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BY PETER JESSERER SMITH
Pope Francis' visit to the Holy Land carries enormous significance as the heir of St. Peter. In a real sense, the successor of St. Peter is returning to his roots with this visit to the Holy Land. He is going back to where it all began, and he will be the first successor of St. Peter to offer the Eucharist in the Cenacle, the upper room where the Apostles celebrated the Last Supper with Jesus and where they gathered to pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit until Pentecost.
Pope Francis is making history, but each journey of St. Peter's successor in Rome has such a powerful significance. You almost have to be here to realize
what this means, and I hope the Register's journey here can give you insight.
Right now, as the Pope is visiting Jordan, I've been wrapping up a tour of Galilee, the Epicenter of Jesus’ public ministry before he left for Jerusalem to die and rise again from there dead. Many towns you read of in the Bible are all round the freshwater Sea of Galilee. And this is a good opportunity to share with you my trip in the footsteps of the fisherman that Pope Francis descends from.
First stop is Capharnaum. It is situated on the north of the Sea of Galilee. But it is also the hometown of St. Peter. The city was home to Jews and Gentiles — a mixed city of coexistence between these groups.
Today you can see his home, where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and she began to serve them. Houses were small, and the existing structure was actually slightly expanded into an octagonal shape when the early Christians made it a “domus ecclesius” (a house church) before they were given the famous declaration of religious toleration known as the Edict of Milanby the Emperor Constantine in 315. Until then, they worshipped in these house churches, because they couldn’t build their own churches yet.
Nearby Capharnaum is a place called Ginosar. Here there is a museum where two Israeli amateur archeologists made an astonishing find: a boat preserved in mud that dates back to the first century around the time of Christ.
According to Marina Banai, a spokeswoman for the Yigal Allon Centre, the boat fits 15 people and could have served both Jesus and the Apostles, or it could have served in the sea battle between Jews and Romans at nearby Migdal (Magdala), or for pagan fisherman. She did point out that they found it had 12 kinds of wood, which was a rare commodity back then. It was recovered in the 1980s, and took 14 years to restore.
The Vatican put the spotlight on the boat for the Jubilee Year, although circumstances intervened to prevent it going on display in Rome and it would be only in 2010 that it would finally go on display to the public at the Yigal Allon Centre.
Why is this important? Because this is the kind of boat Peter, Andrew, James, and John would have fished in, and carried Jesus in. Think of the memories of Jesus in their boat — from calming the Sea to walking on water to preaching to the crowds from the boat. So when they finally left their boat and nets, they left their old life completely behind.
This boat was a serious investment. And you can't help but wonder if the little boat Peter abandoned 2000 years ago to serve Christ and his Church is the same one sitting in that museum because no one abandons a boat, a life's investment, without serious reason.
St. Peter and the apostles finally leave their old life behind at another nearby site on the Galilee — between Capernaum and Ginnosar — called Tabgha. Here there is the Church of the Primacy, which is built around a rock where the risen Jesus is believed to have called out to the apostles who went back to their old lives of fishing.
You can see this rock in the middle of the church, and it is powerful to feel the rock and think that Jesus probably stood here when he called them to be fishers of men for once and for all. And it is the place where Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep and lambs, forgave him his betrayal, and foretold the manner of Peter’s martyrdom. So much drama in a tiny place that was so important for our souls today!
And then you also can laugh with joy: I got in the water to imagine how the stones and water felt as St. Peter and the apostles in the boat came on shore to see the risen Jesus. And there I saw a man fishing: a fisher of fish just like how Peter and Andrew used to be.
Here, however is not where Jesus gives Peter the keys to the Kingdom. That is further north in Caesarea Phillipi, or a place called Banias. Our tour guide explained that the Church of the Primacy was designated in Tabgha to make it easier for pilgrims coming to the holy sites. Caesarea Phillipi is very difficult to get to, even in the modern day, and it was dangerous to go further north into the hill country.
Not so in Byzantine times where a well-endowed church once stood until destroyed by Persians in 614. But in any event, Banias is the region, where St. Peter was given the primacy by Jesus as described in Matt. 16. It’s a region with plenty of Paganism. The ruins of Caesarea Phillipi, built by king Herod the Great's son Phillipus, are here, along with the palace of Agrippa.
The place’s original name was Panias, because there was a temple dedicated to the god Pan, where pagans would toss in sacrifices to this massive gaping pit with water in it. Next door was a temple dedicated to Zeus.
But the temple of Pan, whose image resembles something Satanic, is highly important for our drama of Matt. 16:18. That cave you see is where the sacrifices to Pan and the nymphs were cast. It was described back then as a bottomless pit, where the water would take the sacrifice away. If the god accepted the sacrifice, you would see nothing. But if he did not, blood would return in the water from nearby springs.
This pit is called the “Gates of Hell,” the passageway for these evil gods to travel to and from the underworld. And watching the worship of the cult of Pan was probably a hellish shocking experience for these devout Jews following their Rabbi. But here, Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock on which he will build his Church and tells them that the “Gates of Hell” from which these forces of evil come will not prevail against the Church built on the rock of Peter. This was a truly powerful moment for the Apostles. And there in Banias, you get to really imagine what that must have meant to the disciples.
In 2000 years, nothing much has changed. Today Pope Francis is Peter and the Gates of Hell do not prevail against Christ’s Church built on his rock.