Friday 30 September 2011


Angels - they seem so superfluous. But not only the OT but also the NT speaks of them, and more, Jesus mentions them several times.

Just a small reflection on Michael. The name itself is significant: Who can be like God? Lucifer chose to be like God, and so went against God. Michael recognised his creature status, and chose for God. We have to make choices everyday for or against God; only, where the angels make their choice once and for eternity, we have to renew our choices every day. Human freedom is worked out over time.

But the angels also indicate our final state. In Mt 22, 30 we have Jesus saying to the Sadducees: in the Resurrection there will be neither marrying nor giving in marriage, but you will be like the angels in heaven. What is it to be like the angels? In Mt 18, 10 Jesus says about children that "their angels behold the face of my Father in heaven." So: seeing God; praising, worshipping, adoring, being united with God in love.

And religious life as an anticipation of that final state already in this life.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Philippino Catholic Community Feast, Jerusalem

The Philippino Catholic Community in Israel celebrated the feast of the first Philippino saint, Lorenzo Ruiz de Manila, today at the Ratisbonne campus. Besides communities in Jerusalem, groups came from Rehovot as well as Tel Aviv. There was a colourful procession, the Eucharist celebrated by Bishop William Shomali, Vicar, Latin Patriarchate, followed by cultural items on the basketball court, lunch, and a basketball and volleyball tournament.

The new Philippine Ambassador to Israel was himself present for the cultural items and lunch. There was also Fr David Neuhaus, SJ, Fr Angelo OFM, Philippino Chaplain, and others.

The community spent a lot of time, energy and money celebrating the feast. It was a really colourful and happy day. Quite amazing that the community can come together so well.

Msgr Shomali said that there was also a very large Indian Catholic community, mainly in Tel Aviv, hailing mostly from the Konkani speaking areas of India.    

Saturday 24 September 2011

Diary of a Country Priest

Wonderful piece on the film version of George Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest, in The Tablet (17 September 2011) 9-10, by Paul Bailey, entitled "Doomed Angel."

The subtitle runs thus: "The actor Claude Laydu, who died in July this year, stunned cinemagoers in 1951 and ever since with his uncompromising depiction of an ascetic country cure'. It was a performance that gave an insight into the paradoxes of Christianity and of total self-giving."
At the very core of the film is the confrontation between the countess - morning the tragic early death of her son; ignoring her husband's myriad infidelities, the latest of which is with the governess, Louise; refusing to acknowledge her daughter's state of near-suicidal despair - and the now patently dying priest. He is there to rescue her from her selfishness, the selfishness of protracted grief.
   "I would rather be with my son in hell than separated from him in heaven, she asserts. It is then that she notices the anguish on the childlike face of her counsellor and perhaps recognises at last the depths into which possessiveness has taken her. She throws a medallion containing a photograph of her boy on to the fire and the priest, risking burning his hands, retrieves it. She has, through his guidance, attained peace.
   "How wonderful that we can give others that peace which we do not possess. Oh, miracle of our empty hands": of all the thoughts visited upon the priest, that surely is the most profound. 
The ending lines of Bailey's article:
What will survive, beyond any doubt, is the film he starred in at the age of 24, which ends with the image of the Cross and the words 'All is grace'. It was only after the seeing the film in its entirety, before it was shown at Venice in 1951, that Claude Laydu realised that he had played a saint. I like to think that he was pleased with the revelation.
The film in question is Robert Bresson's Journal d'un Cure' de Campagne.

The book is still well worth reading. Our seminarians take note.

Thursday 22 September 2011

The Tomb of Mary

The Tomb of Mary - in charge of the Orthodox Church, with the facade already at a lower level, and then a large tunnel-staircase leading downwards into the earth, into what used to be a very large grotto, with as many as 60 Jewish type tombs. The tradition is that Mary was buried here and that, some years later, when the Romans were about to invade Jerusalem, the Christian community, mindful of the prophecy of Jesus, decided to flee, taking with it the remains of the great saints, including Mary. But when they opened the tomb, they found nothing, no bones, not even ash, but only a delicate and beautiful perfume. It was then that the bishop of Jerusalem said: she has risen, like her Son, and with her Son, she has shared in his Resurrection. And the people believed.

