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Editor’s note:Dave Peters, son of Deacon Joe Peters of St. Stanislaus Basilica Parish in Chicopee, is journeying with five others to the Holy Land. A graduate of the Elms College, Dave is offering his insights and reflections about this trip for our readers. He gives a very special reflection following a violent attack in Jersualem where two Palestinians armed with a meat cleaver and a gun killed four worshippers in a Jerusalem synagogue on Nov. 18 before being shot dead by police, the deadliest such incident in six years in the holy city. Three of the victims held dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship and the fourth man was a British-Israeli national, police said.

“There has been an event.” Deeb, our guide, said soberly after we had buckled ourselves into the van. “An attack on a synagogue in West Jerusalem early this morning; several worshipers there were shot.” Every one in the group looked around at each other in disbelief. While in one sense we all knew this was a dangerous place, the news still came as a bit of a shock because since arriving in the Holy Land we had not once felt that we were in danger. Deeb went on to explain that this attack by two Palestinian men was retaliation for the strangling of a Palestinian bus driver yesterday following a confrontation with Israeli police. Apparently, the incident had been reported as a suicide by authorities after the bus driver had been found hanged by the neck in his bus.

“I think it best that we cancel our visit of the Dome of the Rock today.” Deeb continued. “In all likelihood, the authorities will not open it to tourists anyway.” That was fine because Tony and Deeb had showed us such great experiences already, we knew that anything they offered would not disappoint.

There was no doubt about it, the mood on the streets of Jerusalem had changed overnight. Pairs of young police officers in full combat gear were stationed with assault rifles at every gate, many others patrolled the streets of East Jerusalem, the Palestinian section, stopping and demanding identification from pedestrians they passed. Tony and Deeb testified, however, it was mostly just anyone who looked Arab.

wall

The metal detector at the Wailing Wall beeped red both times I walked through it until the guard who carried a pistol in his belt banged his palm on it, producing a green “Go.” The scene at the wall was simply other worldly. It stood sixty-two feet high and was built of large pale-white bricks. The worship area was separated with the left two-thirds reserved for males, and the remainder for females. In the male area, about one hundred ultra-Orthodox Jews grouped together busy in personal prayer. Some stood or sat at study desks draped in velveteen cloth stitched with the names of their Brooklyn benefactors. They rocked energetically while chanting, others re-wrapped black straps on their arms or adjusted the prayer boxes on their heads. Like other tourists, we donned the required cloth yarmulke provided free in bins at the entrance by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

in chairs

“Are you Jewish?” A man called out to us from a booth along the side wall. After we answered in the negative, he quickly produced a stack of historical brochures to pass out to us about the Jewish faith. We scribbled our prayers on small white squares of paper, folded them and stuck them into gaps between the foundation stones which overflowed with similar prayer intentions.

After leaving the wall, we passed two battalions of coed plain-clothed Israeli soldiers on patrol, each soldier couldn’t be much older than twenty, though they all had assault rifles slung across their backs. We finally stopped at Gallicantu, literally, “the cock’s crow.” This is a church run by the Assumptionist priests built on the site of the High Priest Caiaphas house where Jesus was imprisoned for the night following his arrest at Gethsemane and prior to his trial by Pontius Pilot, crucifixion, and death. It is also believed to be the spot where Peter denied Jesus three times.

fr. s looking down hole

Of all the Holy Land sites, this one is believed to have the greatest historical accuracy because it is built over a stone dungeon, actually visible from the sanctuary. Basically, it is a hole in the rock which lowers into a hand carved stone room about ten feet cubed. Prisoners of the High Priest would have been lowered into the dark ditch by ropes strung underneath their arm pits and then pulled back up the same way. Leading to the dungeon, the Assumptionists have placed a magnificent life-size bronze sculpture of a kneeling Jesus, tied at the wrists. I found this piece particularly fascinating because I feel that Jesus is very rarely depicted as the political prisoner and criminal he was executed as.

