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Not an Accidental Tourist

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Early last October I was invited to accompany members of the Catholic press on a tour of the Holy Land. I was aware that Israel’s Ministry of Tourism had initiated a spirited campaign to increase Catholic tourism to that country; according to travel experts, Catholics were a previously “untapped” market.

Excusing the neglect to mention 1,700 years of Catholic pilgrimage to the Holy Land as an oversight, I decided to go. The itinerary appeared fascinating and the timing was perfect. We would be in the Holy Land one month after the signed agreement between Israel and the PLO; I was eager to check the peoples’ pulse.

That first morning in Jerusalem I was awakened by the Muslim call to prayer, the competing clanging of church bells and the shrill cries of roosters. The Franciscan bell ringing was elaborate while the Russian Orthodox simply pounded a gong. These dissonant sounds suggested the tone of my sojourn in the land of Jesus. I would hear and see much in the next few days; not all of it would harmonize.

The Israeli-assigned guide took charge of our small group of seven. From the front of our hotel on the Mount of Olives she gave an elaborate overview of the geography of the region. She dwelt on the availability of water. Water, which is absolutely necessary to sustain life, determined the site of this city, she said.

From the Romans’ impressive aqueducts along the Mediterranean to the dissipating waters of the Galilee, from the dry riverbeds in the West Bank to the thoroughly watered lawns in Israeli neighborhoods, water persisted as a dominant theme throughout the trip.

Today the right to water is a thorny issue among Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians. Although holy for Christians, Jews and Muslims, Jerusalem, with its environs, remains important for its position: whoever holds Jerusalem, holds the region; whoever controls the region, controls the water supply; and whoever regulates the water supply, regulates life.

The life of Jesus began in the small village of Bethlehem just seven miles from Jerusalem. After breezing through the checkpoint – Bethlehem lies in the occupied West Bank – our small and dusty bus approached the square in front of the ancient Church of the Nativity. We encountered a traffic jam resembling the typical traffic troubles plaguing parking lots after Sunday Mass in the States. Even the armed Israeli soldiers seemed helpless – or maybe just too apathetic – to control the blaring horns of the hordes of buses or the piercing screams of the drivers. The flow of pilgrims to Bethlehem, which since the beginning of the intifada had been reduced to a trickle, has flooded the town since the September agreement.

Eager to see the place of Jesus’ birth, I left my group in the Franciscan Church of St. Catherine (which is connected to the 4th-century basilica) and stepped down into the hot and humid cave below the ancient altar. There I found a crowd of weeping Italian widows wrapped in black wool crouching to kiss the silver star that marks the hallowed site. I flinched as the flames of their beeswax tapers seared their mourning clothes.

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Tags: Jerusalem Unity Pilgrimage/pilgrims Bethlehem Tourism