The church of the Tomb is very dark and very fascinatingly oriental: so many lamps hanging all around, a beautiful and very large icon of Our Lady behind the Tomb, and the Tomb itself, very much like the Holy Sepulchre, standing by itself in the middle. You have to stoop to enter it, and there, encased in glass, you can see the tomb where the body of Mary is said to have rested. There are odd holes in the tomb, made by old pilgrims who wanted to take home some precious relics, said Vernet.

So there it is, the Tomb of Mary. I hadn't seen it before. Next to it is another large grotto, where Jesus and his disciples seem to have slept often, and a stone's throw from there, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the church with the Rock on which Jesus is said to have prayed, his Agony in the Garden. There are 8 ancient olive trees in the garden, very large, and the experts say that this kind of girth means they are more than 2000 years old. Perhaps they are the trees that bore witness to the Agony of Jesus and his Prayer.  

The gate that is shut

Another thing that struck me very much in our topographical visit this morning was the Gate that is Shut. This is the Eastern Gate of the Temple, and it is shut, quite walled up. It seems there is a prophecy of Ezekiel to this effect, saying that only the Prince of Israel will enter through it and eat in its shadow.

Ezekiel 44:1-3
1 Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut.
2 And he said to me, "This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut.
3 Only the prince may sit in it to eat bread before the LORD; he shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way."

But this is the very Gate through which Jesus entered the City, for Jesus came from Bethphage and over the Mt of Olives into the City, and the only entry was through the Eastern Gate. And, according to Vernet, this Gate was walled up at a later time.

And so the prophecy was fulfilled: it was open to allow the Prince of Israel to enter, and now it is shut.

You can see the gate in the photo above. 

David and the sanctuary of Nob

From the reference of Jesus in the gospels, and from the Old Testament itself, many of us have known about how David, when he and his men were hungry, went to the priests of Nob and asked for food, and they, who had only the Loaves of the Presence, gave them to the men on David's assurance that "their vessels were clean." (1 Sam 21, 2-10) I had no idea, however, that the 'high place' of Nob was so close to Jerusalem. It is, in fact, on one of the hills overlooking the old city of Jerusalem, today known as Mt Scopus, the Mount from where it is possible to See, to Observe. This was the mount from which all the invading armies spied upon Jerusalem, hence the name. Today it is crowned with the vast campus of the Hebrew University, and, adjacent to it, the Augusta Victoria Hospital built thanks to the donation of a generous German Emperor who visited the Holy Land at the end of the 19th century, and named after his wife.

Well, this Augusta Victoria Hospital is built on the very site of the old town and high place of Nob - the very place to which David went in his flight from Saul. Saul was, at that time, reigning at Gibeah Shaul, about 4 kms north-east of Jerusalem. Jerusalem had not yet been established as the Temple of the Lord (something which it fell to David to do), and there were many high places, Nob being one of them.

The story is of course tragic. There is one of Saul's trusted men, Doeg the Edomite, who happens to be in Nob. This man reports of course to Saul, who summons the priests and has them massacred, and then order the 'wiping out of the memory' of Nob, killing every man and woman, child and animal. (1 Sam 22, 6-23)

Nob seems to have been rebuilt later by David. But nothing of all that is visible now. It is only the Hospital that occupies a large and relatively serene campus, that overlooks, on the East, the desert of Judah and the new Israeli settlements. But on that eastern slope of Mt Scopus and the Mt of Olives, we have the famous villages of Bethany, the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and Bethphage, from where Jesus began his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. 

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Joan Maria Vernet, SDB

Joan Maria Vernet: few of us in India have heard of this great Salesian, professor of the New Testament and Biblical Archaeology here in Ratisbonne, and author of more than a dozen popular books on the life of Jesus, the latest being Tu, il Salvatore.  I say popular books; but I think they are penetrated through and through with the vast knowledge of this good scripture professor. At the age of 74, he still guides our students with great passion through the sites of the Holy Land. Last Thursday he took them to the Holy Sepulchre (my blog entry on the subject is entirely a summary of his handouts) and the Mamilla Pool. Next month there is a scheduled trip to Galilee. He is easily the most popular professor on the campus.

