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John Feister continues his reports from the Middle East, today visiting the Old City of Jerusalem.

Special Features
Day 4: Jerusalem,
the Old City




The Franciscans have had a unique role in the Holy Land since the time of the Fourth Crusade in the 13th century. It was then that St. Francis embarked to Damietta, Egypt, at the mouth of the Nile River, to preach peace to the camps preparing for slaughter. After being ignored by the Europeans, who were gathering forces for an attack, he crossed the battle lines and was taken to see Sultan (Saladin) Malik al Kamil. The Sultan and St. Francis, both men of strong religious faith, spent some time (a day? a few days? a week? no one today knows) in dialogue. Both men gained respect for the deepest meaning of the others’ traditions.

The Crusade was a poor idea; the Europeans suffered a tremendous loss. Eventually Saladin granted to the Christians access to the sites in the Holy Land, and placed those sites in the care of the man of peace. Franciscans have cared for them ever since. There is a special organization of friars, a custos, or Custody, of the Holy Land. In includes care for sites sacred to Christians throughout the Holy Land.

(photo by John Feister)
Our fourth day of immersion into the world of the Middle East started with a visit to the Franciscans’ school in Jerusalem—Terra Sancta. The school, grades 1-12, is a beacon of peace in Old Jerusalem the city, but times are bleak in 2010. The Israeli government, to a high degree, essentially has citizens locked in to the Old City.

We visited with the school counselor and one of his star students who grew up to become a Franciscan and then principal of the school. These are Arab Christians caught in a struggle between Islam and Judaism. They explained to us that the main idea of the government is to evacuate Arab citizens from Jerusalem and populate it solely with Jewish people. As people in the city—closed in since 1948—give in to despair, those who can, leave for freedom in Europe or the Western Hemisphere (many in South America). Their property is occupied by the State, winning real estate in a war of attrition. Feelings run deep among these Arab Catholics; opinions are stated strongly. These people seek primarily a separate state for Palestine, an end to military occupation tactics, an openness of society that would allow them to travel freely, and, finally, to live in respect and human dignity.

“If you want to be friends with me, treat me as an equal,” the counselor told us. These people are hurting.

Terra Sancta School offers tuition at a vastly reduced rate. The student body is a mixture of Christians and Arabs, receiving a high-quality, respectful education. But there is no expansion of the school—permits are impossible to get. For the local residents, real estate is very expensive, so many sell out and move on. But, as Yousef, the headmaster, says, “There is more concern for the stones than for the people. We are between a rock and an anvil.”

Friar Simon, whose family is from Old Jerusalem, does not seem enthusiastic about anything changing soon. Some of those Arabs who are persisting in the Old City, whose families have lived there for generations, are served by the Franciscans.

Our visit was one of five events that we experienced on this fourth day. There will be time to write more later, from our visits with Church and community leaders. We’re seeing one thing with certainty: There are many dimensions to the suffering of today’s Palestinians.
 
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Anthony Grassi: Anthony’s father died when his son was only 10 years old, but the young lad inherited his father’s devotion to Our Lady of Loreto. As a schoolboy he frequented the local church of the Oratorian Fathers, joining the religious order when he was 17.
<p>Already a fine student, he soon gained a reputation in his religious community as a "walking dictionary" who quickly grasped Scripture and theology. For some time he was tormented by scruples, but they reportedly left him at the very hour he celebrated his first Mass. From that day, serenity penetrated his very being.
</p><p>In 1621, at age 29, Anthony was struck by lightning while praying in the church of the Holy House at Loreto. He was carried paralyzed from the church, expecting to die. When he recovered in a few days he realized that he had been cured of acute indigestion. His scorched clothes were donated to the Loreto church as an offering of thanks for his new gift of life.
</p><p>More important, Anthony now felt that his life belonged entirely to God. Each year thereafter he made a pilgrimage to Loreto to express his thanks.
</p><p>He also began hearing confessions, and came to be regarded as an outstanding confessor. Simple and direct, he listened carefully to penitents, said a few words and gave a penance and absolution, frequently drawing on his gift of reading consciences.
</p><p>In 1635 he was elected superior of the Fermo Oratory. He was so well regarded that he was reelected every three years until his death. He was a quiet person and a gentle superior who did not know how to be severe. At the same time he kept the Oratorian constitutions literally, encouraging the community to do likewise.
</p><p>He refused social or civic commitments and instead would go out day or night to visit the sick or dying or anyone else needing his services. As he grew older, he had a God-given awareness of the future, a gift which he frequently used to warn or to console.
</p><p>But age brought its challenges as well. He suffered the humility of having to give up his physical faculties one by one. First was his preaching, necessitated after he lost his teeth. Then he could no longer hear confessions. Finally, after a fall, he was confined to his room. The archbishop himself came each day to give him holy Communion. One of Anthony’s final acts was to reconcile two fiercely quarreling brothers.</p> American Catholic Blog God of love, as I come to the end of this Advent season, my heart is ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus. I join with Mary in saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Nothing is impossible with you, O God.


 
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