Renovations to the Holy Sepulchre: Facts and Faith

Edicule of the Tomb, Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem (source)
Christianity is a religion that 1) is rooted in history and 2) requires an act of faith.  A recent excavation in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem reminded me of this truth. The Holy Sepulchre is built upon the sites where Jesus was crucified and buried.  Hundreds of years ago, a small chapel called the Edicule was built over the tomb of Jesus.  Each day crowds wait for their chance to enter the Edicule and venerate the marble slab covering the place where Jesus was placed after He was taken down from the cross.  This year, long overdue restorations began on the Edicule.  Several weeks ago, this project made international news as the crew had the chance to peel back the marble that covers the stone tomb of Jesus and see what was underneath. What they discovered was quite remarkable. When they removed the venerable marble slab, they discovered a thick layer of debris. Beneath this, they found another marble slab which archeologists think dates from the time of the Crusaders in the 12th century. When the restoration crew removed this older slab they uncovered beneath it a stone bench, which is most probably the spot on which the dead body of Jesus was placed.

When I looked at pictures of this original stone slab, the historical aspect of Christianity struck me. Christianity is a religion that is rooted in real places and events. It centers around a person who lived in a certain place at a specific time. Christianity is not about vague concepts but is a religion firmly rooted in history.  The news coverage of the restoration also reminded me that Christianity requires an act of faith. Though archeologists can tell us that this is the location where Jesus was placed after His death, they cannot say that this is the place from which He rose from the dead. The Resurrection is a matter of faith. We know when and where Jesus lived, died and was buried, but it requires an act of faith to say that He rose again. In this act we choose to believe witnesses - the disciples - who tell us they saw Him after His Resurrection.

Christianity is a religion rooted in history that requires an act of faith. We see this in our lives. The good relationships, beautiful nature and wonderful things which surround us are historical facts. Whether or not we choose to see these people and things as a sign of God’s love for us is an act of faith.  That the world is full of suffering people and injustices is a fact. Whether we choose to believe that the needy are the presence of Jesus inviting us to love Him or that God calls us correct injustices is an act of faith.  Being a Christian requires paying attention to the real, concrete facts in our daily life and responding to them with faith. As we enter Advent, we are reminded of the Incarnation: God became man and dwelt among us. That a man named Jesus was born some 2000 years ago is a fact. To say that He was God is an act of faith that changes our life.

Going up to Jerusalem

From where I sit writing, I can look out the window and see the Jaffa gate, which is one of the main entrances into the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The Old City is a spectacular sight, especially when the sun reflects off the bright stones which make up its buildings and walls. It feels surreal to be sitting here right now.  For years coming to Jerusalem has been a dream of mine. The fact that I have the chance to live in this city for a good stretch of time is something I never really expected.

Last year when I started my studies in Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute (PBI) in Rome, I began hearing about the opportunity to spend one semester living and studying in Jerusalem. This program has a long history. The PBI has had a house in Jerusalem since around 1930. Since then, this house - which actually looks more like a castle from the outside - has been run by the Jesuits as a center for biblical and archeological research in the Holy Land. When the late Cardinal Martini was rector of the PBI in the 1970’s he created a structured program that would allow students from Rome to study for one semester in Jerusalem as they work towards their degree in Scripture. Students would follow most of their classes at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one of the oldest and best known universities in Israel. Here classes would focus on the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). These courses would be supplemented by classes on the New Testament taught at the PBI.  In addition to classroom instruction, students would have the opportunity to visit archaeological sites and broaden their knowledge by hearing from a wider range of scholars, particularly Jewish ones.

The Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem
Since Cardinal Martini started this program, about a dozen or so students have participated in it each year. As soon as I heard about this opportunity I wanted to be part of the next group to go to Jerusalem. When I proposed the program to Archbishop Miller I was extremely happy and appreciative when he gave me the go ahead to participate.

I arrived in Jerusalem (or “went up to Jerusalem” as they’d say in Hebrew) in early August. In all, I will be here for about six months while following the PBI program. Since my arrival, I have been participating in a two month “Ulpan” at Hebrew University. The Ulpan is an intensive course in Modern Hebrew, which is the form of Hebrew spoken in Israel today. Because it is closely related to the Hebrew of the Bible, learning some modern Hebrew is very helpful for my studies. After the Ulpan finishes at the end of September, we will have a month-long course on New Testament history at the PBI. In November, I will start my courses at Hebrew University. These courses will be on the language, history and archaeology of the Hebrew Bible. In addition, I will keep studying some Greek at the PBI. In addition to classroom instruction, many of the courses will include some very interesting field trips! Sometime in the beginning of February I will write my exams and make my way back to Rome to continue studying there.

