In Jerusalem, while lunching with Pope John Paul II, a silly thought entered Rateb Rabie’s mind. Dare he ask, “Hey, Pope, please pass the salt?”
He did not mean any disrespect, Rabie said.
But he can still hardly believe that he and his wife, Rocio, actually traveled with the world leader on his landmark visit to the Holy Land in late March.
“I’m used to going to Mass at St. Jude’s and coming home to make lunch,” Rocio Rabie said. Instead, the Layhill couple shared a meal with-the Pope –> not just once, but several times.
The Rabies were among only four lay people invited to join the group of 58 cardinals, bishops and other Catholic Church hierarchy who were part of the official welcoming party for the Pope during his historic Holy Land visit.
The couple was invited to participate in the group by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, a man named Michel Sabbah. Sabbah is the leader of the Latin Church in the Holy Land, which includes parts of modern Israel, Palestine and Jordan.
Rabie said that Sabbah, who is the first Palestinian patriarch for the region, invited him to be part of the entourage for two reasons— one, because Rabie had recently become a member of an elite fraternal church order called the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher, and two, because Rabie is co-founder and president of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation. Both groups work to improve the plight of Christianity and Arab Christians in the Holy Land. Rabie is a lay minister at the Shrine of St. Jude, the Roman Catholic. Church in Aspen Hill where the couple and their four daughters are parishioners. Last week, as Rocio Rabie poured tea at the couple’s home, the two recalled their impressions of the trip. “It is magical,” she said while setting out three little blue bowls of pita bread, olive oil and aromatic oregano leaves. The foods were those eaten at breakfast time on the pilgrimage. The couple said they were profoundly moved by the experience of traveling with John Paul II because “ he represents 2,000 years of Christianity.” They had met other world leaders before. Nearby on a table in the corner of the room, the Rabies’ faces smiled back from three framed photographs in which they appeared with no less than Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat, Jordan’s King Abdullah and the recently widowed Queen Noor of Jordan. “I’ve met kings, princes. I’ve never had this feeling,” Rocio Rabie said of the Pope.
The Rabies recalled that John Paul II appeared to be energized by the events of the seven-day trip and was not as frail as he had appeared on TV. They described him as a man with “skin as soft as velvet,” a strong handshake and a sense of humor. He was not as tall as Rocio had pictured him. At the luncheon of chicken and potatoes served under the arched ceilings of Sabbah’s parish hall, John Paul spoke in Italian. He told the story of how a bishop from Iraq had presented him a gift of “stone and earth” from the house of Abraham, the Biblical ancestral father of Moses. Rabie said the Pope ate heartily, but pointed out with a laugh that the family of Abraham did not have stone houses — they lived in tents.
That may be debatable, but the couple said that hearing Pope John Paul II recount stories made them feel “like family.” The Rabies were part of the host entourage for most stops on the Pope’s trip except for private meetings with state leaders. They snapped photos, sometimes even in places where they were not supposed to take pictures. Some of the pictures show John Paul in the Jordan’s Amman Stadium packed with enthusiastic followers. Others record less public moments, such as when he stepped aside to pray quietly. At the Deheisha refugee camp in Bethlehem, the Rabies found themselves greeting Arafat, who appeared to be as giddy with excitement as they were at the Pope’s arrival They took his picture too. The trip also posed small frustrations. One was when the Pope celebrated Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The couple sat at the front, but behind bishops from Syria and Armenia with tall, black hats. They could only catch glimpses of that service.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is built upon the site where Jesus Christ was crucified. The most poignant moment for Rabie was on the blustery,dark day that the Pope visited the Jordan River at Wadi Al Kharrar. Rabie said he was expecting to see the wide rushing waters where his father had taken him as a boy on a boat. The river that he expected to see like “a Potomac” was now only about the size of “a Rock Creek,” Rabie said. For him the dwindling waters were also like the decreasing number of Christians that remain in the Holy Land.
Arab Christians, including 160,000 Orthodox, Catholic and Protestants, represent about 2 percent of the population in the area. That is down from about 18 percent nearly 50 years ago, according to figures compiled by Rabie’s ecumenical foundation. Rabie said that Christian leaders fear Arab Christians will continue to emigrate from the Holy Land, leaving their shrines empty ruins like those in modern Turkey. “The Pope with this visit gave us a lot of hope,” said Rabie, who left his home in Birzeit, Jordan, and studied at the University of Maryland in 1976, where he met Rocio. Rocio Rabie was from Quito, Ecuador, and the two are naturalized United States citizens. Along with their photographs, the couple also has a few other mementos. Patriarch Sabbah gave pins to two people. “Only the Pope and I received them,” Rabie said, because he and the Pope were the only people on the trip who belonged to the order. Valued even more, the Rabies said , is a commemorative book of the trip. At the front is an inscription penned in soft black ink: “ Christ, yesterday, today and forever.” It is signed Joannes Paulus II.