bottom of hole

In addition to the well which displays the dungeon cell behind a glass pane, the basement sanctuary of the church also contains three icons of Peter, one of his denial of Jesus, one ofhis repentance, and one also of Peter’s Primacy, where Peter affirmed three times that he loved Jesus. While this event is the first chronologically, when read in light of the Resurrection, it is seen as Peter’s beginning as head of the Church. As Deeb explained the story on the steps outside the church, it is all about God giving humans second chances.
We celebrated Mass outside on a balcony which overlooked the valley leading down from Mount Zion. We could view the golden Dome of the Rock to the left, the Garden of Gethsemene rising along the ridge of the hill on the opposite side, and to the right was Gahena, the field of blood, which was the plot of land purchased with Judas’s thirteen silver pieces and also the site on which he hanged himself.

city

The afternoon was bright and cool, the wind lifted the Palestinian and Israeli flags on top of several of the roof tops which followed the contours of the hills like a warped computer keyboard. The valley was spliced by Muslim minarets which stuck up like spikes above the rooftops. A few helicopters hovered like dragon flies above the hill on the opposite side.

“With all of this violence, it’s easy to forget that we are all God’s children.” Father said during his homily. “But as Christians we need to realize that we are all part of the same family. It’s easy to forget, especially here, where the faiths of the world converge.” The Muslim call to prayer began to blast from the minarets and covered the valley. The pulse of the helicopter blades grew louder as they approached East Jerusalem. The attackers at the synagogue had been shot by police, my cell phone informed me, but the police were still searching the streets from above for accomplices. “But we do this,” Father continued, “not through converting people, not through violence, not through creating greater division. We need to see all the other kinds of people out there as they truly are, our brothers and sisters. God’s goal for all of us is simply that we may all be one.”

fr. s and cassify

I started to imagine the scene where Peter denied Jesus. It happened just a few feet from where we sat, this same place where today the world seems to be coming apart at the seams like an old quilt. How desperate we all are for a second chance.

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sea of g

By Dave Peters

Editor’s note: Dave Peters, son of Deacon Joe Peters of St. Stanislaus Basilica Parish in Chicopee, is journeying with five others to the Holy Land. A graduate of the Elms College, Dave is offering his insights and reflections about this trip for our readers.


It is misleading that English speakers grow up naming the location where Jesus did most of his public ministry as a sea. This leads us to think that what Peter, James, and John spent their lives fishing on was some large body of salty water. This image exaggerates the grandness of stories like Jesus calming the stormy waters. But when the sun rose upon Galilee and I finally peered down from the Mount of the Beatitudes onto the Sea of Galilee, I was struck with a funny feeling. The biblical world of my imagination finally confronted reality. In that moment, the great Jesus, tsunami tamer, became yet another traveler who spent a lot of time “chillin” by a mid-sized fresh water lake. Add to this what I learned later, that Jesus didn’t speak of the blessed meek on a mountain surrounded by thousands who just wanted a glimpse of him. He spoke at the corner of two hills, as did many other preachers of the day, so that the scattered people who did show up could hear him better. Why hadn’t anyone bothered to mention this tidbit to me when I was younger?

mt. of beatitudes

I spent most of my morning in a fog of disillusionment, with the theme song from a New Testament-based cartoon my sixth grade teacher showed my class droning on in my consciousness: “Jesus is a star! Fa-la-lo-la-la!” It repeated endlessly as I recalled Jesus zooming by on clouds with fireworks streaming from his raised fist.

mount of b

This true-God-true-man must have spent a lot of time just like the rest of us, I thought as we walked through a cloud of stagnant sewer-stench which was streaming from the basement lavatories behind the Sea of Galilee Museum. Sunk a foot deep in mud, plastic lawn chairs were scattered along the beach alongside the docked S.S. Saint Francis, a mid-sized power boat which would take us on a brief jaunt out to the sea.

