« Maranatha » pilgrimage to the Holy Land
An out of the ordinary event
Number of participants and their diversity
A dream in 2011, a project in 2012, announced to the public on 9th march 2013 at the “Basilique de Koekelberg” and subsequently diffused via Internet, the “Maranatha” pilgrimage to the Holy Land, from 19th to 27th August recently, finally brought together over 600 people: 550 to start with, then more than 50 Argentinians, who were only able to join us a few days later, and continued their pilgrimage after our departure. It is extremely rare for a pilgrimage to reach such numbers at the same time in this place. This was made possible thanks to the competence of the French organization “Routes Bibliques” may I acknowledge in passing. Suffice it to say that we were rarely united in the same place at the same time. The full assemblies were limited to information times, celebrating Mass, and crossing the lake of Tiberiade, during which three large boats navigated side by side. The rest of the time was spent in groups competently organized on a turning basis. Amongst the pilgrims, a dozen priests. This proved a precious asset for celebrating the reconciliation sacrament, in the Shepherd’s field in Bethlehem.
The diversity next. A majority of Europeans, principally Belgian, representing the three national languages, and the French, not forgetting the Polish, the Croats, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Italians, the British and a few other nations less represented. The other four continents were also present especially South America, with pilgrims from Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Perou, Colombia and Brazil; and North America, with one group from the United States and another from Canada, particularly Quebec. There were also a few Africans and Asians.
Simultaneous translation functioned full time, thanks to a system involving small appliances worn around the neck. Mainly based on French, the most representative language, or occasionally Arabic via French, into Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, English, Polish, and Croat. Thanks to all the benevolent Interpreters!
The intentions of the pilgrimage
The intention of prayer which permeated the whole pilgrimage was, just as during the great assembly of 2500 people at the “Basilique du Sacré-Coeur de Koekelberg” last march, the conversion of the human heart – starting with our own – and the healing of Humanity.
As exposed in the book I published on that occasion: The heart of the Good News. An invitation to pray and to commit oneself for the healing of Humanity by divine mercy, it’s a question of praying and commitment, at every level, in the face of serious problems encountered by our civilization. However, since a healing of the human heart and Humanity can only come from Above, this prayer and this commitment also turn towards Jesus resurrected, imploring His glorious second arrival, as we do during each mass, after the consecration. Hence the general designation of the movement and the pilgrimage by the name “Maranatha conversion” the first word meaning, in Aramaic, the language of Jesus: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (cf. Rev.22,20).
It was the Catholics who organized the pilgrimage. Nonetheless, our intention from the outset was to give an ecumenical and even interreligious dimension to our initiative. Even if, for this first pilgrimage, and God willing there will probably be others, we chose the Holy Land, it was because it is emblematic of the challenges we wish to meet. Jesus’ country is in fact like a powder magazine, ready to flare up, and the whole of the Middle East a volcano in irruption or capable of reawakening at any moment. Moreover, the Holy Land assembles on the same territory, the three biggest monotheist religions on the planet: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Hence the need for interreligious dialogue. In addition, as far as Christianity is concerned, the coexistence, not always peaceful, of the various denominations (orthodox, catholic, protestants and Anglicans) and the various rites (Greek-melkite, Maronite and Latin).
The priority meeting with the catholics from the Holy Land
Globally, our second objective was to meet, study, get to know and help all the Christians from the Holy Land, of whatever denomination or rite they belong, even though we met principally the catholics.
I am not therefore going to evoke here our visit to the Holy Places. Like all pilgrims to the Holy Land, we prayed there and celebrated. I would just mention that we stayed in Nazareth, Galilee, then in Jerusalem, Judah, then in Bethlehem, Palestinian territory.
With a small delegation, I was able to meet all the catholic bishops from the Holy Land: the latin Patriarch from Jerusalem, his Beatitude Fouad Twal with his assistant, Mgr Shomali ; the Greek-catholic archbishop, Mgr Chacour ; the Maronite archbishop from the Holy Land and Mgr Marcuzzo assistant bishop from the Latin Patriarcate for Israel.
The most impressive however, were the great assemblies where we prayed the rosary, celebrated Communion and adored the Holy Sacrament with the local catholics. There were over 2000 Catholics, principally Latin rite, in the Basilique de l’Annonciation, in Nazareth, where mass was conducted by Mgr Marcuzzo. There were 13000 (police figures!) in Mi’lya Galilee, in a very large field, splendidly prepared by the local parishioners mainly Greek-Catholics, mass conducted by the melkite catholic archbishop. There were 6000 in Bethlehem in a school sports room and surrounding courtyards, for the mass conducted by the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Mgr Fouad Twal in the presence of the mayor of Bethlehem, Mme Vera Ghattas Baboun, a remarkable lady. At the end of the ceremony, the country was dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Our Lady, Mary.
We were fortunately blessed to be able to pray with roughly 20000 Christian brothers and sisters from the Holy Land. We were overwhelmed. The celebrations were a bit ‘longish’. Adding up the hymns, the rosary, mass and adoration or communion procession, the total came to about 4 hours, in a warm atmosphere not to mention the extreme heat! As for our Christian brothers, who had replied to our invitation, they felt profoundly encouraged by these Westerners come to join them. Even more so since their situation is really not easy, and many are tempted by emigration, which, if it continues, will make things even more difficult for those who remain.
