Pilgrims of peace

Tadeusz A. Janusz interviews Fr Nikodem Gdyk, OFM, Commissary of the Holy Land in Poland

Tadeusz A. Janusz: - In November 2004 the Polish Commissariat of the Holy Land organised another National Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. What character did it have? What is similar to the previous pilgrimages?

Fr Nikodem Gdyk, OFM: - This was the tenth National Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which was organised by our Commissariat. The first five pilgrimages constituted a magnificent chart of the Polish pilgrimages before World War II; the later ones were one of the forms to prepare the Jubilee Year - two thousand years of Christianity. The last pilgrimage was of different character because its main idea was to pray for peace in the earthly land of Jesus. The presence of Polish pilgrims was also an expression of solidarity with local Christians and an appeal to the two feuding nations for seeking ways of dialogue and reconciliation. The Holy Father asked us to take such an attitude, 'The Holy Land does not need walls that divide but bridges'. This pilgrimage was exactly such a bridge between Poland and the Land of the Saviour. Thanks to the Radio Maryja and its daily broadcastings the Polish people all over the world could pray with us.

- Did you notice that the anxiety for safety among the pilgrims was greater than before because of the prolonged Palestinian-Israeli conflict? How did the participants of the pilgrimage feel?

- Every pilgrimage means some effort and certain risk. In past centuries the pilgrims who set out to the Holy Land wrote their last wills and said good-bye to their families as if they were never to return. Today a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is safe. When the pilgrims saw that there was quiet everywhere they asked, 'Where is the war our media speak so much about?' Of course, there is a conflict. But it only affects some regions of the Palestine National Authority. All the places pilgrims reach are safe and accessible. Galilee has always been quiet. We are anxious when we enter Bethlehem, which is located in the territory of the Authority. As it was before you had to go through a control point but it just takes a few minutes. So far we have always been allowed to enter Bethlehem.

- As a commissary you are in constant contact with the Custody of the Holy Land and you often visit it. What are the chances to stabilise the situation, chances for d(tente, reconciliation and peace in this region after Yasser Arafat's death?

- I would not like to talk about political issues. It is a fact that nowadays Palestine has no leader who could replace Arafat. He created the Palestine National Authority and was the leader of the Palestinian nation. He was a man whose name was explicitly related to Palestine. He was respected. It was important to us that he did not put pressure on the Catholic Church. A gesture of his good will was his presence at the midnight Mass in Bethlehem every year. Arafat promised that Palestine would be a secular country, not a religious one. Now there are various opinions. If the fundamentalists gain power Christianity can suffer persecutions. The Custody has had various experiences throughout ages but it has always supported the local Palestinian population but not for political reasons. Most Christians are Arabs and we organise pastoral care for them. All parties want to solve the conflict quickly, say for economic reasons. Pilgrimages have ceased almost completely and the entire tourist-pilgrim base is empty and people have no jobs. Our pilgrimage, almost 300 people, was even noticed by the Ministry of Tourism. Christians, the custos of sanctuaries as well as hotel owners, drivers and travel agencies were very happy to see us.

- At Christmas we are thinking of Bethlehem. Do pilgrims have free access to the Basilica of the Nativity?

- Pilgrims arrive in Bethlehem with faith. Prayer and singing carols in the Grotto of the Nativity are most important to them. As we know Bethlehem has belonged to the Palestine National Authority for several years. There are some special tourist police that keep order. The town itself creates a bad impression. Most shops and hotels are closed. Outside the town there is a Palestinian refugee camp. And one can see damage in the outskirts of Bethlehem. The journey of pilgrims from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is not troublesome, even if the situation is exacerbated. At the worst we change the coach or take taxis. A wall is being built near Bethlehem. It is to separate the Palestine National Authority and Israel. You can see it near the Tomb of Rachel from the centre in Tantur. The wall is not uniform, at some places it is 8-10 meter high, sometimes it is lower and sometimes it is only a barbed wire fence with ditches. The wall is still being built in spite of worldwide protests. Arabs need permission to get from Palestine to Israel. If they do not have it they cannot find jobs. It means that Christians cannot participate in services in the sanctuaries in Jerusalem although these sanctuaries are within arm's reach. Because of the wall houses are demolished, olive groves are destroyed and Arab families are displaced, which in turn leads to conflicts that can be sometimes very acute.

- The Polish Commissariat has conducted many activities for the Holy Land for over 100 years. Let us remind our readers what these activities have been.

- We support the homeland of Jesus, which has experienced a serious conflict for years. We do it among others through prayer, pilgrimages as well as material help. The Commissariat co-operates with the Custody of the Holy Land. The first document about the help of the Franciscan commissaries, who collected alms for the Holy Land in the Kingdom of Poland, comes from the year 1601. Therefore, we have been helping the Holy Land for over 400 years. The commissaries, acting on behalf of the Church and the Custody, made the Polish society aware of the need to support Christians in the Holy Land. Today we also want to arouse that awareness, encouraging people to pray for peace and justice in the Near East, to take part in pilgrimages, to attend lectures on the Holy Land and to read publications about this subject matter. For 10 years we have published the quarterly 'Ziemia Swieta' (Holy Land), which introduces the earthly homeland of our Saviour to the Polish people. A subscription of the quarterly, offering stipends for Masses celebrated in the sanctuaries of the Holy Land or voluntary donation are forms of concrete help, and thanks to that the Custody can run the holy places as well as works of charity, education and social help among the local Christians.

- You have become a member of the Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre in Poland. What does it mean to you?

- I have been associated with the Holy Land for many years. It was exactly 20 years ago when I went to study in Jerusalem and thus this land has become my second homeland. There is no day I do not think of it. This year I have joined the Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. I think I am the first religious who has been honoured in this way. It is a great distinction for me and at the same time a task to share my experiences and knowledge with other knights and ladies of the Holy Sepulchre because our common aim is to support the Church in Jerusalem.

- Thank you very much for the conversation.

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl