Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Pastor Reflects on the Pope's Visit

As pastor of the largest Roman Catholic parish in the Kingdom of Jordan, I reflect upon the significance of the visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Lands. Whether it is due to poor marketing or lack of national historical consciousness, Jordan is often overlooked by pilgrims and tourists who set their sights solely upon Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Galilee. As one who has lived in the Kingdom for the past two years, I have discovered that Jordan is the holy land of the Old Testament while also bearing witness to many New Testament events. Jordan is far more than the desert sands of Lawrence of Arabia.

The English-language parish has no special building, but its religious services are offered in Latin-Rite parish churches convenient to the areas of the city in which English-speaking Catholics live and work. The host pastors of these churches provide facilities for the services, but the English-Language Pastor is responsible for the conduct of worship and all other aspects of parish life for those native-born and immigrant Roman Catholics who choose to participate in the parish.

            The composition of the large English-speaking community is racially diverse, culturally rich, and extremely complex. Many parishioners are native Jordanians or from parts of the Middle East who choose to worship in this community. Many are ambassadors and visiting dignitaries, embassy workers and professors, business owners and government officials; others are housemaids, clerks, and restaurant and factory workers. A large number are Filipino, and a growing number of immigrants are not. The needs are as diverse as every person’s situation, but all seek to find something good in their church and in worshiping with a rich and beautiful tradition.

The English-speaking community is one that is growing. While Arab Christians are thought to be diminishing in number, the influx of new Catholics maintains steady growth and most of these immigrants are English-speaking. These new immigrants to the kingdom are reshaping the local mission of the church; therefore the parish is placed in a situation where it needs to explore new ways of responding to these continued challenges. The increased influx of Africans and Indians poses pastoral opportunities, and the church can be helpful in connecting these populations to adequate pastoral, social, legal, or cultural resources. Furthermore, the American presence is increasing substantially as Jordan is considered a family-friendly venue for embassy work.

A very major concern for is finding creative ways to reach out to the many immigrants who are often unable to come to Mass because of their employers’ restrictions. Many English-speaking immigrants reside in areas outside of Amman, like Irbid, Zarqa, Madaba, and the Dead Sea. More than 40,000 immigrants reside in the kingdom and only 1,500 are able to attend weekly worship services. Every person has the right to pray, but often the freedom to worship publicly is restricted, mostly by individual employers. The spiritual dimension of each Christian needs to be developed.

The questions around immigrant issues remain complex and at some point the church needs to discern new ways of providing religious support for these Catholics. The diversity of nationalities, class and educational levels, socialization abilities, employment and legal matters are extreme and new models need to be evaluated. Resources are available and we have to use them in different ways.

Integrating the mindset of our Arabic-speaking hosts with the immigrant church will bring about a celebration of common faith. Together, we are one church, even though we may speak different languages and hold different customs and traditions. We want to build upon a foundation of shared Christian values, such as dignity, hospitality, and love of one another – fellow Christians valued equally as an essential part of our local church to which we belong.

Hoped For Effects of the Pope’s Visit

The visit of Pope Francis carries a celebrity status to it. There is no doubt that the Pope has had an enormous effect upon the religious imagination of the faithful and the public. His visit creates great enthusiasm for Christian, Muslim, and non-believers alike. He brings a kind of “spectacle Catholicism,” where everyone wants to be able to claim they had their special moment with the Pope.

As pastor, I see the silent contentment of a few who are very pleased that the Pope is making this special visit because they know that he brings the words of Jesus Christ to them. I also see those who clamor for special privileges and rights to have access to the Pope and the Royal Court. Parents tell me their children are now ready for First Communion even though they have not attended any classes or have been home-schooled all year long. Others tell me it is time to have their child baptized at the Jordan River because relatives are flying in from far away places for this special moment. I certainly understand the desire for that once-in-a-lifetime moment, but I would also like to use these events as educational opportunities that teach more about the faith. I want to preserve the church’s integrity and help people realize the sacred event that is happening regardless of the Pope’s visit.

