The Church in the Holy Land awaits Benedict XVI

Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo of Nazareth, Latin Patriarchal Vicar General for Israel

– As the logo of Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage we have chosen the drawing of the monument to Jesus and the Apostle Peter who stands at the See of Galilee in Tabgha. This place commemorates the meeting of the Apostles with the Resurrected Christ. The Lord asked Peter three times, ‘do you love me?’ and gave him his mission, ‘Look after my sheep’ (cf. John 21:15-17). Earlier Jesus uttered the famous sentence in Galilee, ‘You are Peter [i.e. Rock] and on this rock I will build my Church’ (see Matthew 16:18). That’s why we wanted very much to have the phrase ‘Tu es Petrus’ the motto of the papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land’, says Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo of Nazareth, Latin Patriarchal Vicar General for Israel, showing me the poster prepared by the local Church. ‘The background shows the famous map of Madaba dated 5-6th c. We placed photos symbolising the particular stages of the papal visit: the site of the baptism (Betania over the Jordan), Nazareth, Bethlehem and naturally Jerusalem’, he continues. Bishop Marcuzzo is enthusiastic about the visit of the Holy Father to the Holy land, and no wonder, he is one of the main organisers of the papal pilgrimage. We met him to talk about this historical event.

Wlodzimierz Redzioch: – Your Excellence, are you ready to welcome Benedict XVI?

Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo: – We are still working but we have not got much time. However, the most important thing is the attitude of the faithful who are joyfully waiting for the Pope.

– What was the biggest problem for the organisers of the pilgrimage?

– The biggest technical problem was to be solved in Nazareth...

– The town you are living…

– It happened so. In Nazareth we had to prepare a completely new site for the meeting between the Pope and the faithful in Galilee. We could not use the Church of the Annunciation because it can hold only 1,500 people and we needed a large area for 30-40 thousand. The only area was at the Mount of the Precipice (Mons Praecipitii), which is just beside the town. The name of the mount is connected with the event depicted by St Luke (4:29), when Jesus returned to Nazareth and its inhabitants wanted him to make miracles there. But he did not do that.

– But he said the famous words, ‘No prophet is ever accepted in his own country’ (Luke 4: 24)…

– That’s why his fellow countrymen were enraged and wanted to throw him down the hill on which their town was built. The hill called the Mount of the Precipice (in Arabic al-Qafze) is not, however, the hill Luke wrote about. It was the Crusaders that invented the name. When they approached the town from the plain of Esdrelon they saw this steep hill (580 m high) as the biblical ‘precipice.’ It is on this hill that we have prepared a very nice area – the Holy Father will have Nazareth behind him and the faithful will see the altar, the Pope and the whole town from the hill. The most beautiful panorama of the Lower Galilee is from the top of this hill.

– Let me make a digression: palaeontology speaks of ‘skeleton from Qafzeh’…

– On the western side of the Mount of the Precipice there is ‘Ancestors’ Cave’ where in the years 1932-33 palaeontologists found a skeleton of a man dated 100,000 years ago. They called him ‘a man of Qafzeh.’ This man is an important element that allows us to reconstruct the migrations of our ancestors from Africa to Asia and Europe. Today the skeleton from the cave at Qafzeh is in France. When we speak about caves in the Mount of the Precipice I would like to add that there are also caves where the hermits lived in the early years of Christianity. This is the only example of hermitage in Galilee because in those times the hermits’ lives concentrated in the Judean Desert.

– For Christians Nazareth is the town of the Holy Family and that’s why it has become a symbol of family life. Did you consider that while planning the papal pilgrimage?

– During his visit the Pope will deal with four big topics: in Jordan he will speak about the Church, in Jerusalem he will speak about peace, in Bethlehem – about life and in Nazareth – about family. It is obvious that you must focus on this internationally important subject in the town of the Holy Family. Besides, in recent years within pastoral activities our local Church has dealt especially with family ministry. The visit of Benedict XVI will complete the Year of the Family in some way. The Pope will bless a cornerstone of the Magdala centre, about which John Paul II thought and which was planned by the Pontifical Council for the Family. The official name of the centre is the International Centre for Spirituality and New Evangelisation of the Family.

– The visit of Benedict XVI will be a pilgrimage to the places that commemorate the life of Jesus but it will also be a visit of the Head of he universal Church to the local Church. Who are Christians in the Holy Land today?

– In Israel we have 120-130,000 Christian Arabs, descendents of the first local community; in the Palestinian territories there are 50,000 and in Jordan – 245,000. In a word, in the three countries of the Holy Land we have ca. 425,000 Christians, half of them are Catholics. We should add Hebrew and Russian speaking Christians and guests, foreign workers who are numerous in Israel. I think that Christians of the Holy Land are also pilgrims who come here and treat Jesus’ land as their own spiritual homeland and they treat the local Church as the Mother Church.