My time so far in Jerusalem has been amazing. It is a fascinating and exciting place. Much of what makes Jerusalem so intriguing is that is a holy place for Jews, Christians and Muslims. As a result, in the city there is an incredible, vibrant combination of religious sights and sounds. Jews have many beautiful synagogues in the city and the iconic Western Wall. Each Friday evening at sundown, sirens can be heard signalling the start of the Shabbat. Christians have an abundance of churches in Jerusalem.  Perhaps the most important of these is the Holy Sepulchre, the church built over Calvary and the tomb of Jesus. From these churches, bells can often be heard ringing out Marian hymns. Being able to visit and pray at the Christian holy places has been a wonderful experience. Throughout the city, Muslims have many impressive mosques and monuments; one of the greatest among them is the famous Dome of the Rock. In the city the Muslim call to prayer can be heard five times a day. This lively blend makes the city incredibly interesting and at times somewhat overwhelming to take in.

Adding to the texture of the place is its long and complicated history. Though I feel quite safe in Jerusalem, the many troubles from the past and unanswered questions about the future of the region creates a palpable tension. Jerusalem is something of an enigma. On the one hand, it is the Holy City, a place sacred and inspiring to billions. On the other hand, the place seems to bring out the worst in some people of all religions. There are tensions on various levels: between different religious groups, within each religious group, and between religious and secular aspects of society. In spite of the very real difficulties that exist, the atmosphere of the place is not dark or depressing. On the contrary, in general I find the city to be full of life and energy.

In my time here so far I have been struck by how much I have to learn from this place and those who live in it. People often tell me how lucky I am to be here. I agree of course and am usually aware of this fact. I appreciate the reminders, however, so that I don’t begin to take things for granted. I really look at this experience as a gift and adventure. I will try to learn as much as possible so that I may be more effective in my future ministry in the Church. Along the way I hope to share from time to time some of what I experience.

Melting in the sun on the Mount of Olives with the Old City of Jerusalem in the background

Lessons from World Youth Day 2016

I know it's been quite a while since World Youth Day in Krakow but I want to reflect here about it because it was an incredible experience. I had the chance to attend WYD last July with an amazing group of young adults, mostly from St. Paul's Parish, Richmond. Before heading to Krakow we spend a week being hosted by parishioners of Our Lady of La Salette Parish in the Diocese of Sandomierz who were incredibly welcoming and generous. From there we made our way down to Krakow. This two week experience was very powerful for me and I learned a lot. Here are a few of the lessons I take with me.

1) As a global Church we face very similar challenges
Before heading to Poland I had heard much about how strong the Catholic faith is in Poland. The way some people had described it, it seemed like some oasis of belief somehow buffered from the difficulties we encounter in Vancouver. During the week we spent in Sandomierz, I had the opportunity to stay in a local parish rectory with the four priests serving the community there. It was wonderful to share about what parish life is like in our countries. From these priests I learned that there is much that is wonderful and positive about the local Church in Poland. On the other hand, they also spoke of their struggles. The pastor explained to me that since the fall of communism, Church attendance has been steadily declining, particularly among young people. The number of people entering seminary and religious communities is also going down. Though this was somewhat disheartening at first to hear, it was good lesson to learn. There is no perfect Church situation in the world. There are struggles everywhere. Being with the priests in Sandomierz, I felt a bond with them. We face similar challenges, but we are in this together. We are here to support each other.

2) Our response to these challenges is the same
For me the talks by Pope Francis at World Youth Day were inspiring and gave us concrete direction forward in response to the challenges we face. Pope Francis' message to us in Krakow had two main points, both of which are found already in his first document he presented as Pope, The Joy of the Gospel: 1) Embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ and share it with others and 2) accompany and serve the suffering, especially those most abandoned and on the margins of society. To the first point, Pope Francis spoke strongly about how precious to God each one of us personally is, about the joy of having a relationship with Jesus our Saviour and about the importance of inviting those around us to come to know Jesus as well. To the second point, Pope Francis called on the over one million young people at WYD to build a more just and loving society. He reminded us that true happiness is not found sitting on the couch but rather in service to those who are suffering. As just one concrete example, he repeatedly pointed to the plight of Syrian refugees and the necessity for us to welcome and care for them. Considering that the current Polish government has refused to accept any Syrian refugees into the country, his message was particularly challenging.

