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Olive wood rosaries made in Bethlehem for World Youth Day pilgrims in Panama. Photo from Terra Santa Blog

Luke Stocking: One million rosaries have a story to tell

  • February 5, 2019

The cross I wear around my neck each day is a relatively large wooden one made by young people living in the poorest and most dangerous areas of Colombia. It is one of hundreds of thousands that they made as part of a project supported by Development and Peace. The crosses were given as a special gift from St. John Paul II at the World Youth Day papal Mass in Toronto on July 28, 2002. 

The simple wooden cross is the public sign of my belief in Jesus and His message of love and life. That gift was given 16 years ago. Fast forward now to Jan. 27, 2019, to the closing Mass at World Youth Day where Pope Francis gave the pilgrims in Panama a gift — rosaries for peace.

Like the WYD crosses of 2002, these rosaries are full of meaning in their creation. One million of them were made and their story deserves to be told. 

One side of the rosary cross will have the initials of WYD 2019. On the other side will be the name of the place they were made — Bethlehem. The project to produce the rosaries was led by Caritas Jerusalem, a long-time Development and Peace partner. The rosaries are made from olive wood and they are more than simple tokens from the Holy Land. 

The olive tree is a famous emblem of peace. According to a report from the UN conference on trade and development, it is a vital part of Palestinian life. “Its fruit, oil, sediment, wood and leaves are used by households as the basis for a range of food staples and for soap, fuel and decorative crafts, as well as medicinal uses,” says the report.

It also notes the significant impact on the agricultural sector in the region due to the Israeli military occupation, with a decline in productivity as high as 30 per cent. 

When I spent time in the Holy Land, I met Palestinians who have had their olive trees regularly destroyed by Israeli settlers. I participated in an action to replant olive trees on occupied land. It is estimated that since the occupation began in 1967, close to one million olive trees have been destroyed on Palestinian lands. This includes trees between 700-1,000 years old. So, to create a million rosaries as a prayer for peace holds special significance.

The project helped re-open woodworking shops — 21 were involved in production — at a time that the trade in Bethlehem was at risk of disappearing. Wood to make the rosaries was taken from branches pruned from the trees according to the principles of good husbandry. 

The project involved 800 people from 300 families who include some of the most impoverished people in Bethlehem, including those with disabilities and special needs. University students were able to earn an income by working over the holidays in order to pay their tuition fees. 

“So far I have made 2,220 rosaries in a week,” said Carmen Elraheb. “We are very happy that our work is reaching young people from all over the world.” 

It is beautiful to think of all the pilgrims returning from Panama with these rosaries. If you know a pilgrim, they may also be bringing a rosary for you. Because the square where the papal Mass was held could not accommodate a million people, pilgrims were to receive more than one rosary so they could share with loved ones back home the message of World Youth Day and the call to peace in the world.

Anyone lucky enough to receive one of these rosaries from Pope Francis, either as a pilgrim or from a pilgrim, should take the time to learn something about what is happening in Bethlehem today. Maybe then they will realize the importance of praying for peace and come to understand the concrete way their rosary helped strengthen a community in Bethlehem that continues its struggle to survive under occupation. 

I hope this rosary stays with you as long as my 2002 World Youth Day cross has stayed with me. Be moved by your rosary to pray for peace not only with words, but by adding your hands and feet to the struggle for peace and justice in the world. 

(Stocking is Development and Peace Deputy Director of Public Awareness & Engagement, Ontario and Atlantic Regions.) 

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