JERUSALEM — When Pope Benedict XVI announced that New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan was to be elevated to cardinal on Feb. 18, many people expected the popular archbishop of New York to cancel a Holy Land retreat he had planned to lead.

But Cardinal-designate Dolan, who heads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wouldn’t hear of it. He didn’t want to disappoint either the 50 New York-area priests who were scheduled to accompany him or the Holy Land Christians who had long anticipated their visit.

Also, Cardinal-designate Dolan yearned for the retreat as a way to spiritually prepare for the challenges his new position will entail.

“What better place to pray and recharge your spiritual batteries than in the land of the Bible and Jesus?” Cardinal-designate Dolan told the Register toward the end of the retreat, which took the priests from Bethlehem to Nazareth to Jerusalem. 

While the archbishop said the pilgrimage was full of high points, the group’s encounters with Holy Land Christians were particularly meaningful.

“The patriarch told us that Holy Land Christians feel left alone and isolated,” Cardinal-designate Dolan said, referring to Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal. “They say, ‘We’re a minority that’s sadly dwindling all the time, and yet we prize the fact that we are Catholic.’ They say, ‘We’re part of a universal family,’ but ask, ‘Where is all the family?’”

When Christians make Holy Land pilgrimages, the archbishop said, “It’s a way of telling local Christians, ‘We love you; we need you; you’re an example to us.” Pilgrimages “are a living example of what Pope John Paul meant by solidarity.” 

The group expressed this solidarity by visiting the tiny Church of the Good Shepherd in the Palestinian town of Jericho, where 400 Christians — 230 of them Catholics — live alongside some 40,000 Muslims. 

They also expressed their support at Bethlehem University, the only Catholic university in the Palestinian-ruled West Bank. The student body is 30% Christian and 70% Muslim. Welcoming the group, Brother Jack Curran, the university’s New York-born vice president for development, said he was “joyful” to be able to share with the group “not only how challenging it is to educate the youth of the Holy Land, but to be able to, through the devotion and support of great men like Archbishop Dolan, continue to face the challenges of educating a population under a military occupation.”

Brother Curran is a member of the De La Salle Christian Brothers, which was involved in the university’s founding in 1973. Many brothers from the order still teach at and are part of the administration of the university.

Boosting Morale

The priests were visibly moved by their encounter with several of the university’s students, who stood before the group and shared their dreams and answered questions.

“I bet you can’t tell who is Muslim and who is Christian,” one of the students said with a smile. Only one of the women wore an Islamic head scarf.  All were dressed in jeans.

Margaret, an accounting major, said that the percentage of university-educated Palestinians is very high, “but we have limited job possibilities.”

Israel, which governs the West Bank, severely restricts the number of Palestinians who may travel to and work in Israel, citing security concerns. The huge wall Israel erected around most of the West Bank has prevented terrorists from infiltrating, but it has also trapped ordinary Palestinians.

Sana, who is studying English literature, urged the priests “to deliver a message to the outside so they know about us, the Palestinians.”

Following the students’ presentations, Archbishop Dolan reiterated what Holy Land Christians want the world to know: “The Church in the Holy Land is not just a museum and not just a historical fact, but is living and still goes on, so the work of Jesus continues in and through the Church.”

Following a catered lunch prepared by the university’s culinary students, Cardinal-designate Dolan quipped, “I leave here filled with hope. But I do have one concern: You have brothers here from Brooklyn teaching you English. I assume you have accent-reduction classes here.”

Later that day, the priests went to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum and memorial.
“I insisted that it be put on our itinerary because even though the Shoah [Holocaust] belongs uniquely to the Jewish people, to remember it is the duty of all humanity. To come to Israel without visiting Yad Vashem would have been an imperfect trip,” the archbishop said.

After more than a week of touring, praying and encountering, the retreat’s participants said they felt renewed and were eager to share their experiences with their flocks back home.

“It’s been beautiful, seeing all the things we’ve read about for years,” said Father Jeff Conway, pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea in Staten Island, N.Y., during a visit to the Church of the Nativity. “I’m getting a whole new perspective.”

“Words can’t describe how it feels to be in all the holy places with our shepherd, Archbishop Dolan, reflecting on the Good Shepherd, Jesus,” said Father Andrew Carrozza, pastor of St. Ann’s Church in Yonkers, at the Jericho church.

The visit also resonated with local Christians.

“We Christians are a minority here, less than 2% of the population,” said a Greek Orthodox shopkeeper in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.  “Due to the difficult situation here, many have emigrated. We need the bishop and the priests to pray for us, to pray for the peace of the Holy Land — to pray for everyone: Catholics, Christians, Muslims and Jews. Life is difficult for everyone, and we need their heartfelt prayers.”

The shopkeeper’s daughter, Lana, 31, who works in her family’s store, said she hopes the American priests “visited our Christian institutions and will go home and ask their faithful to contribute more to the Christians here in the Holy Land. Catholic organizations are very generous, but sometimes they end up helping Muslims more than Christians.”

Without more help, Lana said, “more Christians will emigrate.”

Register Middle East correspondent Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.