‘We cannot forget the Resurrection’
Three weeks ago, Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem was in Lebanon during the historic visit by Pope Benedict XVI and thousands of Catholics who gathered there from across the Middle East.
The visit took place in a region embroiled in violence—from a civil war raging in nearby Syria to violent protests in front of American embassies in several Middle Eastern countries.
This past weekend, though, Patriarch Twal, who oversees the Latin Rite Church in Cyprus, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, had a very different kind of meeting in a setting that greatly contrasted from Lebanon.
He was in Indianapolis from Sept. 27-30 to meet with hundreds of members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
The order, which dates back nearly 1,000 years, is today made up of clergy and lay Catholic men and women from around the world who show special care for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
In an interview with The Criterion, Patriarch Twal reflected on both of these trips and his hopes for the future of the Church in the Holy Land despite the many challenges that it faces in the 21st century.
The following is an edited version of that interview.
Q. What was it like to see so many Catholics from so many countries gathered together to worship with the Holy Father?
A. “We were in Lebanon. But really, our thoughts and our prayers were for Syria.
“We already have hundreds of thousands of refugees in Lebanon and in Jordan. We said to the pope, ‘You cannot not mention the atmosphere in Syria.’ That’s why there was an appeal to the politicians to do their best to stop this war.”
Q. Was it encouraging that the pope decided to come to Lebanon in spite of the violence that was so close?
A. “They [people in the pope’s entourage] called me from Rome three weeks ago, asking me what I thought about whether or not the pope should come.
“I said that it was a must. He must come. If the papal delegation was afraid to spend two or three days with us in the Middle East, how can I encourage my faithful not to leave? So his presence was an example of courage and faith.
“But the pope himself personally never put in question his coming or not coming.”
Q. Please speak about your experience of seeing the difficult living conditions of the people in your flock.
A. “It is normal for it to be difficult in our region. The fact that we are responsible for [the Church in] four states—Jordan, Palestine, Israel and Cyprus—complicates an already complex situation. I have to work everywhere to assure services in all of these states. We have borders. We have a lack of freedom of movement, which is normal.
“In Bethlehem and in the Palestinian territories, they [often] cannot find any work. And so the first option that they have is to emigrate.
“At the same time, I have often said that if we are in charge of Calvary, then we must accept all of the challenges that we have. We are also a Church of hope, of the Resurrection, so we must have enthusiasm and hope and joy in our work.
“This joy doesn’t come from the geopolitical circumstances. It comes from a very spiritual dimension, from the Lord. He’s the one who said, ‘I am with you.’ He suffered before we did. He knew very well these narrow streets of Jerusalem before we did. He knew what Calvary was. He knew the cross. He knew Gethsemane.
“So this agony of the Lord goes on as the agony of our people, of our faithful. And we must understand that. At the same time, we cannot forget the Resurrection.
“So one day, we’ll have justice. One day, we will have freedom. One day, we will have peace.
“When will this one day come? I don’t know. But we never lose hope.”
Q. When you are far away from your home and you meet with the knights and ladies of the Holy Sepulchre, do you find hope for the Church in the Holy Land?
A. “Before I find hope, I am a family with them. They are my knights. They are my ladies. They are my order. And I am their patriarch. The link must be strong more than ever. I have come for them.”
Q. The knights and ladies, as well as other supporters of the Church in the Holy Land, work to support various projects to help the Church there, such as the American University of Madaba, the first Catholic university in Jordan, which was established in 2009. What are the prospects for that school? How is it going to be an important institution for the Christians in the Holy Land?
A. “First of all, it is, in a certain way, a continuation of the education we’ve given for 150 years with the many primary and secondary schools that we operate.
“Second, this university can be a center for more dialogue. In Jordan, we have a more or less unique country where we have stability. People can come there from all the Arab countries with no problems.
“This place will teach them moderation, how to be understanding of Christianity and of peace, and how they can co-exist with us in the Arab world.”
Q. How important are the American University of Madaba, other schools and other institutions in the Latin Patriarchate to keeping Christians in the Holy Land and in other areas of the Middle East?
A. “They’re important, first of all, as a source of jobs for them. We give them priority for this work. Already, the American University of Madaba has given at least 130 jobs to families.
“As long as they work, as long as they have a house, as long as they have hope, they stay. If they haven’t any work, they will leave.
“We are few in number—2, 3, 4 percent of the population. Others can know us only through these institutions. Our strength, our power, doesn’t come through our reduced numbers. They come from these institutions.
“We are few in number, but with huge institutions. And this link to the international community and to the universal Church gives us this credit.”
Q. How can the Catholics in central and southern Indiana help the Christians in the Holy Land and elsewhere in the Middle East?
A. “The answer is not only for the Catholics but for the others, for non-Catholics. They must think about the Holy Land where we have our roots, where we have our mother Church. All are invited to think about us.
“I’ve often talked about the ways that they can help. First of all, prayer, prayer, prayer, prayer.
“Second, advocacy about the situation. When you go to Jerusalem and to Jordan and come back here, speak about your experience, speak about what you saw, what you felt. We need this advocacy because a lot of people are ignorant about the situation.
“And third is solidarity. Help us to go on with our situation, with our projects, with our Church, with our schools, with our hospitals, with our new American University of Madaba.”