st. francis

The tour included a loudspeaker rendition of the American National Anthem and a modern Israeli line dance lesson, before the crew captained by a Jew named Peter (coincidence?) tried to sell us Sea of Galilee souvenirs. Please don’t misunderstand me, there was nothing wrong with Galilee, but when the foundation of your understanding is the coloring page of the children’s bulletin in which Jesus is depicted as Harry Potter, it is safe to say that reality is disturbingly average. But then again, maybe it isn’t.

location

As Jesus had performed most of his ministry and miracles along the shore, in towns all mutually visible to one another, churches were built along the edge of the lake, like beachfront vacation homes. While several were set up by the Byzantines several centuries following the Resurrection, a few more were built by Crusaders who invaded on doomed missions of reestablishing a Christian presence which was never a real presence. It is important to realize that much of what exists here in commemoration of Jesus’s life is funded by far away communities like our diocese in Springfield, Massachusetts, in order that travelers like us might find something familiar when we arrive on pilgrimage. This is largely because Christians have always been a small minority of the population in Palestine; currently, a mere two percent. To prove this, one need not look further than the Paul Newman face on the statue of Saint Peter beside the ruins of his home in the fishing town of Capernaum, or the donor plaque which boasts of Scotch-Irish surnames belonging to a Pennsylvania parish. At what may have been the pit of my depression, I turned to a local, someone whose family had inhabited the region for eons, Deeb, our guide, hoping for some sort of consolation for this obvious historical blunder.
“No,” he said to me flatly. “It is that strange.”

group

Added to the clash of cultures were the twelve tour buses blocking the gate. Each was filled Chinese pilgrims who crowded underneath the flags carried by their priest/tour guide who ushered them in various directions. One young girl from Beijing, clarified for me later that they were 800 pilgrims in total just wrapping up a ten-day pilgrimage. This made surviving our puny six-man, seven-day Holy Land trip look like a cake walk.

But it also did something else too; it made me look around at the beach where some small groups were gathered together in communion, each celebrating Mass or bowing their heads in prayer. After our group had finished its own prayer, we took some time to walk between the different groups: Indonesian, Spanish, French, Polish, Russian, Chinese, Greek, and Arabic were just some of the languages I heard being spoken.

mount tabor

Later that afternoon, we took the van up the windy road which lead to Mount Tabor, the site of Jesus’s Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah. The vastness of the world lay out before our feet as we gathered once again in prayer. The clouds were pink and spliced with rays of golden sunlight which streamed onto the green agricultural fields and into the rough natural landscape of thorny trees and shrubs on the slope. I took a moment by myself to wonder how even the best teacher might manage to establish a new commandment based on social justice which flipped the values of the world upside down. How had this new way come to unite such different kinds of people from all over the world each with their own set of vocabulary, unique cultures, and conflicting traditions? From this perspective, it is not shocking to see the Jesus’s nature as divine, but from my time in Galilee I know for sure how much of a dude chillin by a lake Jesus of Nazareth really was.

pilgrims

By Dave Peters

Editor’s note: Dave Peters, son of Deacon Joe Peters of St. Stanislaus Basilica Parish in Chicopee, is journeying with five others to the Holy Land. A graduate of the Elms College, Dave is offering his insights and reflections about this trip for our readers.


The Departure

Though my father and I arrived at the Big E fairgrounds precisely one minute after 2:30, the luggage of our fellow pilgrims was already in the trunk of the large white van. When our gang (consisting of Father Warren Savage, Don D’Amour, Steve Marcus, Gene Cassidy, my father, Joe Peters, and myself) was gathered and ready to depart, a ceremonial picture was taken at the steps of the Brooks Building, and we piled into the van that would be our transport to JFK. As most of us, excluding Fr. Savage and Steve, were making our first trip to the Holy Land, the conversation buzzed with excitement and anxiety. We sped south on 91, rapidly switching topics between hopes for the sites where Jesus preached and ministered, and divulging our anxiety about the conflict in the Middle East. Still our personal lives and community concerns were never too distant, and the trouble of funding Catholic education, the stress of preparing a good homily, and the challenge of maintaining Catholic identity in the workplace crept back into the conversation frequently.