In our assemblies, the Orthodox were always present, sometimes with a representative from their church, the Muslims and the Jews, interested by the objective of our pilgrimage. At Mil’ya, where the crowd reached 13000 people, including our pilgrimage, the Israelian security police was present in force, to canalize the affluence, but also, naturally, to control the crowd and anticipate possible disturbances. The military forces were initially a bit tense. However, thanks to the good natured climate, and our friendly attitude towards them, they gradually eased up. Warm handshakes were exchanged after this long evening. Some pilgrims even told me that during communion, touched by the atmosphere, several Israelian soldiers approached and… participated in communion, the priest not knowing how to react. I presume that the Lord will have dealt with the problem!
Several Christians from the Holy Land and even some religious authorities confided to me that at Christmas and Easter or other important circumstances, the Holy Land Catholics (a very small minority of the population! ) enjoy joint reunions. Yet something like this had never happened before, except perhaps for the popes’ visits… I am therefore passing on my grateful thanks to a young Israelian catholic of Lebanese origin, Charbel Maroun, who, on my recommendation, had made all the necessary contacts with the local religious and civil authorities, for these great assemblies to take place.
The “Medjugorje” touch
Throughout the entire pilgrimage, I was confronted with a delicate fundamental fact. The lady who helped me tremendously to organize this pilgrimage, and who, moreover, was previously a tour operator, Sabrina Covic, is a Croat, resident alternately in Paris and Medjugorje, where she is closely linked to people who say they have seen the Virgin Mary. Now the Medjugorje movement is widespread in the world, including the Holy Land. A considerable number of our pilgrims was recruited, thanks to the Internet, via this movement. Especially since Sabrina had invited one of the “visionaries” (under reserve), Vicka, to join us. This meant that during the great assemblies, the rosary was interrupted, at 18h40, by what many believe to be an apparition of the Virgin Mary. I have personal reasons to think that these apparitions are authentic. I also know that the local bishop on the spot, the bishop of Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovine, is on the contrary, in fierce opposition. This has not prevented Rome from not feeling tied down by his judgment alone, since an international commission of experts has been appointed to study the phenomena. The report seems to be almost finished, and according to some, is likely to be neutral, perhaps even lenient, without being able to settle the matter in a peremptory fashion, neither positively nor negatively, since the phenomena are still going on. I have therefore repeated on each occasion, the church’s reserves on the matter. Nonetheless, the presence of a Vicka, suffering from poor health, always smiling, completely devoted to the local Christians, especially the sick, certainly contributed in attracting the crowds, at times in a friendly hubub more in conformity with the croat mentality and oriental customs than our sober and cold Belgian habits…
Another surprise, ecumenical this time…
Another constituent, rather disconcerting, presented itself to us whilst in Bethlehem preparing, in Saint Catherine’s church, our habitual evening of prayer with just the “Maranatha” group: study, rosary, mass and adoration. Vicka wasn’t there that day. However, a few hours before in a street, I had come across Vassula Ryden, a Greek orthodox, but very close to the catholic church, also on a pilgrimage in the Holy Land, with more than 700 Christian pilgrims of all denominations, amongst whom a hundred or so bishops and priests. Vassula’s writings, ‘would be’ inspired by the Lord – I’ve read a certain number, which I found to be fine pieces of writing – are controversial as much for their content as for their origin, supernatural or not. Although she is orthodox, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose president at that time was Cardinal Ratzinger, examined her writings and published a first note, relatively severe towards her, then, after hearing her explanations, a second, more positive, but still putting prudently on guard.
On behalf of her group, the request was addressed to me to allow them to join us for evening prayers. Not for mass, for the group “True Life in God” (the name of the movement founded by Vassula) had had theirs that morning: but for prayers and the rosary. For the second time I found myself faced with an ‘outsize’ component, just as ‘spicy’! Yet how could we refuse to pray the rosary with a group proclaiming exactly the same prayer intentions and the same ecumenical concern as ourselves, with additionally the ardent desire that, soon, all Christians could celebrate Easter on the same date? In fact this joint encounter went down very well indeed, in a fervent communion of hearts, and to everyone’s satisfaction.
The work and testimony of the Christians on the spot
During the last two days in Bethlehem, we multiplied our contacts with the local Christians: the Carmel, where the Blessed Mariam, the little Arab, lived ; the Moniales de l’Emmanuel and their amazing welcome (many will never forget the washing of their feet !), the “Crèche de la Sainte Famille”, fostering Muslim children from 0 to 7 years old, abandoned, with no identity, as they were born outside marriage ; the parish and Seminary of Beit Jala. No doubt the most moving, however, was to pray close to the wall separating the Israelian and Palestinian territories. A wall symbolizing, on the Jewish side, the fear of terrorism, and on the Palestinian side, a feeling of humiliating exclusion. We interceded there with Christ, He who knocked down the wall of hatred separating the Jews and the pagans for them to enter the same church (cf. Ep 2,14-18) and with Mary-who-makes-the-walls-fall-down, represented by a drawing on part of the wall, in Bethlehem.
On the way back to the airport, we stopped at Abu Gosh where father Olivier, a Benedictine, spoke to us of the thrilling welcome he experiences living not only with Christians, but also with Muslims and Jews, including very orthodox Jews. It is on this note of universal fraternity, aptly resuming the intentions we bore, that we concluded a pilgrimage which left us all a bit tired (just a little bit) and with everything we could have wished for.
Mgr A.-J. LEONARD,
Archbishop of Malines-Bruxelles