Gunty is associate publisher/editor of the Catholic Review.

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Behind the Headlines

Bishop Madden, priests from Baltimore visit Bethlehem University in West Bank

By Christopher Gunty editor@CatholicReview.org

BETHLEHEM, West Bank – The newest building at Bethlehem University, completed in the year 2000 and appropriately called the Millennium Building, was struck by shells fired by the Israelis. Other parts of the campus were hit as well.

The damage has since been repaired, and other than the hole in the library building/heritage center that has now become a porthole window, and machine-gun scars that pock-mark the walls of some buildings, most of the campus seems secure.

“I don’t know what the message was supposed to be,” de La Salle Christian Brother Joe Loewenstein said of the guided-missile attack on the school, the first university in the Palestinian Territories, but he knows it was not a mistake.

“They said they saw somebody with a gun or something,” he said wryly. As the president emeritus of Bethlehem U, he sounds as though he has trouble believing the claim.

The university aims to be unabashedly Catholic-Christian, and yet be a place where the region’s Muslim majority are comfortable attending. In fact, with Christians comprising less than 1 percent of the population in the Palestinian territories, it might come as a surprise that 30 percent of the 3,000 students are Christian and 70 percent are Muslim.

To encourage understanding of each other’s cultures, all students are required to take a religious studies course that teaches students about both Christian and Muslim cultures.

While on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land Oct. 12-21, Bishop Denis J. Madden, auxiliary of Baltimore, and 23 priests from the archdiocese and nearby dioceses visited Bethlehem for a day. After celebrating an early Mass Oct. 14 at the site of Christ’s birth and visiting the Grotto of the Nativity, the group visited Bethlehem University for a briefing and a visit with students.

The university was established in 1973 as one of three initiatives – along with the Tantur ecumenical institute and the Ephphatha school for the deaf – at the urging of Pope Paul VI after his visit to the Holy Land in 1967.

Ala Sharif, a fourth-year student who is a Muslim, said she has no problems relating to her classmates; if possible, she hopes to start her own business after completing a master’s degree.

The priests talked with students about prospects for peace, not only among Christians and Muslims within Palestine, but with Israelis on the other side of the 700-mile-long wall that separates the West Bank and Palestinian territories from Israeli-occupied settlements.

Bishara Nassar, a recent graduate and one of the school’s ambassadors, said peace must begin from the ground up. “Peace will never come from the governments; it will not come through the peace process,” he told the group.

Another fourth-year student, Tareq Shahwam, agreed, though he believes it will not be even his generation, but the next, that can achieve peace.

“We need to break down the physical barriers and then break down the psychological barriers,” he said, adding that most of those in his Palestinian generation “would recognize Israel if they would recognize us.”

However, with the requirement for service in the Israeli military for people his age, Shahwam fears that they are already indoctrinated.

“The next generation,” he said, “if you can put other ideas in their head that Palestinians are people too,” then there may be a chance for peace.

De LaSalle Christian Brother Jack Curran, vice president for development for Bethlehem University, told the priests that 2,000 years ago, “people came to Bethlehem because a star led them.” Gesturing toward the eight students who had shared their experiences with the group, he said, “Brother Joe (Loewenstein) and I and people like us stay in Bethlehem because stars lead us.”

– Bethlehem, Oct 19, 2010

November 09, 2010 11:44
By Christopher Gunty


Father Paschal's reflection: Called to spread the Word

I asked the priests in the group to share their some of their reflections on the pilgrimage. Here’s one from Benedictine Father Paschal Morlino. – CG It has taken me a couple of days to gather my thoughts and reflect on them. It was 30 years ago since I was there and so much has changed. The suffering of the Palestinians is so much in evidence now. The Wall [separating Israeli settlements from the Palestinian Territories] is a symbol of so much mistrust and lack of desire to create peace. Bridges build peace and trust and walls only alienate. First of all, the numbers of people on pilgrimage in every place we visited astounded me – It shows the great thirst to walk where Jesus walked.

Benedictine Father Paschal Morlino, in black habit, carries the cross along the Via Dolorosa during the Stations of the Cross Oct. 15, 2010, in Jerusalem, while on pilgrimage with Bishop Denis J. Madden, right, and a group of priests from the region. (Catholic Review photo | Christopher Gunty)

But it was in the quiet places where I felt the most moved especially by the words spoken to us in the well-prepared homilies given by Bishop Denis Madden. He made the places we visited and where we prayed so often come alive and have such a moving effect on me. When we visited the place of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan amidst all the folks there I had the sense that the same Holy Spirit that came upon Jesus was hovering over us. It was guiding us along the way to see more clearly the true spirit of the place we visited. It was very evident that we had been called, as the bishop said so often. What was it that we were being called too? The Mount of Beatitudes gave us the answer: Called to holiness of life and a sharing of that life with those to whom we minister. Acknowledging the same Holy Spirit that came over Jesus in the Jordan will guide us as we struggle each day with all our shortcomings to live out that teaching of Jesus to us in the Beatitudes.

Bishop Denis J. Madden, auxiliary of Baltimore, preaches the homily in the chapel of St. Jerome, just a few yards from the site of the Grotto of the Manger. It is believed that St. Jerome worked on his translation of the bible in this cave. (Catholic Review photo | Christopher Gunty)

Another place where I felt so moved was in the cave of St. Jerome in Bethlehem during the Mass I had the distinct feeling that I was in very holy place and needed to just be present to Jesus in a very special way and it brought me to tears. Something about the place and what had taken place there with God's Word just got into me in a way I had not ever felt before. I was truly spiritually moved and it has made me think of how the Holy Spirit moved St. Jerome and is still moving us to spread that Word. That Word that has moved so many over the centuries and the need for that Word to be proclaimed particularly in the Holy Land where so many do not know it, have not heard it and need it so badly. Finally, it was truly a spiritually moving event in my life. As time passes to go back and reflect, the words spoken to us and the affect they are having on my own spiritual life are a very rewarding experience. Fr. Paschal Morlino, O.S.B. Pastor, St. Benedict Parish, Baltimore Oct. 25, 2010

October 26, 2010 06:32
By Christopher Gunty


Shall we gather at the river?