Preparing for the trip ahead of time, I often wondered how a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, or Israel, as I like to refer to it, would affect me and my faith. It seemed though, starting out, that all of us were scratching at the surface of the same problem, not knowing just how this trip would change us, but being eagerly ready and willing to accept the call for transformation. After living the past two years in Taiwan, first as a teacher and the second as a student, and recently relocating to Denver where I manage a glassblowing studio, the ground slowly shifting beneath my feet has been a familiar feeling. I could relate when on the topic Catholic education, Fr. Savage pointed out, just calling a school Catholic isn’t good enough; there needs to be something substantially characteristic in the identity of the institution. And as I ate a cup of pretzel bits at a pit stop in Norwalk, I figured the same was probably true for humans, especially each of us pilgrims; this would be a trip to discover our Christian roots in their native soil.

ext of church

Church of the Annunciation:

As all good flights, Delta flight 468 was perfectly uneventful, and with the exception of passing Danny DeVito (he really is as short as you imagine) at the gate, and an unnecessary second security screening before boarding, we had nothing to complain about whatsoever. On the road to Nazareth, the late afternoon sunset shone on Deeb’s forehead when he turned from the front seat to explain to us of the difficulties for Palestinians living in the Jewish state of Israel. Deeb, along with Tony, our tour guides for the week, are both Palestinian Christians whose families have survived more than five generations in the crowded old infrastructure of Jerusalem.

tony and deeb

“Just look at the wall,” Deeb said pointing to a fifteen foot concrete wall which sat behind olive trees along the right side of the car. “Behind that wall is the West Bank, the largest Palestinian-governed territory in Israel. It was built to keep the Palestinians inside.”
Both Tony and Deeb, who were Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, had been issued a permit, serving as their IDs. It was this permit which allowed them freedom of movement within Israel.

“If you are born inside Gaza, or the West Bank, you do not have this privilege,” Tony said. “You are trapped there.”

naz

Nazareth was a large city bustling at six in the evening. Neon lights advertising clothing and candy shops blinked and lit up the glass windows of compact cars lining both sides of the road. Sandwiched inside a complex urban system of large concrete buildings all on different levels is the Church of the Annunciation, where the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary, asking her to bear the Son of God. The site of this event, in my memory, had always been depicted as a small grassy grove with a fresh water spring, but there we were getting hassled by the parking attendant in what could easily have been Tremont Street in Boston; Tony took the attendant by the shoulder and distracted him in Arabic while the rest of us scuttled through the steel double doors into the bright lights of the sanctuary.

ann dome

The main floor was a large open space with diagonal concrete beams supporting a large white dome which resembled the tent from the scripture passage of the Annunciation. Arabic songs with church organ could be heard coming from a wide hole in the floor which revealed the ground level where Saturday evening Mass was being held. The altar was set about ten feet below the basement floor on a platform surrounded by the white stone ruins of the original Byzantine church commemorating the actual site of the Annunciation. This was then enclosed once more by another set of ruins dating from the church which was erected by the European Crusaders.

ann. church

Outside, Saleem the gate keeper introduced me to the large door of the church on which was depicted the life of Jesus in six scenes. He said that over the course of ten years as gate keeper there he has seen hundreds of thousands of tourists. He gestured to the ceramic murals of the Annunciation which came from artists all around the world exhibited in and around the church.

“So many people, so many styles,” he said. Just then bells began to ring signalling the end of Mass and a haunting call to prayer came out from the next door mosque. We said a quick prayer in front of the statue of the Virgin and dashed off to the car. There was still so much more to see, but we would need to get on the road if we were to reach the Sea of Galilee before too late.

ann. mural