they) will sing those words in our hometown churches, here in the little town of Milford and there in the little town of Bethlehem.
Fireworks, of different kinds, are a common occurrence in the area surrounding Beit Jala, some set off in celebration and some set off in conflict. On this occasion, however, as during the celebrations of weddings, graduations and baptisms, the fireworks are explosively joyous. At the end of the video the noise of the fireworks overtakes the singing of “Glory to God in the highest.” We all live in hope that one day soon the song of the angels will overcome all military firing, and Beit Jala and Palestine and all the region will live in peace with justice with all her neighbors who deserve and long for the same freedoms and rights.
May Beit Jala know the peace the angels sang about during that mid-night on which Christ was born.
Twice Waseim turned the camera toward his parish church, Annunciation Catholic Church in Beit Jala, where I first met “my five (grand) children” – Issa, Mary, Ranim, Tamara and Tamer – back in 2003, and where Waseim worships every Sunday with Father Faysal, the parish priest, with the families of Beit Jala, with Suhail, the principal, with the teachers and students of the Latin Patriarchate School, and with the seminarians of the attached Latin Patriarchate Seminary. To all of them my heart will turn, as I turn my prayers to God at Midnight Mass for them.
Saturday evening after a Thai dinner I was walking (and gawking) around my house with Abouna Sleman. In what used to be the room where my mother slept when she visited, I showed him the chair in which mom loved to sit when she prayed her morning prayers and her rosary. It is next to the window which looks out on the Mary grotto behind the rectory. I enjoyed going through my mom’s funeral program with him, showing him the pictures of the family and of some of the people and the things that were important to her. He smiled and reacted most when I turned around the Christmas ornament of my house that mom had painted for me, “Ahhh. Nice.” It was the grotto of Mary outside the window by which he was standing. On Sunday morning Abouna concelebrated the 11:00 a.m. Mass which included the baptism of baby Ryan Joseph. During the Eucharistic Prayer, at the consecration I stepped aside, so that Abouna could chant the words of Jesus in Arabic, as he lifted the bread and the chalice from the altar. Arabic is the language presently spoken that is closest to Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke. We heard the words of consecration chanted in the tone and inflection close to what the apostles heard from the lips and heart of Jesus at the Last Supper. You can hear the at minute 47:00 at this link: Words of Jesus in Arabic.
This morning when Abouna was speaking to his mother on the phone before Mass, I wanted him to thank his mother for giving him to us. Her response? “I did not give him to you. I gave him to God … (pause) … God can give him to anyone He wants.”
After speaking with his mother Abouna was arguing on the phone with someone. When he hung up, I asked him what that was all about. It was his 8 year old sister, asking him over and over what he was going to bring back for her from America for Christmas. At the end of Mass, I asked the people to give him some ideas as to what he should take home to her. He was told about paints and markers and art books. He heard about teddy bears and dolls.
There was a lunch later in the church hall that was ready for his visit. The event was about peace, love and hope. And sure enough, in midafternoon, when we got back to the rectory from the luncheon, there was a bag hanging on the doorknob of breezeway door. One little girl, 8 year old Izzy, didn’t just give him an idea; she conned her dad to take her to buy something.
When I got back in the house I went directly to google “Daesh” and “Erbil and oil” to learn a little more than I had known before.
And then I turned on a football game and fell asleep.
This week my friend, and friend of HOPE (Holy Land Outreach for Peace Education), is with me (and us) in Milford.
In the days ahead there will be photos of his visit. As he stirs upstairs in my rectory, after his first ever sleep in America, a very long sleep indeed, I post a few photos from when we met.
Back in June 2012 then-deacon Sleman (Solomon) helped our group of teachers and pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati celebrate Mass in the olive grove of Cremisan valley on the edge of Beit Jala. That is when we first met him.
You see in the photo above that I am using a ceramic chalice. This chalice was signed on the bottom by all the teachers and pilgrims who attended that Mass.
That same evening I presented that chalice to Deacon Sleman.
To this day that chalice is used every Friday afternoon, when the parish priests of Beit Jala celebrate Mass at that place in the Cremisan valley.
In June 2013 I went to the Holy Land, this time by myself with no pilgrims or teachers in my care, thanks be to God. The purpose of this trip was to attend the ordination of Sleman in his home parish of Fuheis, Jordan. During the ordination ceremony, after the bishop, in his case the patriarch, lays hands on the deacon being ordained a priest, all the priests who are present process to the man and lay hands on him as well.
A little later in the ceremony all the priests return to the newly ordained priest to offer him a sign of Christ’s peace. As I watched the Latin patriarchate priests approach him, I saw that they were kissing his newly ordained hands. I found it to be a lovely custom, and did the same after I said, “Peace, Abouna (Father)”
After the ceremony the newly ordained does not walk to the dinner-reception. He is carried, as seen in this video. Notice the fire works going off.
