Religion may often be thought of as a source of conflict, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary in one of the oldest centers of Christian pilgrimage. This Christmas season Pope Benedict XVI has emphasized how Christians are called by faith to seek peace after 2012 witnessed terrible conflict and new challenges in the Middle East. The Holy Father believes faith can foster a true peace, including in the Holy Land amidst Israeli-Palestinian Conflict proclaiming in his Christmas address,
“May peace spring up in the Land where the Redeemer was born, and may He grant Israelis and Palestinians courage to end long years of conflict and division, and to embark resolutely on the path of negotiation.”
A return to negotiations is needed, but a culture that will support lasting peace is the necessary forerunner for any political solution in the Holy Land. When Pope Benedict reiterated “deep concern” for peace in the Holy Land in his annual 'state of the world' address last week, he hoped Israelis and Palestinians will “commit themselves to peaceful coexistence” with renewed efforts this year. The Pope also recognized that peace must be “nourished and protected by charity.” In doing so he praised the work of social assistance to the needy and educational institutions of the Church. These organizations that touch so many lives daily in the Holy Land are often leading the way in building peace. Catholic efforts are strong in providing needed services like healthcare and organizing housing for displaced families. Where the Church is strongest has traditionally been in providing education though some of the best schools. Those of all backgrounds are welcomed, and in fact many of the students served the Catholic schools in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Occupied Territories are often Muslims. Like the example of Mother Teresa, the Church serves all and contributes to constructing the civil society needed for a sustainable peace.
All of this is wonderful, but this is increasingly difficult with dwindling numbers among many concerns. Christians of all denominations now total only about two percent of the total population of the Holy Land. Worse, many Christians are concentrated around Bethlehem which has been severely impacted by the Israeli Occupation, especially in recent years after the construction of the Separation Wall. All of this relates to Holy Land pilgrimage, which has a special connection to the local Church in many ways. For example 60 percent of the city of Bethlehem is directly dependent on income from the religious tourism often associated with pilgrimage. While there are definite economic benefits from pilgrimage as a source of investment, there is a deeper spiritual component.
From the great Anastasis dome over the tomb of Christ to the quiet shores of the Sea of Galilee there is great beauty in the Holy Land, but its true magnificence is in the “living stones” of the actual Church. A socially engaged or “living stones” pilgrimage promotes of the principle of solidarity, and goes farther than visiting the stones of the churches to engage the Church. Bishops from Europe and North America who are currently on pilgrimage in the Holy Land have placed a special importance on solidarity with the suffering and vulnerable of the region. During their pilgrimage the bishops have already met with refugees and visited institutions of education. Such solidarity is important now more than ever to stop the Christian Exodus of the faithful fleeing the Holy Land.
Pilgrimage is witnessing a worldwide resurgence, the largest since the Middle Ages, and the Holy Land is no exception. Since Pope John Paul the Great made pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2000, Catholic pilgrimage has grown by over 26 percent. Christian pilgrimage in general has grown significantly, but Catholics are easily the largest denomination present and the most diverse with the faithful now represented from all corners of the earth. As a globalized expression providing an outlet for multicultural interaction, pilgrimage is a representation of human unity that transcends divides and prejudices, something needed in the Holy Land torn by division and violence. As a pilgrim priest explained in his homily when I was sitting in the Church of the Nativity, “We are all of different races, and backgrounds… but that doesn’t matter because we are all one family in Christ.” The Church throughout the world thus has a special opportunity to support the Holy Land Christians through prayer and solidarity in pilgrimage while simultaneously growing closer to God.
The pilgrimages of Pope Benedict XVI to both the Holy Land in 2009 and to Lebanon last year show his commitment to solidarity with the Christian Remnant in the Middle East. Pilgrimage is a bridge for peace in many ways, especially in building real solidarity with the suffering and vulnerable. The journey of prayer undertaken in pilgrimage showcases the hope and symbolism of life, all the while building peace within the pilgrim. These bridges that pilgrimage is helping to build will continue to foster the relationships and action needed to build the institutions necessary for peace in the Holy Land.