Men carry a large wooden cross during a procession on the Via Dolorosa, "The Way of Sorrow," the path believed to be taken by Jesus Christ to his crucifixion on Calvary, on Good Friday April 14, 2017, in Jerusalem's Old City. CNS photo/Debbie Hill

Editorial: Hope for the Holy Land

  • March 25, 2018

Pope Paul V was a controversial leader in turbulent times. His biography cites a fondness for luxury, penchant for nepotism and persecution of Galileo, but also lauds his completion of St. Peter’s Basilica, contributions to education and the arts, encouragement of New World missionaries and the canonization St. Charles Borromeo.

Much of his legacy endures to this day, including an initiative launched in 1618 that will be re-enacted around the world on Good Friday. As Europe fought the Thirty Years War, the Pope, moved by suffering in  the Middle East, instructed the Church to observe Good Friday as a day of prayer and charity in support of persecuted Catholics and Catholic institutions in the Holy Land. That collection has endured for four centuries.

Paul V expressed his wishes in an apostolic letter. In 1974, Pope Paul VI echoed his Renaissance-era namesake with his own apostolic letter that urged compassion for Middle East Christians. Forty-four years later, however, it is disheartening to read those words as the situation in the Holy Land has, if anything, worsened.

Paul VI, soon to be canonized, highlighted the serious religious, political and social problems of Christians in a region that had been scarred for centuries by violence and continued to experience “unique and daily sufferings.” He lamented high emigration and feared that, without a living Christian presence, Jerusalem and the Holy Land would “become like museums” or what others call “a spiritual Disneyland.” He implored all Christians to express solidarity with the suffering people of the region through charity and prayers “so that we keep alive the testimony of the Gospel” in the Holy Land.

From Paul V to Paul VI and now to Pope Francis, the struggle has been constant to preserve a dynamic Christian presence in lands where Jesus and His apostles walked. At the start of the 20th century, Christians represented 10 per cent of the total Middle East population. That number was just five per cent at the end of the century. And that was before the past decade’s mass exoduses from war-torn Syria and Iraq.

On the 400th anniversary of the first Holy Land collection, the appeal for prayers and almsgiving remains urgent. Indigenous Christian communities, some that were founded 2,000 years ago, continue to face persecution and are disappearing due to ongoing conflicts, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and a lack of optimism for a peaceful future. Centuries-old churches, schools, hospitals and other institutions are falling into disrepair. 

There is an ongoing “outcry of thousands of persons who are deprived of everything,” said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the Vatican’s prefect of the Congregation of Eastern Churches.

The Good Friday collection, after all these years, is still a way for Catholics around the world to embrace these suffering people and give them hope.

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