Pope's Representative Urges Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Bishop visits Benedictine College — Bishop Michael O. Jackels, far left, concelebrated the opening Mass and convocation Sept. 1 at Benedictine College, Atchison. Also attending were the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, and five other bishops.

He has traveled the world for the past 40 years as a member of the diplomatic corps of the Holy See.  He could have spoken on a myriad of subjects, but Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Pope’s personal representative to the United States, was compelled to speak about the Holy Land and the fragile position of the Christian population there.
 “The bishops of the Holy Land have written recently that if nothing is done to stop the alarming exodus of Christians from the Holy Land, then within 50 years Christianity will disappear in the very land where Christ founded the Church,” he said.
The Archbishop delivered the keynote address at the Academic Convocation on the campus of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., Tuesday morning, Sept. 1.  Prior to the convocation, he had concelebrated the opening all-school Mass in St. Benedict’s Abbey Church with Archbishop Joseph Naumann from the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.  Naumann also joined him on the convocation dais, along with an impressive array of Church leaders from around the country and around the world.  Participating in the proceedings were Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Bishop Michael Owen Jackels of Wichita, Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden of Baltimore, Bishop Herbert Hermes of the Prelacy of Cristalandia, Brazil, Abbot Barnabas Senecal of St. Benedict’s Abbey, and Prioress Sister Anne Shepard of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery.
Sambi carries the title of Apostolic Nuncio to the United States and serves as the Pope’s representative to both the nation’s Catholic Church and the civil government.  He has previously served as the Apostolic Nuncio to Israel (1998 to 2004, including the historic 2000 visit of Pope John Paul II to the region) and he addressed what he considers to be a critical situation with Christians leaving the area.
“The Holy Land is not a foreign land for us (Christians),” he said.  “The Holy Land is a privileged place where the mystery of salvation unfolded.  For Christians, it is the land of the patriarchs and the prophets, as well as that of Jesus Christ and the Apostles and the birthplace of the Church.”
Sambi said the Holy Places are “like the fifth Gospel.”  They establish that Jesus is not a ghost or legend but is history.
“They help us to understand that human redemption by the work of Jesus Christ is not a legend, but a historical event,” he said.  “It occurred in a precise moment of human history; during the reign of Tiberius, in precise circumstances; during the Roman occupation, that the work of God became flesh and entered human history as the Savior of the world.”
He spoke of The Cenacle, or Last Supper Room, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Calvary, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  These places, he said, each deliver their own message and help Christians better understand their faith.  He also acknowledged the holy sites for the Jewish and Muslim religions in the Holy Land, but he said much of the conflict is based on territorial disputes.
“We Christians do not ask for land,” he said.  “We ask for respect.  Respect for the Holy Christian Places, as well as for those areas that are sacred to the Jews and to the Muslims.  We ask for respect for the small Christian community.  We ask that Christians from all over the world may have the right to participate in pilgrimages to the Holy Land in a safe and respected manner.”
Sambi said he is not concerned about the Holy Places themselves, but the ability of Christians to maintain the connection with them.  He said the continuing violence in the Holy Land, and the lack of any concrete prospect for peace, was creating a situation in which Christian pilgrims were afraid to go to the Sacred Places and the local Christian population was moving away.
“I am truly concerned about the future of the Christian community (in the Holy Land),” he said.
In addition to the violence, the high unemployment rate, general economic distress, and a lack of housing are also driving young Christians out of the area.  The Christian community makes up only 2% of the region’s population and it is growing smaller.
Sambi recommended several courses of action.  First, he said we must pray for the local Christian population, asking the Holy Spirit to give them strength.  Second, he said we must encourage pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
“The pilgrimage enriches not only the one who makes such a journey,” he said.  “But it also contributes morally and materially to the local Christian community.  In the Holy Land, Christians suffer from a minority complex.  When they see many pilgrims, they are encouraged by their presence and they are able to see themselves as belonging to a large community of universal dimension.  If so many people come to the Holy Land from such distant regions of the world, then it is precious to remain in the Holy Land.”
Finally, he said we must all work to find a lasting peace in the region.  This, he said, would be the greatest help for all people of the area.
“I am of the idea that God has given a mission to the Holy Land,” Sambi concluded.  “The mission that He has given to the Holy Land is a mission of love, a mission of brotherhood, and a mission of peace.  While the Holy Land remains a region of conflict, there where God revealed his love for humanity, it will be difficult to have peace around the world.”