3) God intervenes directly in our lives
One of the best parts about going to the WYD as part of a group was seeing how those around me experienced God is a very personal and strong way. God spoke to them through the talks they heard, interactions with others, the hospitality of our hosts in Poland, and witnessing the various events playing out around them. In my opinion, one of the most powerful and perhaps unexpected ways God worked was through difficulties: lost luggage, injuries, fatigue and other struggles. In all these ways, God spoke a personal message to each of us. Some He filled with a sense of how much they are loved by Him and how important they are to Him personally. Others were guided into making important decisions. Many were willed with a greater sense of hope and courage to continue following Jesus. I don't think that there was anyone in our group who was not impacted in some personal way during WYD. I hope that all of us can return in prayer to these experience and draw greater clarity and strength from what we experienced in Krakow.

A huge blessing for me was very unexpectedly running into Fr. Eliecer, a friend of mine who is a priest with the Missionaries of Charity. We spent five years together when I was in formation with this community.
4) Bonus lesson: Perogies are delicious!

Nuggets of carbohydrate goodness!

I was very happy to participate in this past World Youth Day in Krakow. It was a very rich and powerful experience for me. I am grateful to have lived this with my fellow pilgrims!

Our great group after the closing Mass just before walking 15 km back to our accommodations.
The morning after the closing Mass with Pope Francis I took a train from Krakow to Warsaw. From there I flew Tel Aviv and took a bus to Jerusalem. I will be staying in Jerusalem for the next six months as part of my studies. That, however, is something a will have to share in another post!

How the Ascension makes our life better through Pentecost

A friend recently shared with me a story about his childhood that helped me to better understand the significance of the Ascension in our lives. My friend grew up in Chile. When he was about 10 years old, his father took on a new job and moved to the United States. The plan was that his dad would begin working in the United States while making preparations so that the rest of his family could immigrate there after one year. My friend explained how incredibly difficult it was for him to say goodbye to his father at the airport when he left for the United States. He was not thinking ahead to the fact that he would see his father again soon enough. As a 10 year old boy, the only thing that he had in his mind was that he would not be with his dad for one year. This seemed like an eternity to him. At the time it felt like his father had abandoned him and his family.

After some time, his dad got settled in the United States. He used the money from his pay cheques to start making preparations for the rest of his family to join him. In addition, he sent some cash from his paycheck back to Chile each month. My friend explained that after his father moved to the United States, their lives in Chile immediately improved because of the money his dad was sending them. Finally after one year, the rest of his family immigrated to the United States. This move drastically changed my friend’s life for the better. He was able to get a great education and eventually discovered his vocation to the priesthood in this new country. In the beginning, my friend had viewed his father’s move as an abandonment. In the end, he learned that, in spite of the huge sacrifice, his father needed to separate himself from his family for a time in order to make a better life for them.

At the Ascension we can all feel a bit like my friend when his father left for the United States. We can feel abandoned when Jesus ascends to heaven. Would it not be better if He had stayed here with us? Whenever we needed Him, we could simply go to Him. After the Ascension, Jesus can feel so distant. We too can feel abandoned. This is far from the truth. Like my friend’s father, Jesus has gone before us to prepare for us a new, better life. Eventually we will experience this life to the full when we “immigrate” to God our Father in heaven. Even before this day, however, Jesus is making our lives better. He too is sending some cash from his paycheck back home to improve our lives. The greatest gift that Jesus sends to us now is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is already transforming our lives here and now. It is this gift that we celebrate and remember each Pentecost. The Ascension is necessary because Jesus wanted to create for us a better life.

Not recognizing Jesus

When I read the Bible stories describing how Jesus appeared to His disciples after He had risen from the dead, I can feel some jealousy towards the disciples. Because of when and where they were born, they were fortunate enough to see the Risen Christ with their own two eyes. I only I had this experience my faith would never waver! I would fear nothing! I would have an unshakable hope in all that Jesus promises!