For a list of Fr Vernet's books, see:

The first book, Tu, Giuseppe, has just come out in English translation: You, Joseph: A Historical Novel on Saint Joseph (Kenya: Philothea Missionary Society, 2011). 

Don Bosco's insistence on work

Don Bosco's insistence on work takes on a special significance when seen against its historical background: the current anticlerical accusation that religious and the clergy in general were parasites, idle and sterile persons, living off holdings and benefices that remained unproductive for society as a whole. Don Bosco not only drew his Salesians from the common people, but also insisted that they be workers. It was, in its time, a new model of religious life: a religious who was a worker among working people. This, dangerous as it could turn out to be in single cases (says Arthur Lenti), seems to have been Don Bosco's concept of the 'active' life understood as 'apostolate'. 

The electric shock that was Don Bosco...

Fascinating observation by don Rua, declared under oath: 

“I remember that when Don Bosco came to say Mass for us […], something like an electric shock seemed to run through all the children. They would jump to their feet and leave their places to mill about him […] It took quite some time before he could get through to the sacristy. There was nothing the good Brothers could do to prevent this apparent disorder, and so we had our way. Nothing of this sort happened when other priests came, even pious and renowned ones … The secret of this attachment could only be explained by their awareness of the spiritual and untiring love he felt for their souls.”[1]

[1] BM II p. 247-248.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

The Holy Sepulchre: a history

The feast of the Exaltation of the Cross today. Fr Vernet took the First Year students for a guided tour, which I missed because of a meeting of Religious Superiors at the PBI. But his handouts are very interesting.

Calvary was a small hill on the west of the city outside the walls. From 7 BC to 1 AD the place around was a quarry producing white stone. In 1 AD the quarry became disused and a garden took its place. Several tombs had been cut in the vertical surfaces of the quarry's walls. The tomb of Jesus was one of these.

In AD 41-43 Calvary and the Tomb were brought within the walls. The Jerusalem Christian Community used to hold liturgical celebrations on the site till AD 66. Even when the tomb was brought within the new walls, the site was not built over.

In AD 135 Hadrian filled the quarry and built a Capitoline temple on it, flanked by a shrine honouring Aphrodite. It was the Roman attempt to erase old 'superstitions.'

In AD 326 a huge new building was erected on the site by Constantine, and consecrated in 335. The old buildings were torn down. As the work progressed, Eusebius of Caesarea reports, "and as layer after layer of the subsoil came into view, the venerable and most holy memorial of the Saviour's resurrection ... came into view." (Life of Constantine 3, 28)

The Constantinian basilica had an Atrium, a covered five nave basilica, an open courtyard with the hill of
Calvary at its south-east corner, and a large Rotunda in whose centre stood the Sepulchre.

The basilica was destroyed by the Persians in 614. It was rebuilt after the victory of the Emperor Heraclius in 628.

In 1009 the basilica was systematically destroyed under orders from the Fatimite Caliph Akhim. In 1042 the Emperor Constantine Monomachus provided a subsidy for reconstruction, but it was not enough for complete repairs, so a great part of the original edifice had to be abandoned. This was the church found by the Crusaders when they captured Jerusalem on 15 July 1099.

The church we see today is the Crusaders' basilica, inaugurated in 1149. All the sites were reunited under one roof. The basilica was beautiful but much smaller than the Constantinian basilica, lacking the nave and the atrium. The style was not Romanesque but Gothic of the 12th century.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Hi-tech discussions

We had quite a hi-tech discussion yesterday. We are discussing the Lineamenta for the forthcoming XIII Synod of Bishops on The New Evangelization. We were supposed to download the document and read it. The document is some 55 pages long, 45 if you omit the notes. Not all of us were willing to go in for a printout. So Ric Fernando, one of our staff members here, brought down his Wi-Fi generator: a little unit that plugs in to the ethernet, and generates a wireless network ambient for a range of about 20 metres. So there we were, with our laptops, connecting to the net and downloading the document.

