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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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Presentation of Mary: Mary’s presentation was celebrated in Jerusalem in the sixth century. A church was built there in honor of this mystery. The Eastern Church was more interested in the feast, but it does appear in the West in the 11th century. Although the feast at times disappeared from the calendar, in the 16th century it became a feast of the universal Church. 
<p>As with Mary’s birth, we read of Mary’s presentation in the temple only in apocryphal literature. In what is recognized as an unhistorical account, the <i>Protoevangelium of James</i> tells us that Anna and Joachim offered Mary to God in the Temple when she was three years old. This was to carry out a promise made to God when Anna was still childless. </p><p>Though it cannot be proven historically, Mary’s presentation has an important theological purpose. It continues the impact of the feasts of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) and of the birth of Mary (September 8). It emphasizes that the holiness conferred on Mary from the beginning of her life on earth continued through her early childhood and beyond.</p> American Catholic Blog Having a saint to pray to every day for special intentions draws us into a more intimate union with Jesus, who has blessed us with so many heavenly intercessors for all our needs. It is a great privilege to have someone in heaven who cares so much about our innermost desires and personal needs.


 
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