Whenever I start to think like this, an important detail from Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances as told in the Gospel of John brings me back to reality: the disciples were in the presence of Jesus but they did not recognize Him. First, Mary Magdalene is weeping at the tomb, thinking someone has taken away the body of Jesus. Jesus is standing right beside her, speaking with her, but she doesn’t recognize Him. She thinks He is the gardener. Later, while Peter and other disciples are fishing on the Sea of Tiberius, a man appears on the shore and gives them fishing advice. Again, they do not recognize that it is Jesus.

The peculiar fact that the disciples can be standing right next to the Risen Jesus and even speak with Him without realizing who He is, teaches us that their experience is not much different than us who live some 2000 years later. We are not at a disadvantage for having been born when and where we were. Like the disciples, the Risen Christ is always present, working in our life, but often we do not recognize Him.

Mary Magdalen only recognizes that the gardener is in fact Jesus when He calls her by name. Peter and the other disciples recognize that the man giving unsolicited counsel from the shore is in fact Jesus when the advice helps them bring in a miraculous catch of fish. If we are attentive, Jesus reveals Himself to us in similar ways. Like Mary Magdalene, we can hear Jesus call our name when we read scripture, when someone unexpectedly offers us a kind word of encouragement, or when we are struck by the beauty of nature. Like Peter and the other disciples in the boat fishing, Jesus shows Himself by blessing our actions in a way that is beyond our capabilities. For example, we are able to help someone or say something to them that blesses their life in a way that is far beyond the power of our action alone.

During the Easter Season we celebrate the fact that Jesus has truly risen from the dead. Each year, we remind ourselves that the Risen Jesus is very present in our own life, strengthening us and filling us with peace, hope and joy. This happens in proportion to our ability of recognizing the simple ways Jesus shows Himself to us each day. Take a moment to look back over the past week. What is one concrete event through which Jesus revealed Himself to you? Let us recognize these events often and give thanks for them, crying out like the disciples “it is the Lord!”

What four murdered nuns teach us about dying with dignity

The discussion around assisted suicide in Canada is becoming increasingly volatile. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down the law banning assisted suicide, stating that the law, which had made it illegal for anyone to help another end their life, violated a citizen’s Charter Rights. The federal government has until June to deliver a new law. In response, a special Commons-Senate panel was created in order to hear testimony from various experts and ultimately present recommendations to the government. Recently this panel released its report. It recommends that access to doctor assisted dying be made readily accessible at publically funded health-care institutions and not just be limited to the terminally ill. Those with mental illnesses and psychiatric conditions should be able to chose to have a doctor end their life. Even minors, the report states, should be able to have a doctor help end their life.

Many leaders, within the Church and otherwise, have strongly voiced their concerns about the report. They argue against the idea that Catholic Hospitals and doctors and nurses who are opposed to assisted suicide should be forced to help people take their own lives. They argue that if what the panel report comes to pass in Canada, it would have a damaging effect on some of the most vulnerable in our society. Jean Vanier, a man who has dedicated his life to caring for the sick and handicapped, recently pointed out this danger. Those who are dying, the elderly, the handicapped and the mentally ill can feel at times that they are a burden to their families and communities. With the legalization of assisted suicide, they may feel pressured to ask a doctor to end their life. Vanier explained that such an “unconscious inducement” would lead vulnerable individuals “to believe that hastening their own death is a socially generous and responsible act. An ethos that may subtly support such thinking can lead to a deep and subversive betrayal of an individual’s right to live their life out to its natural end.”

Central to the case of those arguing for a person’s right to assisted suicide is the claim that being able to have a doctor end your life allows you to die with dignity. The argument then becomes that Catholics and others who oppose assisted suicide are preventing people from dying with dignity. For those promoting the right to assisted suicide, this is a clever way to frame the debate. After all, who wouldn’t want someone to die with dignity?

We all agree that many people suffer terribly at the ends of their lives and everyone wants such individuals to die with dignity. What we disagree with is what it means to die with dignity.

In the midst of the heated debate after the panel report was released, news broke of the murder of four Missionary of Charity Sisters in Yemen. These sisters, who were part of the religious community started by Mother Teresa, were killed by gunmen along with at least twelve people they cared for. These murdered sisters teach an important lesson about what it means to die with dignity. Before they were killed, they were helping to run a nursing home for disabled and elderly people who have no one else to care for them. From the start, an integral part of Mother Teresa’s work was caring for the dying, helping them to truly die with dignity. Mother Teresa told the story of a man her sisters found dying in a drain, half-eaten by worms. They brought him to their home and cared for him. As he was dying, he told them, “I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die like an angel, loved and cared for.”