The fruits of our discussion are to be presented at the meeting of the Committee of Religious Men - perhaps what we call the CRI back in India - tomorrow, 14 September, at the Pontifical Biblical Institute.

Sunday 11 September 2011

The faith of the centurion

For a homily tomorrow:

The gospel is about the faith of the Roman centurion in Capharnaum.

Faith: it takes time to realize that faith is not something we create for ourselves, that instead it is a gift, the great gift of God. Here we have a Roman centurion - someone who did not belong to the Jewish people - who has received this gift. But Jesus marvels at his faith: which means that he had grown in the exercise of this gift to an extraordinary extent.

A former priest: I lost my priesthood. But many years before that I lost my faith. And there is nothing so miserable as a priest who has lost his faith.

We pray - that the gift of faith that has been given to us might be fanned into a flame, that it might keep burning bright, that we might be men of great and living faith, like our Father Don Bosco.  

Saturday 10 September 2011

Olive trees

Olives trees in front of Ratisbonne Monastery. These are old, but not as old as some others in the Holy Land. I was told that there is one that is said to be 3000 years old, in our Bet Gemal monastery. 

Ratisbonne Monastery

A view of Ratisbonne Salesian Monastery...
The bust is of Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne, founder of the monastery.
The strange roundish edifice is called the Turkish Tower, the most ancient part of this campus, probably one of a series of such towers from Jerusalem to the coast, an ancient communication system... 

Thursday 8 September 2011

The archbishop and the mataji

Two lovely books I am reading these days: Priests for the Third Millennium, by Abp. Timothy M. Dolan, and a book on Our Lady by Vandana Mataji. Both the Archbishop and the Mataji have the ability to penetrate to the heart, and to the heart of matters. They probably live their faith deeply... 

Studium Theologicum Salesianum, Jerusalem

STUDIUM THEOLOGICUM SALESIANUM "SAINTS PETER AND PAUL" - that's perhaps the official title of our Theology Centre here at the Ratisbonne Monastery, Jerusalem.

The Centre started off in Bethlehem way back in 1929, was transferred to Tantur (half way between Bethlehem and Jerusalem) in 1949, and to Cremisan in 1957, where it remained for a long time - almost 50 years. In 2004 it was transferred to its present location in the Ratisbonne Monastery, Jerusalem.

The story behind the final transfer is long and complex. The Ratisbonne Monastery was founded by Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne, who was also the founder of the Fathers of Sion, a religious congregation with the principal aim of dialoguing with Judaism. Ratisbonne bought land on a hill overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, at a place not far from Hezekiah's Upper Pool, where the prophecy about the Virgin Birth was made. At the time, the monastery was practically the only building in the locality. Today it is in the very heart of an upper class and largely Jewish neighbourhood.

When numbers fell and needs changed, it would appear that the Fathers of Sion handed over their property to the Vatican, who in turn, after a while, looked around for a religious congregation to take care of it. Since the Franciscans and the Jesuits both had large houses in Jerusalem, the Vatican approached the Salesians. In September 2004, the Salesians moved into the monastery with their Theology Centre. Over the last six years, a major work of renovation of the interiors has been carried out by the Salesians.

The Fathers of Sion still retain one wing of this large old monastery, which is built like a French castle, with a semi-underground floor and two others above it.

The most colourful and ancient edifice on the campus is the Turkish Tower, which has a whole lovely apartment within it. Fascinating to think of living within a tower, but it's not bad, I think.

So: Ratisbonne is the name of the monastery, not the place. The study centre is called STS, and the whole building, which includes the Salesian Community, is perhaps best called Ratisbonne Salesian Monastery. 

Francis Preston

With Fr Francis Preston, the outgoing Rector of Ratisbonne Salesian Monastery, in front of the Holy Sepulchre. 

