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Holy Land: the prayer of the Custos, Fr Francesco Patton, “the Middle East needs resurrection”

Jesus’ Sepulchre, fully restored, will welcome thousands of pilgrims and faithful arriving from world countries to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem. This year the date of April 16 will be the same for all Eastern and Western Churches, a propitious coincidence that gives to the coming Easter a particularly ecumenical connotation. But it will also be a time of prayer for all Christian communities, especially those of Syria and Iraq, who are living what appears to be an endless Way of the Cross, amidst persecution and wars. To them is dedicated the prayer and the recollections of the Custos of the Holy Land

The date of Sunday 16 will be remembered as the first Easter celebrated after the historic restoration of the Aedicule of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, thanks to the joint initiative of the Greek-Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Custody of the Holy Land and the Armenian Apostolic Church. It will be an Easter with a markedly ecumenical connotation also owing to the “happy coincidence” of the dates. In fact this year all Christians will celebrate Christ’s Resurrection on the same day. Christians will not celebrate together until 2025. “We are very happy about the restoration works, which were urgently needed, carried out in harmony and agreement. It was an occasion for a frequent dialogue among the different communities that run the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, an opportune time of growth in our friendly, fraternal relations.

“After two centuries we finally succeeded”, said Fr Francesco Patton, at his first Easter in his capacities as Custos of the Holy Land after his election on May 20 2016. “It signifies standing together around the Sepulchre of Jesus – he added – . This is all the more significant in the light of the coming Easter celebrated on the same day by the Eastern and Western Churches.”

Custos Patton, next Easter will be an “ecumenical” Easter. This fact appears to prefigure more fruits after those brought in with the restoration work. The Armenian Patriarch, Archbishop Nourhan Manougian, in his speech for the inauguration of the new Aedicula (March 22), proposed that also the Lutheran and Anglican faithful celebrate in the Sepulchre. What is your response to this proposal?

On that occasion the proposal was made in public, however the Patriarch had already mentioned it during meetings we had this year together with Greek-Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus III. We all hope that the Holy Sepulchre will be a shared place of unity. Naturally, with well-clarified terms and rules, so that it may be a disciplined right of use that will create no problems in the relations between the Churches. The inauguration ceremony was attended, inter alia, by the religious leaders of other faith communities in Jerusalem. We have a tradition of dialogue and encounter centred also on messages, texts and joint statements on issues of great import for this Land. We are well aware that we are a minority – the total number of Christians is just about 2% – that is why we need to be more united.

Easter encompasses the Passion of Christ. In this moment in time we cannot refrain from thinking of the long Calvary of so many Christian communities in the Middle East. To them it is more an Easter of Passion than an Easter of Resurrection. Do you agree?

The Way of the Cross of our Christian brothers unfortunately still has many Stations ahead. We pray that their suffering may lead to some form of Resurrection.

The Middle East needs a Resurrection, also and especially because of the Christian presence.

I refer, in particular, to our neighbouring Countries: Syria, Iraq, where Christianity was born.

There is need for a Paschal experience for our brothers that were decimated, and who, in spite of everything, in their Way of the Cross, give us an extraordinary testimony of what it means to remain faithful to Christ. They abandoned their lands, their homes, which entails also a cultural, religious impoverishment, and one in terms of humanity.

Before so much heinousness, does it still make sense to speak about the defeat of death, and about hope? It does! It makes even more sense if we remember the historical moment of Christ’s Resurrection. Jesus was not resurrected in a climate of peace, but at a time when a small Country, Israel, was occupied by the superpower of the time, the Roman Empire. It occurred when, after a few years, this land experienced a terrible tragedy: the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Christian hope is capable of overcoming present tragedies by seeing the prevailing signs of the work of God that will always prevail.

The Resurrection is what assures us that the plan of God reaches its end amidst situations that appear to deny it and prevent it. The Resurrected Jesus reminds us that death has been defeated and that all those that side with death are already defeated. This is Christian hope.

Do you expect many local faithful and pilgrims for the coming Easter, also in view of the common date? Israel has issued some 20 thousands 4-month permits (starting March 20), to Christians living in Palestinian Territories, to enable them to celebrate Easter and gather in prayer in Jerusalem. It’s hard to estimate the number of local faithful that will be able to visit Jerusalem in this period. In addition to them we expect a high number of Copt Christians from Egypt, Ethiopian Christians, and high numbers of pilgrims from world countries.

Are pilgrims returning in higher numbers after the decline of the past years? In the past weeks I noticed that the Friday celebrations of the Way of the Cross or the Saturday night vigils are attended by high numbers of faithful, and dozens stand on line to enter the Holy Sepulchre. I can confirm a resumption of pilgrimages. The trend is positive and we expect a peak for Easter. The Sepulchre is the site of Easter.

 

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