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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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Pedro de San José Betancur: Central America claimed its first saint with the canonization of Pedro de San José Betancur by Pope John Paul II in Guatemala City on July 30, 2002. Known as the "St. Francis of the Americas," Pedro de Betancur is the first saint to have worked and died in Guatemala. 
<p>Calling the new saint an “outstanding example” of Christian mercy, the Holy Father noted that St. Pedro practiced mercy “heroically with the lowliest and the most deprived.” Speaking to the estimated 500,000 Guatemalans in attendance, the Holy Father spoke of the social ills that plague the country today and of the need for change. </p><p>“Let us think of the children and young people who are homeless or deprived of an education; of abandoned women with their many needs; of the hordes of social outcasts who live in the cities; of the victims of organized crime, of prostitution or of drugs; of the sick who are neglected and the elderly who live in loneliness,” he said in his homily during the three-hour liturgy. </p><p>Pedro very much wanted to become a priest, but God had other plans for the young man born into a poor family on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Pedro was a shepherd until age 24, when he began to make his way to Guatemala, hoping to connect with a relative engaged in government service there. By the time he reached Havana, he was out of money. After working there to earn more, he got to Guatemala City the following year. When he arrived he was so destitute that he joined the bread line that the Franciscans had established. </p><p>Soon, Pedro enrolled in the local Jesuit college in hopes of studying for the priesthood. No matter how hard he tried, however, he could not master the material; he withdrew from school. In 1655 he joined the Secular Franciscan Order. Three years later he opened a hospital for the convalescent poor; a shelter for the homeless and a school for the poor soon followed. Not wanting to neglect the rich of Guatemala City, Pedro began walking through their part of town ringing a bell and inviting them to repent. </p><p>Other men came to share in Pedro's work. Out of this group came the Bethlehemite Congregation, which won papal approval after Pedro's death. A Bethlehemite sisters' community, similarly founded after Pedro's death, was inspired by his life of prayer and compassion. </p><p>He is sometimes credited with originating the Christmas Eve <i>posadas</i> procession in which people representing Mary and Joseph seek a night's lodging from their neighbors. The custom soon spread to Mexico and other Central American countries. </p><p>Pedro was canonized in 2002.</p> American Catholic Blog We sometimes try to do everything on our own, forgetting that the Lord wants to help us. Let's never be afraid to admit that we are weak and can't do things on our own. St. Paul gives us a great example: "On my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses" (2 Corinthians 12:5).





 
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