What is the TRUTH?

Living and Dying in Terra Sancta

Date: 97-06-29 07:50:52

by Rev. R. Adam Forno

Rev. Adam Forno is an American Parish priest at St. Joseph Parish, 1620 Third St. Rensselaer, N.Y. 12144. He stayed in the Holy Land for an entire month. He wrote to us from the Holy Land about what he have seen.

Before the altar of a modest but decorative parish church in Beit Jala, which sits atop an adjacent hill with a breathtaking view of Bethlehem, stands a small statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is June 1997.

This image that once powerfully spoke to generations of Catholic immigrants to the United States of America, who like Jesus were wounded, cursed and often crucified, has lost its power for Americans today.

Lost with this image is the sense that since God, in Christ Jesus, can endure such great suffering then so can we who bear is name. Lost too, are both the sense that God is near and the courage to look suffering in the face and hold it in the heart of Christ.

Nine years earlier, upon my first return from Terra Santa (the Holy Land), I could be found for two weeks kneeling and weeping before the Blessed Sacrament of Christ the King Church in Guilderland where I was an associate pastor. Images of that first pilgrimage were burned into my consciousness. Among the images of my visit to the holy sites were the scenes of abject poverty, massive oppression, collective punishment, radical fear and the tragic losses endured, in particular, by the Christians of this region. Among the many losses were human life in death, a quality of life in economic deprivation, along with a loss of a sense of personhood and national identity.

Troubled by my tears and these many images, and the thought I may be "losing my mind", I sought the perspective of my spiritual director. He told me that I had had a "conversion experience"; that I had encountered the living God in the faces of the people of the Holy Land. This nearness to God was experienced vicariously through the many glimpses I had of the Palestinian people, the Christians in particular, who dared to look suffering in the face and survive. I have returned for a thirty day stay to once again glimpse suffering in the face and there encounter God.

Behind the walls of a forty-four bed hospital called St. Louis, close to the New Gate of the Old City Jerusalem, one can experience, if only for a brief moment, how Moslems, Jews and Christians together face suffering and death. St. Louis is a hospice for persons with advanced disease (terminal illness is not a phrase used here). St. Louis Hospital is equivalent to the Community Hospice Inn at St. Peterís Hospital in Albany (formerly St. Peterís Hospice Inn). Sponsored by a group of religious women, the Sisters of St. Joseph, from France, St. Louis Hospital becomes a final home for the people of the three monotheistic faiths who share this sacred land.

St. Louis is a soulful place in an ancient fortress-like building, with a dedicated staff of Jewish doctors, Jewish and Arab registered and practical nurses and scores of volunteers from all three faiths. It is here that one could find a Moslem offering a Jew a cup of tea or an embrace as a gesture of comfort and compassion in the face of suffering and death. Here, for those who choose, one can look suffering in the face and be near to God. In this modestly sized hospice program, the only one with such a mission in all of Terra Sancta ( there is no home care component) we can catch a glimpse of the peace that God intends for all of us. Unfortunately, however, once one steps out into the streets of Jerusalem, and beyond, suffering continues without this kind of compassion.

I bought a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice from a young Palestinian Moslem man near Gethsemane. He recently graduated from a four year nursing program but cannot find a job. A Christian man from the territories who takes videos of weddings, baptisms, and the like, wishes to pass into Jerusalem to video his friendís daughterís wedding. At the checkpoint into Jerusalem, it is demanded, by the Israeli authorities that he pay a 70% VAT tax to pass. He cannot afford to pass into Jerusalem and video the wedding. Also, at this checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem one can see dozens of Palestinian men sitting under the watchful eyes of the Israeli police. With hands behind their backs, in punishment for trying to cross over in Jerusalem for a dayís work so as to simply feed their families, they sit and wait for hours in the heat of the day before being released.

A Christian-Catholic lawyer from Beit Sahour cannot obtain the permission from the Israeli authorities to visit the sacred shrines or friends in Jerusalem . It was easier for him to recently take a vacation in the U.S.A. than go to Jerusalem ten miles from his home. A Christian family I know from Bethlehem did manage to obtain a one-day pass into Jerusalem so as to continue on to a family picnic near the sea. They were lucky that day.

Perhaps one of the most dramatic examples of daily dying, by attacks upon the dignity of persons, is the story of young woman in Hebron. She discovered an Israeli soldier urinating in her water tank atop the roof of her home which is her only source of water. Upon confronting him she was arrested for disorderly conduct. When she was brought to the police station she issued a complaint against him and was told by the head officer that she should simply wash out the tank.

These are but a few glimpses of the lives of the Palestinians who still face the suffering of separation from past roots and a hope for a dignified future. Nine years later, on my fifth and most extensive pilgrimage, I have sought to experience once again what it is that sustains a people in the face of such multiple losses as they continue to face personal, religious and socio-economic death. Perhaps in the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in that humble parish church, I have found my greatest clue. Perhaps, at least for the Arab Christians, it is in finding solace in the human heart of God, the sacred heart of Jesus, who like Himself experienced the pain of daily living and dying in this place of our redemption that has come to be known as "Terra Sancta".