            I do not fault the people because I know of their need of a savior. For many, life is difficult in a tribal, patriarchal society that both protects and represses individuals. Christians are a minority, but not an oppressed one, even though the legal system of property transference mitigates against them. Christians are free to worship, but the wider cultural constraints shackle them. Their practice of faith is to sit obediently in church, pray their beads, practice devotionals, and make sure they get back to church the following Sunday. Development of one’s prayer life or one’s sense of participation in church simply does not happen except for a few remarkable individuals. The people seek for a greater understanding because the homilies they hear do not address the challenging situations of their daily life. The faithful seek a voice they can trust.

            What are the possible consequences of the Pope’s visit? He can begin the process of bringing unity between the Eastern and Roman churches. His visit is on the occasion of Pope Paul VI’s meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem fifty years ago. He will meet with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople in an effort to reconcile and heal. In my recent trip to Istanbul, Turkey, one of the Hagia Sophia guides claim that the Orthodox church has still not forgiven the Roman church for withholding military support of Constantinople against the Ottoman Turks. The majestic, most powerful Christian city in the world fell to the hands of Islamic invaders while Rome’s involvement would have tipped the balance in favor of Christianity.

            The average person does not know the theological differences between the Orthodox and the Latin churches. They know the Orthodox use an imprecise lunar (Julian) calendar and have stricter fasts during Lent. They know Latin Catholics cannot receive holy Eucharist in their church, but the Orthodox may receive at the Latin Table of the Lord. It seems to everyone that unity can be achieved if it were not for the question of the loss of authority, prestige, and honor.

            A second goal is to promote peace in Syria and the Middle East, which includes the troublesome conflict between Israel and Palestine. The proxy war being waged in Syria among extremists has displaced nearly four million refugees. Diplomats are stymied that the peace process hits far too many obstacles thereby damaging any hope for statesman-like progress. A new world order can only come about when the people and their leaders choose to practice peace, which comes about through a conversion of hearts. Presently, these hearts are hardened and only a wise leader who can lead others to trust in their God can turns these hearts of stones to ones of flesh.

            As a consequence to the above-stated goal, dialogue with other faiths may be jumpstarted. Within Jordan, Christians coexist with Muslims and King Abdullah has visited the Pope in Rome three times. Mutual respect between the leaders helps create a tolerant, accepting climate. The Islamic community sees the Pope as a kindly man, a man they can trust. His words and actions inspire them and they speak of him with great affection. Interfaith dialogue and cooperation means nothing unless Muslims and Christians can eat meals with one another, to socialize and to learn about each other’s family lives. The most sensible way to approach this shared enrichment is to respond to the needs of the poor, to promote the common good, and to work for peace.

            A more challenging endeavor is to create a safe environment for Christians within Israel and Jerusalem. In the lead-up to the Pope’s visit, Jewish extremists have desecrated Christian holy sites and there is real fear that Israel will become a Jewish state, thereby forcing Christians to become second- or third-class inhabitants. Muslim Palestinians are often in the news because of the continuous hostile conflict, but very few people hear of the silent plight of the diminishing Christian community.

            The church hopes that Pope Francis will encourage Christians to rightly claim their Christian identity and to forge a joyful life in a land that is rightfully theirs to share with others. Baghdad, Iraq has seen a mass migration of their Christians to the northern lands of the Kurds or they have repatriated to other safer countries. The Copts in Egypt face destruction of property and livelihood during a time of great instability. Syrian Christians have fled to Lebanon. The church is in great danger of becoming an underground church because the larger world remains hostile to their presence.

The immigrant community that feeds the infrastructure of the Middle East are domestic maids, construction workers, restaurant staff, gardeners, and trash collectors. Pope Francis wants to speak to them words of hope and concern for he shows solidarity with the crucified peoples of the world. They await his words of hope, freedom, and joy and they want to live the values he outlines for the world, but it remains a world of danger.

This Pope has star power and many know that he points them to the mind and heart of God. He is not the Savior. He is not the Christ. He is not God. He is, however, an extraordinary leader who can point both the people and their leaders in the right direction. He can establish a relationship that endures so that he can lead a people who live in darkness to a place of new light and hope. In the end, he will endear himself to us and will give us a glimpse of joy – that God has not forgotten all God’s people (Muslim, Jew, or Christian), and that God wants a better world for us. So, we bask that the divine is smiling favorably upon us.