THE HOLY PLACES MAKE READY FOR THE JUBILEE
Saint Peter stands before a fire, two women and a Roman solider are nearby. The scene is that of the Apostle's triple denial which all four Evangelists have recorded for us (Mt 26, 69-75; Mk 14, 66-72; Lk 22, 54-62; Jn 18, 15-18 and 25-27) and which, since the beginning of the month of June we see represented in a group of life-size figures in bronze erected in a square adjacent to the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu: on the slopes of Mount Zion, and, according to tradition, the site of the House of High Priest Caiaphas. The view from here is one of the best and most intriguing of the western part of the Holy City, its walls, famous Mosques built on the Temple Mount, its hills and its valleys. On the horizon, the Moab mountains, in the valley the village of Shilo with its famous baths. From here starts the road of steps which it is thought that Jesus walked on Holy Thursday on the way down from the nearby "Upper Room" of the Last Supper, towards the Garden of Gethsemane, and along which he probably had to retrace his steps, when after his arrest, he was led to be judged by Caiaphas.
During the Jubilee, the number of pilgrims will certainly be high; last year they numbered 175 thousand, including tourists. There will be intense coming and going of buses, at the moment a large car-park is hardly sufficient for manoeuvres, and the private entry road is being widened. The church has just been restored, it has taken several years and included work on the foundations, the walls, the roof, the mosaics, the electric wiring, heating and furnishings. It is one of the Christian monuments which is seen at night in the panorama of Jersualem, because it is illuminated like the Dome of the Rock and the Jewish Cemetery on Mount Olive. The inauguration, set for May 5th, was postponed for several months due to Israel's block on the autonomous territories imposed after the terrorist attacks at the end of February, early March. The block has impeded the arrival of commuting Palestinian brick-layers.
In the meanwhile, they are setting up outside, a large bronze statue, the Suffering Servant (Is 53, 11b) and inside, on the intermediate floor of the Church, between the crypt and the upper floor, three mega-icons (1m 80 cm high), especially commissioned from Russian icon painter Eugeni Kisets, an Orthodox Christian living in Israel. The sculptor of the group of St Peter's denial, of the Suffering Servant, and who has also worked a Crucifix and bronze doors for the church, is Richard Shilon, a Jewish artist, like Shadmi Machshon who has produced stained-glass windows for a kibbutz. Before the end of the year, again under the direction of Palestinian architect Samir Kandah, work will commence on an amphitheatre for open-air liturgical celebrations (to hold about 700 people) and the preparation of an area for a relief model, in miniature of course, of Jerusalem in the Byzantine era, in particular her churches at that most splendid moment of her Christian life.
Latest reports from St Peter in Gallicantu - a journalistic pre-view reserved for "Tertium Millennium" - tell of fervid preparations for the jubilee year by the caretakers of Holy Places, in this case the Assumptionist Fathers and their Superior in Jerusalem Fr Robert Fortin. But naturally the greatest efforts are being undertaken by the Order of Friars Minor, who were given a mandate by the Holy See - as the Custodian of the Holy Land, Fr Giuseppe Nazzaro tells us in an exclusive interview - "to oversee most of the Holy Places which recall the main events of our Redemption".
Mobilisation for the Jubilee, he says, was started last year in May, in Malta, where there was a meeting of the Order's Plenary Council, and when, with the approval of the Minister General, he sent a message to all the friars throughout the world to this effect: "the confreres serving in the Holy Places of Nazareth, Mount Tabor, Cana, Capernaum, Tabgha (Primacy of Peter), Ain Keran (Visitation and Saint John the Baptist), the Holy Sepulchre, Gethsemane, Bethlehem, Emmaus etc., are insufficient. We need confreres to minister the sacrament of Reconciliation in various languages, we need liturgical animators, guides, pilgrims or simply Religious willing to serve in the different Places in welcoming pilgrims." An appeal which was repeated during a high-level meeting of the Friars Minor in Rome, although in fact in the meantime response had been good. This leads to the question of spiritual and pastoral activity in the Holy Places, a problem followed with attention and in its entirety by the Jerusalem Committee, and which we will deal with on another occasion as it merits, due to its importance, special consideration. The president of the Committee, Bishop Kamal-Hanna Bathish, has already expressed his appreciation for the initiatives and work already undertaken in the Holy Places.
To return to the question of welcoming the pilgrims, the Custodians of the Holy Land first of all made a survey of the Holy Places on the capacity of the buildings, requisites for programming possible celebrations, and on work do be done, restoration, extension, adaptation etc. They decided that work was to begin in Cana and Bethlehem, to make ready, vast covered areas respectively for Galilee and the zone of Jerusalem.
Near the Shrine of the first Miracle there will be a large hall for six or seven hundred people to be used for liturgical functions of the parish while the work of levelling the nave is carried out. The intention is to lower the end of the nave and the apse (a chance for excavation entrusted to Fr Eugenio Alliata, docent of New Testament archaeology at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum). When the work in the church is completed the hall will be available for the Jubilee.