– What hopes connected with the visit of the Holy Father has the local Church?

– First of all, we hope that it will really be a pastoral visit. All sides: the Holy Father, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Apostolic Nuncio and the whole Church agree about this: you cannot allow one aspect to dominate the visit. We hope that the effect of this pastoral visit will be strengthening of unity in the Church, creating a climate favourable to justice and peace and strengthening the dialogue between religions and cultures.

– Our experiences teach us that both the Israeli and the Palestine authorities will try to use the Pope’s visit for their own purposes…

– It is a delicate matter and that’s why we focus on the spiritual and pastoral aspects of the visit. Consequently, the central point of each stage of the pilgrimage is a meeting with the faithful and Mass. We have done our best that the Pope could meet believers and that people could see him, of course, ensuring necessary security means.

– Many people are concerned about the phenomenon of Christians leaving the Holy Land. Is there the risk that the land sanctified by Jesus’ presence will have no Christians?

– I think that here, in Israel, there is such risk although it is not that serious. It concerns mainly the Palestine territories. One should approach this problem with all seriousness but without any unnecessary panic. That’s why the Church does her best to have our faithful get rooted in this land. The papal pilgrimage can be a great help in pastoral ministry as well as cultural and social spheres.

– Talking about the pilgrimage of Benedict XVI to the Holy Land one should mention the diplomatic relationships between the Apostolic See and Israel, established in 1993. It is the so-called Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel without any earlier agreement concerning fiscal matters and property rights, which was a gesture of good will and act of confidence of the Holy Father towards the State of Israel. Then a special bilateral commission was called into being and it was to solve all problems between the parties. One can have the impression that the Israeli party does not keep promises and boycotts the works of the commission. Why does it happen?

– I am a member of the bilateral commission and that’s why I can talk about this topic. First of all, one should not exaggerate using such drastic statements as ‘not keeping promises’, ‘boycott the works’… One should make certain statements precise. It is true that this matter has been prolonged too much, exactly 16 years, and reaching a solution becomes more urgent. Before the papal visit one could see some acceleration of the works of the commission and it seemed that an agreement could be reached, the more that the thing is to put the already signed agreements into practice. But it did not happen. One can see that we still need time, patience and extra work.

– The problem is that Israel has not ratify even the signed agreements…

– That’s right. Neither the Fundamental Agreement of 1993 nor the Legal Personality Agreement of 1997 has been ratified by the State of Israel, i.e. they have not become the state law. Because of that we have many economic problems: problems with taxes, acknowledging the vested interests and property rights and many others.

– The new Israeli government has a minister that is known as a racist and extremist. Will that not create additional problems?

– Perhaps the change of the government and new atmosphere in the country have caused that the Israeli negotiators were not able to give a positive answer we were waiting for. Now all matters, both the general question of peace and the relationships with the Church, will be more complicated and complex. However, we must look to the future with confidence and hope because we are talking to the State of Israel, which should be a certain stable line of activities regardless of the political differences of the particular governments.

– My friends, Franciscan fathers, turn my attention to the fact that Israel does not want to acknowledge the rights of the Church, which through centuries were respected even by the Ottoman Empire…

– You mean the famous ‘Status quo’. It is a very important aspect because the Church has played a big role in the social, educational spheres, health care, social care and tourism or pilgrimages. It is the Church that provides medical care in some regions, e.g. in Nazareth and the Church runs schools.

– The state should acknowledge this important role of the Church…

– Undoubtedly, it should. Besides, every year millions of Christian pilgrims come to Israel and this is mainly because of the Church’s actions. Pilgrims’ tourism is the biggest source of Israel’s income – it is its ‘oil’, that’s why the state should recognise our role in this field. In old times, from the 16th century the rulers always appreciated this special role of the Church that with time acquired the rights called historical rights (not any privileges!). For example, the Church does not pay taxes on religious activities and does not pay the municipality tax. If we were to pay many communities would have closed their houses. We live on alms and thanks to the solidarity of the faithful all over the world. I repeat. The State of Israel at the moment of its creation in 1948 recognised our ‘acquired rights’ and respected them. However, the discussions concerning the agreement with the Apostolic See became the pretext to question these rights. We do not incline to give up ‘our acquired rights’ and pay taxes on purely religious activities although we can pay taxes on our business activities, e.g. production of wine. Before the visit of the Holy Father we should, however, talk about religious and spiritual questions, about ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue…

"Niedziela" 19/2009

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