The four murdered Missionary of Charity sisters teach us that dying with dignity does not mean possessing the right to have someone else help you end your life. People die with dignity when they are deeply convinced - as a result of the actions of those around them - that they are loved and that their life has value. For many of the most vulnerable people in our society, assisted suicide will erode their sense that their existence is of value and will prevent them from truly dying with dignity.

Road to Krakow: What do you want me to do for you?

(Reflection #1 in a series of spiritual reflections leading up to World Youth Day in Krakow, July 2016)

There is a striking feature common to many of the healing encounters Jesus has with the sick, lame and blind. In these, the needy are able to express clearly and unambiguously what they want Jesus to do for them.

We see this is the meeting of Jesus with the blind beggar Bartimaeus. Jesus was making His way out of Jericho with his disciples. Bartimaeus, who was sitting by the side of the road, heard the crowd approaching. On learning that it was Jesus who was passing by, Bartimaeus seized his opportunity.

Bartimaeus began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Many rebuked him so that he would be silent.
But all the more he cried out, “Son of David, have pity on me!”
Jesus stopped and said, “call him”.
So they called the blind man: “Cheer up! Get up! He is calling you.”
He threw aside his garment, jumped up and came to Jesus.
Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
The blind man answered, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
And Jesus said to him, “go, your faith has healed you.”
Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (Mk 10:47-52)

What do you want me to do for you? When Bartimaeus heard Jesus’ question he didn’t hesitate. This point must be recognized: before Jesus would work in Bartimaeus’ life, He needed the man to express what he wanted from Him.

Do we know what we want Jesus to do for us?

At World Youth Day we will find ourselves in the position of Bartimaeus. We will encounter Jesus in the midst of a crowd. He will pass by. He wants to work in our life as He did in Bartimeus’. There is a catch, though. We need to know specifically what we want Jesus to do for us. We can forget this step. Since our need can be hard to point a finger, we end up asking Jesus for help in a general way or not at all.

What do you want me to do for you?

Take some time to search your heart in order to discover what it is you want to ask Jesus to do for you during your World Youth Day pilgrimage. You can start by brainstorming a list and then narrow it down until you are left will one point. How can Jesus help us if we do not know what we want Him to do for us?

Pope Francis promotes Confession during Year of Mercy

A few days ago, on February 5th, a unique event occurred at St. Peter’s Basilica. As part of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the relics of St. Padre Pio and St. Leopold Mandic were processed into the Basilica where they will remain for several days to be visited by pilgrims. The presence of these two saints, both of whom are famous for their devotion to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is meant to be a powerful reminder of the incredible gift God offers us in this Sacrament. Padre Pio would often spend 10 - 15 hours a day hearing confessions. In this way, Pope Francis explained, Padre Pio spread “the perfume of the forgiveness of the Lord” and became “a caress of the living Father, who heals the wounds of sin and refreshes the heart with peace”.
For many, however, going to confession can be a difficult experience. In his recently released book length interview called “The Name of God is Mercy”, Pope Francis provides some encouragement. He explains how the eastern form of the Sacrament of Reconciliation strikes him. In this, the confessor welcomes the penitent by putting his stole over the penitent’s head and an arm around his shoulder, as if embracing the penitent. Pope Francis says that this “is a physical representation of acceptance and mercy”. Rather than feeling afraid of judgment when we approach the confessional, we should imagine our heavenly Father embracing us in the same way.

Pope Francis acknowledges that many wonder why they simply cannot ask God for forgiveness directly. Why is it necessary to confess our sins to a priest? I found his answer helpful. Pope Francis explained that “if you are not capable of talking to your brother about your mistakes, you can be sure that you can’t talk about them with God either, and therefore you end up confessing into a mirror, to yourself. We are social beings and forgiveness has a social implication; my sin wounds mankind, my brothers and sisters, society as a whole. Confessing to a priest is a way of putting my life into the hands and heart of someone else, someone who in that moment acts in the name of Jesus.”

Towards the end of the book, the interviewer asks Pope Francis the following question: “What are the most important things that a believer should do during the Holy Year of Mercy?” The Pope’s response was to the point. The believer should “open up to the mercy of God, open up his heart and himself, and allow Jesus to come toward him by approaching the confessional with Faith. And he should try to be merciful with other.” As we begin Lent, let us follow the Pope’s advice.