Thursday, January 22, 2004

Not walls but bridges

This first portion of this column I had initially put at the tail end but when I finished writing I decided to cut and paste it up here.

Hear ye. Be shocked. Be ecstatic. Fire-and-brimstone at its best. Jaro archbishop Angel Lagdameo’s message to the Promotion for Church People’s Rights congress this week is something so unlike most ecclesiastical missives. Is this real?

``Each day, because of poverty, there’s an increased widening of estrangement and alienation of the poor from the Church. Perhaps most people feel that the Church does not connect anymore with their language, their anguish and their struggles. When this happens, the Church crumbles from her very core! Such tendency to sanitize prophetic witness and practice faith only in convenience is the reason why we can lose our credibility and effectiveness in mission. And such indictment and challenge is pointed out by this powerful prayer that cries out:

``I simply argue that the cross be raised again/ At the center of the marketplace/ As well as the steeple of the church./ I am recovering the claim that/ Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral/ Between two candles:/ But on a cross between two thieves,/ On a town garbage heap/ At a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan/ That they had to write his title in Hebrew and in Greek…/And at the kind of place where cynics talk smut/And thieves curse and soldiers gamble./Because that is where He died/ And that is what He died about/ That is where Christ’s men ought to be,/And what church people ought to be about.

``Yes, if we want to raise our prophetic voice to proclaim peace and justice, let us first build our solidarity with the masses. In effect, it is when we bring back the cross to Golgotha—that our loudest, clearest and most powerful witness will shine throughout the world!’’

The news about the walling out and walling in of people--with Palestinians on one side and Israelis on the other--to keep them out of each other’s hair was not lost on those who celebrated Christmas with the Holy Land in their thoughts. What a let-down that the place where Christmas began is now becoming a place of walls.

Early this month, bishops from bishops’ conferences from Europe and the Americas went to the Holy Land to see for themselves what was going on in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Last week they issued a statement to amplify their cry for peace and to describe how the walls being constructed have added to the divisiveness.

``Not walls, but bridges,’’ the bishops cried after wading through the scene. They came, they said, to demonstrate the solidarity of Catholics throughout the world with the Church of the Holy Land. ``We have come in friendship for both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, Christian, Jew and Muslim alike. We have seen the violence suffered by both communities: the attack against Israelis in Gaza and the collective punishment of Palestinian citizens. We express our condolences for the deaths that have occurred during out stay and affirm our opposition to all bloodshed.’’

The bishops said that the desire for peace, justice and reconciliation is great among Israelis and Palestinians, but regrettably, this is met with a lack of political will on the part of political leaders.

And so the wall. The bishops noted that the wall being built through the land and homes of Palestinian communities appears to be a permanent structure, dividing families, isolating them from their farmland and their livelihoods, and cutting off religious institutions. The bishops saw the frustration and humiliation undergone every day by Palestinians at checkpoints, which impede them from providing for their families, reaching hospital, getting to work, attending their studies and visiting their relatives.

And despite visible efforts, some priests, seminarians, sisters, brothers and lay personnel are being denied or are having difficulties in obtaining visas and residence permits to study and work in Israel and Palestinian territories.

These, the bishops pointed out, were impediments to the Churches’ mission to serve the people. And this was especially regrettable given the fact that the State of Israel and the Vatican have just marked ten years since the signing of their Fundamental Agreement.

The bishops hoped that their own journey would be an encouragement for others to visit the place where Jesus lived. To be a pilgrim is to become a witness to solidarity and reconciliation.

Recently, I caught the two-hour TV documentary ``The Land of Jesus’’ which gave one a sweeping historical, geographical, cultural and spiritual perspective on this turbulent place on earth. It was awesome. Not a dull moment there. It started with the time of Abraham and ended with the present, with the suicide bombings and all.

Last week, in the Vatican, Pope John Paul II, a leading Rome rabbi and the city’s imam sat side by side to watch the Concert of Reconciliation held at the vast Paul VI hall. Christians, Jewish and Muslim dignitaries were present. Parts of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony were performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and choruses from different countries.

Why Mahler, I thought, when he is so hard to understand. The affair was also the occasion for the world premiere of ``Abraham’’ a musical opus by John Harbison. I’d like to listen to that one. To Abraham, the Old Testament patriarch, Christianity, Judaism and Islam trace their roots.

Two weeks ago one reader who sent feedback to this column ended his letter by saying that ``the real axis of evil is Christianity, Islam and Judaism.’’ Aray.