The same will happen for Bethlehem, where restoration work will begin on a vast hall dating to the times of the Crusades, which is without columns and is underneath the Franciscan convent. It can hold more than six hundred people and will serve the parish needs for the time necessary to re-pave the Church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (adjacent to the Basilica of the Nativity), and then be available during the pilgrimage period.
The problem of large halls for meetings, liturgies, seminars, with good parking space, is much felt by the Christians of the Holy Land, especially in the zone of Jerusalem.
The western part of the city has a huge Congress Hall (run by a Jewish organization, which two years ago hosted a meeting between religious leaders of Christianity and Judaism); in the eastern part of the city the "Notre Dame of Jerusalem Centre" has started building - in view of the Jubilee - an auditorium to hold at least 500 people. This will enable the Centre, an Institute of Pontifical right, well known as a residence for religious and pilgrims, to hold its institutional activities, religious, cultural and educational.
There is also a lack of areas for out-door events or celebrations, which should be filled, in the programme of the Franciscan Custodians, by Shepherds' Field. For the opening of the Synod of Jerusalem the Catholic community in the Holy Land had to "fall back" on the zone of Bethlehem: the ceremony was in fact held in the courtyard of the Patriarchal Seminary of Beit Jala, where about five thousand people gathered. In Jerusalem the planned St Peter in Gallicantu amphitheatre, which we mentioned earlier, will serve for ceremonies not expected to draw very large crowds. Regarding open-air events for the Jubilee, for young people unable to be accommodated in the Franciscan "Casanove", the Custodians of the Holy Land have this initiative: two camping sites, respectively in the beautiful garden area of the Shrine of the Primacy of Peter at Tabgha, on the shores of Lake Tiberias; and in the area of the Shrine of Shepherds' Field, south of Bethlehem. Two places near enough to Nazareth and Jerusalem, traditional poles of Holy Land Pilgrimages.
Important, lastly, is the Custodians' programme to improve the Gethsemane Hermitage. For several years now, thanks to the initiative and dedication of Fr Giorgio Colombini OFM, it offers accommodation in small, modern, shady cells on the edge of a vast garden, to individual pilgrims or mini-groups wishing to live in silence and prayer the experience of encountering the Holy City. In view of the Jubilee, the work of fitting-out more cells and building new ones will be completed. However there is accomodation only for a few people, so bookings will have to be early.
In front of the Basilica of Gethsemane, the Israeli municipal authorities, in accord with those of the newly built archaeological park called "The Valley of Kings", are constructing a large car-park and widening the road which runs under the southern walls as far as the deviation for the village of Shilo.
Work will be completed in a year or two on the archaeological Park, begun on the occasion of Jewish celebration of "Jerusalem 3000", to commemorate the date when David made the city the capital of his reign. It is bound to attract many pilgrims anxious to rediscover or complete their knowledge of famous places especially of the Old Testament, but also of the Gospels, including Gethsemane, the ares of Shilo and Mount Zion.
Speaking of Zion, the Benedictines plan to improve the organization of pilgrimages to Dormition Abbey, the most visited place in Jerusalem, after the Holy Sepulchre, also because of its vicinity to the Upper Room. Unfortunately, the place where Jesus gave himself to be our spiritual nourishment, instituted the priesthood and where the Eucharist was born, is no longer a Christian shrine since 1551, when the French Friars Minor were expelled by force by the Ottoman authorities from their property which, despite repeated requests, they have been unable to recuperate. Restoration work has been carried out recently, not without causing objections and protest, at the initiative of the Israeli authorities who regulate access to the place.
This same problem has become most urgent for the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, where it is aggravated by a lack of respect on the part of noisy guides and pilgrims and which it is hoped will soon be solved by the three religious authorities responsible: the Greek Orthodox and Armenian-Orthodox Patriarchs and the Franciscan Custodians of the Holy Land. Fr Nazzaro told "Tertium Millennium": "There is a project in hand for a large scale-plan of the Basilica in the square outside, with explanation in various languages: here the guides will be free to give their talk. Whereas, inside the Basilica silence will be imposed, to permit prayer. We have proposed, he adds, that lay people, Christians of Jerusalem, wearing a uniform, could accompany groups and individual visitors on a silent tour following a compulsory route". This would also help to lessen the Israeli authorities' concern for security.
Of good omen is the resumed collaboration between the two Patriarchs and the Custodians for the restoration of the Basilica, concretised with the approval, in August two years ago, of a restoration project for the dome over the Edicola of the Resurrection. Its new decoration, projected by American artist Ara Normart, will consist of twelve golden rays on a pearl white background. Light, which will radiate from the lantern and from invisible lamps, will add a brightness to the surface to call to mind the light of the Risen Jesus. The rays are meant to recall the twelve Apostles and the spreading of the Church throughout the world. Each ray is in three parts, a symbol of God, Three in One. The work, financed by an anonymous American Catholic donor, through the United States' office of the Pontifical Mission Societies, should be completed by the end of this year. Other works are being undertaken by the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch: the embellishment of the wall in front of the entrance with the Dormition Mosaic and decorations in marble open-work and restoration of the "Katholicon" or the central part of the Basilica.