St Anne's, Jerusalem, birthplace of Our Lady

Just back from mass at St Anne's, near Lions Gate, Old Jerusalem... just next to the famous Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus cured the man who had been waiting for 38 years for someone to help him get into the Pool.

The Pool itself has been excavated, and is really a maze, and very deep too... In Byzantine times, a church had been constructed on it. When the Crusaders arrived, they found the church in ruins, and built a smaller chapel.

The mass was a solemn affair, with the Franciscans presiding, in French and in Latin. Solemn Gregorian music, homily in French, and the French consul and his wife in attendance, given that the church is under the protection of France. I was introduced to the consul, and he expressed his desire to visit Ratisbonne, which was also under the protection of France.

The following is from the introduction to the mass booklet distributed to all this morning:
The protogospel of James (2nd century) indicates that the Virgin was born in the neighbourhood of the Temple at Jerusalem. already from the 5th century, pilgrims were visiting the the Pool and the church of the paralytic and of "the place where Mary was born."
This church, destroyed before the arrival of the Crusaders, stood where the present church of St Anne now stands, with a big monastery, supported by royal revenues. Several of the royal women of the Crusaders finished their lives in this monastery.
In 1192, as indicated by an Arabic inscription on the tympanum of the great door, the church was transformed by Saladin, the Muslim Emperor, into a Shia College; hence the name Salahiye.
During the Muslim occupation, the Francicans Friars, Custodians of the Holy Land, tried their best to obtain access, from time to time, to the crypt, to pray there with the pilgrims. They were allowed to enter only through a small window which can still be seen today from the platform through which one enters the crypt of the birth of Mary.
From the 15th century, the Franciscans obtained a firman permitting them to celebrate Mass (which they did with difficulty and fear) on 8 September, the feast of the birth of Our Lady, and on 8 December, feast of the Immaculate Conception.
In 1856, after the Crimean War, the building was given to France by Sultan Abdul Majid. The church, restored with great care, was in 1878 entrusted to the White Fathers founded by Cardinal Charles Lavigerie.
During the war of 1967, the basilica with its cupola were badly damaged by bombardments. In the years that followed, the church was restored under the direction of the architects M. Trouvelot and P. Couasnon OP. On 14 July 1971, National Feast of France, it was solemnly reopened for worship.  

Tuesday 6 September 2011

FedEx and customs

I spent the better part of the day at Tel Aviv, trying to clear my 4 boxes of books and papers through customs. The nice part was that the Maman employees (which is the company that works with customs to clear things) were all very courteous and even cordial, and the better part was that I met so many Indian Jews there... two ladies whose parents came from Mumbai, and who said 'basaa' to me with great delight, and three young men who had come mostly recently from Mumbai, and spoke very fluent Marathi.

The bad part was FedEx. I wish FedEx Nashik had told me clearly that Israeli customs expected a detailed list of contents, with valuation. Because of the lack of that, we had a delay of ... almost 10 days before clearance, and then, finally, they suggested that I clear the parcels personally, myself.

It is probably in the end much cheaper and far more convenient to send personal parcels through the post.  

Monday 5 September 2011

St Stephen at Bet Gemal

On our way back from the airport, where we had gone to drop Fr Francis Preston, Fr Gianni Caputa took us to the Salesian House at Bet Gemal, also once known as Caphargemala - the House or Village of Gemal or Gamaliel, the famous teacher of St Paul.

Bet Gemal also seems to have been the burial place of St Stephen, the proto-martyr. In the 5th century, a cave was discovered containing 3 sacrophagi - one of Gamaliel, one of his nephew, and the third of Stephen. Most of the remains of Stephen were then translated to Jerusalem, to a place on Mount Sion, where later a church was built. This church has since disappeared, but it is probable that it stood where the Ecole Biblique now stands.

A Byzantine church was also erected in Bet Gemal, which was later destroyed, perhaps in the Turkish invasions. The once large Christian community was also scattered or reduced.