The next day he returned to his home parish, in which he was ordained the day before, to preside at his First Mass of Thanksgiving. What a surprise for me to see him riding into the courtyard of the parish grounds on a white horse! He told me just yesterday that it was a surprise for him, too, and that he had never been a horse before that ride.
This is probably my favorite photo of the day of his first Mass.
On our HOPE (Holy Land Outreach Promoting Education) pilgrimage, our photographer-pilgrim would call out a command, to which we would all dutifully respond, “Okay, get together for a group picture.” After a while it was shortened to, “Group picture!”
on Mount Nebo at the Memorial to Moses
in Beit Jala with partner-teachers and their parish priest
in the Kidron Valley after praying the rosary
meeting Bishop Shomali at the Latin Patriarchate
at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre after praying the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa
at our final and farewell dinner in Jerusalem
Until my somewhat reluctant pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1994, I had absolutely no interest or desire to go the Holy Land. Now I cannot seem to get enough. Tomorrow I begin my 15th pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the second time accompanying HOPE teacher-pilgrims.
Three teachers from my St. Andrew-St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School are going on this pilgrimage, which totally delights me. To know that they are partnering with three teachers from my beloved Latin Patriarchate School Beit Jala gives me HOPE that our partnering with the Catholic parish and school in Beit Jala will continue, even when I retire from being the pastor of St. Andrew next year.
At 9:15 a.m. on Wednesday, May 28, there was a school Mass for the 6th, 7th and 8th graders, the students that Mrs. Bohlen, Miss Petrozzi and Mrs. Taylor teach. At that Mass I asked the students to send their teachers off with a blessing and a prayer, reminding them that their teachers are taking their prayer petitions with them to the Holy Land. That Mass was offered for the repose of the soul of Jabra Na’eem Sema’an, a twelfth grade student at the Beit Jala school. Jabra died just a few months before his graduation, after having made the best of his learning and his life, although he was afflicted with muscular-dystrophy since an early age, and spent his school days in a wheel chair. There will be an empty chair at his graduation. We live streamed the Mass, so that George Abu Dayyeh, his grandfather and also a teacher at the school, could hear one of our students try to pronounce Jabra’s name in the general intercessions.
One site I hope to visit is the archeological remains of the town of Magdala on the Sea of Galilee, the birthplace of Mary “of Magdala,” that is, Mary Magdalene.
One hope I take is that I can feel myself being mothered by Isabelle, my earthly and deceased mother, and by Mary, the Blessed Mother.
I look forwarded to handing to Father Ibrahim Shomali, the pastor of the Catholic Church of the Annunciation in Beit Jala, the gift that my parishioners are giving to him for his school children. I look forward to celebrating Mass at the empty tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem, encouraging my pilgrims to “name your dead – and – listen to hear your own name spoken by Jesus, as Mary of Magdala heard Jesus call her by name on the morning of his resurrection.” I look forward to leaving something behind in the tomb of Lazarus, as I imagine hearing the voice of Jesus calling me by name and calling me out of that thing that holds me back and has had me tied up as if in burial cloths, hoping that Jesus resuscitates me into a different way of living, in the same way that he resuscitated Lazarus.
Here at “With Open Doors” I will post photos and words, as I make pilgrimage with our teacher-pilgrims.
Pope Francis receives message from Beit Jala Christians
VATICAN – In an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican, Father Ibrahim Shomali, parish priest of Beit Jala, delivered a message from the people of the city to the Holy Father relating the current suffering of Christian families in the town of Beit Jala.
Fr. Shomali emphasized to the Holy Father the extent of the Israeli oppression regarding the people of Beit Jala, through its expropriation of private lands to open roads and build settlements, including the Wall of Separation, and, more recently, the seizure of lands belonging to the Convent of Cremisan.
Fr. Shomali’s message focused on the fact that the “Palestinian people” strongly adhere to its national homeland and its fight to stay on it. However, the conservation of lands requires concrete measures to thwart any takeover attempt, and to enable the Palestinian people to live with dignity in a free State.
It is worth recalling here that an Israeli Court in Tel Aviv last April adopted a decision reaffirming the course of the Separation Wall, around Cremisan, especially between the Convents of the Salesian Fathers and the Salesian Sisters, as well as the annexation of private properties belonging to 58 Palestinian families of Beit Jala to the settlement of Gilo, south of Jerusalem.
The Heads of the Catholics Churches in the Holy Land, at the time, called for the realignment of the course of the Wall, in accordance with internaitonal law, pointing out to the Israeli decision-makers that the seizure of lands in no way serves the cause of peace, nor does it bolster the position of the moderates who, in this objective, opt for non-violence.