Today was another colorful and eventful day. I got up early to hike over to the Notre Dame Center–a big hotel and pilgrimage hostel that comes under the auspices of the Holy See. Marcellino D’Ambrosio is leading a pilgrimage here and invited me for breakfast. I first met Marcellino years ago when we still lived in England. He was a speaker at a Catholic Charismatic Conference we attended as a family. I heard more about his life and work and he heard my tale of eventual ordination to the Catholic priesthood after waiting ten years.
It is the last Friday in Ramadan so the old City was thronged with Muslims going to the Temple Mount for Friday prayers. When Elias and I attempted to go to the Old City through the nearby Damascus Gate we were dissuaded by the shoulder to shoulder crowds. So we headed back to the monastery and I caught up on emails and did some forward planning for the England pilgrimage which takes place at the beginning of June. By the way, you can still sign up for this tour. It is expensive, but the prices of everything are going up, up , up. Nothing we can do about it. If you want to learn more go here:
In the afternoon I embarked on one of my favorite past times here: getting lost in the Old City. This time I came upon a hidden treasure: The Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Annunciation. The Greek Catholics are otherwise known as Melkites. They are a group of Greek Orthodox who were aligned to Rome in the eighteenth century. They trace their history back to the first Christians in Syria in Antioch. You can learn more about them here.
One of the cool things about getting lost in the Old City is meeting people. Outside the Melkite Cathedral was a doorkeeper named Rami. Swarthy and puffing on a cigarette he seemed a bit daunting, but I was wearing my clerical collar so asked him, “Is this the Melkite Cathedral?”
“I’m thinking of coming here for Mass on Sunday. I am a Latin priest. Would I be welcome?”
“Abouna, if you are looking for Jesus you are welcome. All who are looking for Jesus will find him here.”
“Can I have a look in the church?”
“Of course Abouna.”
Inside I found a beautiful church in the Greek Orthodox style filled with icons, frescoes and a golden iconostasis. The smell of incense filled the holy place so I sat in the darkened church with lamps guttering before the icons to say a decade of the Holy Rosary. Elias and I will go there for Mass on Sunday. They use the Byzantine liturgy–celebrated in Arabic.
I went on then to have dinner with Steve and Janet Ray. Steve is the author of many books and Catholic Bible study videos. He also is the best pilgrimage leader ever. He told me about his typical tour to the Holy Land, and they are awesome. I hope to work with him to lead a parish pilgrimage out here before too long.
After a wonderful dinner at the rooftop restaurant at the Notre Dame Center I. hiked back to the monastery. Along the way was a small group of Israeli security forces. They patrol major roads and intersections. All of they are young–in their twenties maybe–doing their mandatory military service. As I walked along I wished them a good evening and one young lad–a handsome kid about nineteen years old said, “Can I ask you a question?”
“I ask with respect” he said.
“What is the point of the Messiah coming?
“When he comes he will redeem us and return us to paradise.”
“But why? If we are all perfect there is no longer a struggle.”
“But it is our destiny. When he comes he is the Prince of Peace–maybe then we will stop killing one another.”
“Yes.” he smiled. “Thank you.”
“Thank you” I said, “and I respect you too. Thank you for defending a city that is holy for all of us.”
I went on my way–weaving through traffic–seeing the tour busses parked for the night like a herd of elephants. Then I noticed that the drivers camp out in the luggage compartments beneath the bus. The doors are open and they are asleep on mats in the open space below the bus. So they save the price of a hotel room. It was nine pm and the city was still awake and noisy, but they were getting a good night’s sleep before another stressful day battling city traffic and dealing with wealthy pilgrims and tourists who slept in comfortable beds in air conditioned rooms.