The present Salesian property at Bet Gemal was bought by Fr Belloni when he was a member of the Latin Patriarchate. When Fr Belloni became a Salesian and merged his congregation with the Salesians, he brought along his properties, including Bet Gemal, Cremisan, Bethlehem and Nazareth, if I am not mistaken. In the 1930s the remains of the church of St Stephen were discovered - the church is the only round church in Palestine, symbolizing 'crown', the root meaning of 'Stephen.' In the last part of the 20th century, Fr Andrzej Strus, SDB discovered the cave and the part of the relics of St Stephen that used to be venerated there.

The house of Bet Gemal used to be an Agricultural School, one of premier schools in Palestine, with vast acres of olives and vines, and a group of residential students. Eventually, in the 1980s, the school had to be closed down for lack of students. Now it continues to run the olive orchard and vineyards, and also serves as a house for pilgrims, prayer groups, retreats, etc.

The new church of St Stephen, built by the Salesians in Byzantine style on the ruins of the ancient church, also houses the remains of Ven. Simon Srugi of Nazareth, who served all his Salesian life in Bet Gemal as infirmarian and in charge of the grain mill.

On 26 December, the whole Salesian province of the Middle East gathers at Bet Gemal to celebrate the feast of St Stephen.

Not far from Bet Gemal is Bet Shemesh, which used to be a Canaanite temple to the Sun God. The ruins of the temple are still visible on a little mound, but much neglected. This was the place where the Philistines held the Ark of the Covenant before David captured it and took it back to Jerusalem.

In the vicinity is also the town where Samson brought down the supporting pillars of the palace, killing himself as well as the heads of the Philistines.  

Saturday 3 September 2011

The Rector's Office, Ratisbonne

I was surprised to learn yesterday that the Rector's office here at Ratisbonne is a historical place in its own right: the initial meetings between the Vatican and the State of Israel, exploring the possibility of recognition of the state, were held here. There is, in fact, in the office, a photo with Ratzinger and other officials from both sides. The photo needs to be restored to an honourable place. 

Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center

Yesterday we paid a brief visit to the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, just outside the New Gate of the Old City. A huge, recent building, belonging to the Vatican, and entrusted to the Legionaires of Christ. A sort of 5 star pilgrim accomodation, with a first class Rotisserie, restaurant, and Terrace Garden.

We were particularly impressed by the Terrace Garden - and not only because of its legendary 500 varieties of cheese and fine wines, but because of the utterly stunning view it affords of the Old City. The golden dome of the Al Aqsa Mosque is mostly stunningly visible; not far from it the two darker domes of the Holy Sepulchre; and the tower of the Franciscan Custody. In the background lie the low hills with the Garden of Olives, with a Russian onion-top golden domed church, and perhaps at the top of the same hill the church of the Ascension.

Then of course there was the PBI (Pontifical Biblical Institute, the extension of the Biblicum in Rome), the Italian Quarter, the Russian Quarter, and so on. In the distance the Anglican church. Somewhere also a Mormon church.

The Notre Dame campus contains a huge auditorium, named after John Paul II I think; and built with money obtained from the alienation of part of the Ratisbonne property (now containing a very posh apartment block with swimming pool and works). It also has halls for top-level meetings of the Vatican, the local hierarchy, etc. The Conference of Ordinaries of the Holy Land also has its offices in the building. I was told that this conference traditionally includes the Franciscan Custos, for many centuries regarded the head of the Latin Catholics in the Holy Land, till the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate.

The Holy City and the extreme luxury in tourism, all mixed up together.  

The Turkish Tower, Ratisbonne Monastery

The most ancient building on the Ratisbonne Monastery campus is the Turkish Tower. It appears that this is one of a series of 7 towers built perhaps in Ottoman times for the purposes of communication between Jerusalem and the coast. One of these towers seems to be on the Mount of Olives, or the Garden of Gethsemane. 

I was surprised to see a whole apartment within the tower: a ground floor space, a middle floor that used to serve as an office, a top floor that used to serve as bedroom, and that still has the carpet. Adjacent to the tower is another L-shaped space, with kitchen, hall space, and so on. 

The tower used to be occupied in earlier times by a family. Right now it is in a state of disrepair, and the water and electrical connections have been cut off. 

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