Father Mark Sheridan is a Benedictine monk at Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. He will celebrate 50 years in the priesthood in February 2015.
Prior to coming to Dormition Abbey in 2010, he spent 30 years at the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm (Sant’Anselmo) in Rome, where he was not only a professor, but also the rector of the Athenaeum and dean of the faculty of theology.
A recognized authority on ancient Coptic language and literature and a patristic scholar, Father Sheridan is a member of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity’s International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches.
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., where he also entered the order at St. Anselm's Abbey, Father Sheridan was visiting in the United States in August when he spoke with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen about the Benedictines in the Holy Land and his hopes as founder of the organization Friends of the Benedictines of the Holy Land.
After 30 years in Rome, why did you decide to go Dormition Abbey in the Holy Land?
In 2005, I was visiting with a group of abbots, and Bishop [Giacinto-Boulas] Marcuzzo in Galilee gave us an impassioned plea to encourage people to come as pilgrims to the Holy Land because this supports Christians in the Holy Land. That, among other things, moved me to move to Jerusalem. The fact is that, since the fourth century, the majority of monks and nuns in the Holy Land have come from elsewhere. Like St. Jerome, they came on pilgrimage, drawn to the sites where Jesus lived and taught, and decided to stay.
Most people know of the Franciscan presence in the Holy Land but don’t realize that Benedictines are also there. Please tell us about the Benedictine presence in the Holy Land.
The Franciscans have the biggest presence. They take care of the holy sites. But the Benedictines and other communities have been there different lengths of time.
The Benedictines are at Dormition Abbey, the site where Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven, at the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes on the Sea of Galilee, and at Abu Ghosh [a town west of Jerusalem].
Do the Olivetan Benedictines have particular duties at Abu Ghosh?
They receive a great many pilgrims. They also have relations with the Hebrew-speaking community and receive groups of Israeli army recruits who come to learn about Christians. For many, this is their first and only contact with Christians. It is a very important apostolate.
What are some of your experiences at Dormition Abbey?
We have regular communal prayer life and also engage in various activities. A great many pilgrims come to the church. Often, they bring their own priests. Sometimes we’re called to give a talk or celebrate Mass with them.
At the Dormition (Dormitio/English.net), we have a theology study conducted in German. It is supported partially by the German government. Every year, a group of 20 to 24 students come to live, from mid-August through Easter, for an intense study of Scripture, archeology, language and so forth. That has been extremely successful for 40 years. The program is open to Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox students.
We also sponsor a series of lectures, usually on theological or archeological subjects. Professors come to Jerusalem to hold the lectures. Those are conducted in English. The language people in most groups can manage is English.
I taught Coptic this year in Italian. My doctorate is in Coptic language and literature. I edited several texts of a Coptic bishop who was quite learned. Studying these texts got me from being a biblical scholar to a patristic scholar.
I speak and preach in German in my community and give conferences in French for the sisters in Abu Ghosh. Occasionally, I speak English, too!
What is the basic situation for Christians living in the Holy Land?
The situation of the Christians in the Holy Land is complicated. Most of the Christians are Arabic-speaking. We belong to the Latin Patriarchate. His Beatitude Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, is a native Arabic speaker.
When you talk about the Christians in the Holy Land, there are other groups of Catholics too: The Melkites and Syrians have a small group. The Melkites are larger because they have an archdiocese in Haifa and in Galilee. The Greek Orthodox are the largest of the Christian communities in the Holy Land, and the majority are Arabic-speaking.
Then the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem has a rather large site close to Dormition. The Armenians are just inside the Zion Gate; we are just outside of the gate.
We have social contact with all these groups. For example, there are courtesy visits among all of the churches at Christmas and Easter.
As a member of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity’s International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, how do you find the contact and dialogue is going?
We meet every year, either in Rome or in one of the home churches. All things considered, it is going quite well.
It is a slow process that requires much patience. It is a question of getting to know one another. The split has existed for almost 1,500 years without much contact among the Churches. There is now more contact.
We produced one document on the nature of the Church. We have almost finished another document on how communion was manifested or practiced through visits, letter writing and all sorts of things in the first centuries.
I think we’ve made considerable progress, yet a lot needs to be done. But getting to know others is a very important part of it. We have become friends over the years, and it has become much easier to talk now.
Unfortunately, what we do is very little known, either in the Catholic Church or in the other Churches. (See: Holy See Pontifical Councils).
You have said, “The Holy Land is the key to peace, to worldwide peace. It must begin in the Holy Land.” Please tell us why and how?
The present conflict in the Holy Land has existed since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Americans are largely unacquainted with this history. But what did result was the creation of a large number of refugees. There were 750,000 people who fled from their villages and homes. In 1967, after the war, there were more refugees. So a great many refugees fled to the occupied territories and into the surrounding countries of Lebanon and Jordan.
The land called the “Occupied Territory” is a large swath that goes up to Galilee and borders the Jordan River. Many Palestinian Christians live in those areas.
This ongoing situation of occupation is a source of conflict. It’s a complicated story with many different versions of it — many for public consumption. That is the heart of the conflict with the neighbors, because many of the Arab countries took the part of the Arabic-speaking residents, although they never agree on what to do.
So if there were a way of achieving some kind of solution to this ongoing situation, it would lessen many tensions in the Mideast. It would not solve all of them, but it would greatly help relieve tensions with some of the neighboring countries.
The Christians also suffer from [extremist] Israeli groups who have engaged in many attacks on Christian buildings and “price tag” attacks and always leave graffiti saying this is in retaliation because they were not allowed to make a settlement where they want to
At Dormition Abbey, we’ve had several of those. They slashed the tires of cars, wrote graffiti on the church — and just 10 minutes after Pope Francis left Mount Zion and the Cenacle, where he celebrated Mass, someone set a fire in our church.
A great many Israelis themselves don’t know this [extremism] goes on.
When and why did you found the Friends of the Benedictines in the Holy Land?
I founded Friends of the Benedictines back in 2012 with the help of some friends and three Benedictine abbots who are members of the non-profit organization. The Friends is set up broadly to “provide financial support the religious, charitable and educational activities of the canonically established monastic communities following the Rule of St. Benedict in the Holy Land.” That includes special assistance to people in need.
The communities can support themselves by making things they sell in their gift shops or through the donations of the pilgrims, but to do anything beyond that, you need outside help. The Friends is really broad in the projects it supports.
The academic and the charitable work are continuous things. So is supporting the prayer life, the liturgy and the reception of pilgrims.
Another reason for the foundation is that our existence is precarious. It depends on the political situation. If there were another Intifada, as there was in 2000, the pilgrims stop coming.
If there are no pilgrims, there is a big problem financially, not just for us, but for the other communities, too.
So that there is a cushion to provide assistance to the Christian Benedictine community in case there is a sudden drop in the number of pilgrims coming, the Church in the Holy Land needs support.
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.
Friends of the Benedictines
(844) 781-5967 or (540) 842-8575
PO BOX 42736
5636 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20015