"Good energy there," my CRS coworker commented as we left a church celebration for Pope Benedict today. The young Palestinian seminarians, elderly nuns, and magenta-robed prelates in the church were clearly thrilled to be seeing the pope in person. Praying and singing hymns in several languages, the congregation waved gold-and-white Vatican flags as they waited for Pope Benedict to arrive. Sometimes the seminarians--many in their teens--would spontaneously break into the chant of "Benvenuto Benedetto!"
The pope began his day with much-scrutinized visits to the Dome of Rock, which Muslims hold sacred, and the Western Wall, sacred to Jews. Perhaps it felt like a homecoming to be among his Catholic flock in the grand Co-Cathedral of the Latin Patriarchate, nestled in the cobblestoned Old City of Jerusalem.
During his brief visit to the cathedral, Benedict praised contemplatives for their sacrifices. He bent to bless several wheelchair-bound nuns at the front of the church as the sea of gold flags waved.
He also asked the Catholics there what many popes have asked before: to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. In a small way, his own visit was proof that it is possible. Though tensions between religious groups are a hallmark of the Holy Land, I was struck today with how calmly the city's Muslims and Jews--that is, the overwhelming majority of its citizens--put up with the road closures, traffic jams, and security blockades the pope's visit entails. Benedict's pilgrimage means changes to school schedules and less business in certain areas, but aside from some resigned grumbling, most city dwellers seem to take it in stride.
There was more good energy at today's Mass in the Kedron Valley, right outside the Old City walls. Another coworker, a Palestinian who was raised Orthodox but now practices Catholicism, took two of her daughters to the Mass. One daughter was celebrating her twelfth birthday. She told her mom she wanted to be there, and spent the afternoon getting sunburned with thousands of other mass goers as she waited for the pope to arrive. The 16-year-old daughter was part of a girl scout marching band that welcomed the pope, and spent the morning getting her hair done so she'd look her best for it. My coworker was happy too. "It's a blessing to have the pope come and say Mass here," she says. "And it's a special place--the Kedron Valley is where Jesus will come again."
Many people have commented on the dwindling number of Christians in the Holy Land. But on a day like today--seeing crowds cheer and pray and laugh--it was hard to feel bleak about their future.
Laura Sheahen, Regional Information Officer for Catholic Relief Services/Middle East, is in the Holy Land this week for Pope Benedict XVI's visit.