By Christopher Gunty The Catholic Review

Saturday, on the road from Jerusalem and Jericho in Israel to Petra, in Jordan, our intrepid pilgrims stopped by the Jordan River and the place where John the Baptist is believed to have baptized our Lord. The site where the actual baptism probably took place has the ruins of three Byzantine churches dating back over the centuries. But no water there. We were told that the river was much wider and the area more verdant 2,000 years ago. The river is now a bit of a walk away. Some new churches either are being built in the area or have been completed recently, including a Greek Orthodox church that opened in 2003. Jordan is clearly hoping the site becomes a major pilgrimage destination, with construction under way on a convention and visitors center due to be completed by the end of this year. The Jordan River now winds its way near the original baptism site, and the bells of the Greek Orthodox church greeted our group just as we walked the last part of the trail to the stairs that lead down to a place for pilgrims to access the river. At this point, the river is not more than 20 feet wide, and the fresh water doesn’t seem to be flowing very quickly, at least not at this time of the year. Visitors have the option to go down a few steps, right to the water level, and dip in their hand, or their feet. You can fill a bottle with water from the river, and many do (maybe that’s why the river isn’t as wide as it used to be).

Father Martin Burnham blesses himself with water from the Jordan River near the site where John baptized Jesus. (Catholic Review photo | Christopher Gunty)

Priests in our group took a chance to dip in their hands and bless themselves. Some coated their whole head with the water – from the same source that baptized our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Mt 3:13-17, Mk 1:9-11, Lk 3:21-22 and Jn 1:29-34). Many took some water back and at least one plans to bless it in time for baptisms at the next Easter Vigil. I blessed myself with the river water, and took the opportunity to say a prayer for three people important to me. No dove came down, no voice from the sky proclaimed the news: “This is my beloved son, in him I am well pleased.” But Bill, Amy and Tim are my children, and like Jesus’ Father, I, too, am well pleased with mine. Many blessings on you, kiddos. – Bethany beyond the Jordan, October 16, 2010

October 17, 2010 03:26
By Christopher Gunty


Christmas in October

By Christopher Gunty The Catholic Review

“Silent Night” and “O, Come, All Ye Faithful” in the middle of October? Christmas carols would be liturgically inappropriate, if not for the location of our Mass this morning. We celebrated using the readings from the Christmas Mass at Midnight in a small chapel, said by tradition to have been the room St. Jerome and St. Eusebius used to translate the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate Bible) starting in the year A.D. 384.

Bishop Denis J. Madden tells Balitmore priests, \

The chapel is less than 50 yards down a short passage from the actual Grotto of the Nativity – but “you can’t get there from here.” Due to questions over local control over the holy site, you can see the actual grotto through a small peephole in the door, but the passage itself is usually sealed. During the Mass, Bishop Denis J. Madden, auxiliary bishop of Baltimore and spiritual leader, encouraged the 23 priests on pilgrimage/retreat this week and next to consider their call from the Lord. “These spots will awaken something in us – jar something in us,” he said. “Just to be here with the Lord, for this we thank God.” In addition to the Responsorial Psalm, “Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord,” readings included the passage from Luke’s Gospel that brought to life the event that occurred just down the corridor from where we sat: “While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son.” As the gifts were prepared on the altar, we sang “Silent Night.” After Communion, chants of “O, come let us adore him, Christ the Lord,” echoed in the tiny cave.

Baltimore priests descend the stairs to enter te Grotto of the Nativity, where tradition holds is the site of the manger where Christ was born. (Catholic Review photo | Christopher Gunty)

To view and venerate the site where the manger is believed to have been, where Christ’s birth may have actually occurred, our pilgrimage group had to exit the Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, which is cared for by the Holy Land Franciscans (Roman Catholic), and enter the Basilica of the Nativity, which is under the care of the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox. From the basilica, pilgrims enter the grotto down a flight of stairs. There is only a moment to ponder the mystery of the Incarnation, and to venerate a silver star underneath an altar in the Grotto of the Nativity, and say a prayer while moving on so the next pilgrims can come in and do the same.

A Nativity scene is set up in one of the shepherds\

Later in the day, we spent a few minutes at the Shepherds’ Field. From a chapel there, you can see the Basilica of the Nativity in the distance from, and it’s here that shepherds may have received the herald angels’ admonition, “Do not be afraid!” that we heard earlier in the morning in Luke’s Gospel from the Christmas Midnight Mass.

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.

The chapel there, a fairly recent addition to the site, also under the care of the Holy Land Franciscans, features three depictions of the shepherds responding to the news. Inside the chapel, we sang, “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and our “Glorias in excelis Deo,” were sweetly singing o’er the plains. The area also is dotted with several small chapels built into the caves that were once what would have been shepherds’ residences while in the fields. When they were out in the pasture with their sheep, they would not have come in nightly, and they would often have slept in nearby caves instead of tents. Some of these small caves are now used for Masses for pilgrim groups. – Bethlehem, October 14, 2010

October 14, 2010 04:58
By Christopher Gunty