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A Rock and a Hard Place

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

In March I had the privilege of assisting a group of bishops and rabbis, led by William Cardinal Keeler, on their “Interfaith Journey to Israel and Rome.”

The trip was sponsored by the U.S. Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Its purpose was for Catholic and Jews to share their experiences of the places dear to each and to see them through the other’s eyes.

You know who was the central figure of the trip? Simon son of Jonah, “the Rock” (or Peter), as he came to be known.

Scene I: We stood in the garden of olives, where Jesus agonized over the prospect of his forthcoming passion and death. And Simon’s role there? He slept.

Scene II: Nearby, we visited the grotto of Gethsemane, where Jesus often spent evenings with his disciples. The place of perfidy, for there Judas marked him with a kiss so that the soldiers could seize him. The Rock? He feebly fought, then fled.

Scene III: Caphernaum, once a bustling lakeshore town on the great Roman Sea Road from Syria to Egypt. Excavations have revealed remnants of a Byzantine church built over the foundations of one house in particular – the humble dwelling of the fishermen brothers, Simon and Andrew.

Only a few years ago a modern shrine-church was built over this site.

The remains of the nearby synagogue evoked memories for all of us – for the Christians, the miracles of Jesus that took place there – for the Jews, the revival in our days of the ancient land of Israel.

“Truly this is a place of miracles for us all,” reflected one of the rabbis.

Scene IV: Tabgha, the Church of the Primacy of Peter. It commemorates the resurrection appearance of Jesus described in John 21. We celebrated Mass by the lakeshore – the bishops were the celebrants, the rabbis, the congregation.

“Do you love me?,” Jesus three times questioned Simon Peter, who had thrice denied him. And then and there Jesus gave him that great primacy of love: “Feed my sheep.”

Scene V: The Vatican, the Basilica of St. Peter. Upon arriving in Rome, we spent two hours walking through the great church, admiring its art and altars, chapels and statuary.

The next morning we gathered in the grottos underneath for Mass near the tomb of Peter. Later that day we visited the excavations under the grottos themselves – the very burial ground over which the church was built.

Scene VI: We attended the public audience in St. Peter’s Square – along with some tens of thousands of fellow pilgrims and visitors. After, we were greeted by Pope John Paul II, the successor of Peter as head of the Church.

Our interfaith journey spanned place and time – from Peter’s simple house in Caphernaum to the great shrine-church marking the place of his crucifixion and burial – from the first fisher of men of Jesus’ time to the one who still walks in the shoes of the fisherman today.

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Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA



Tags: Israel Msgr. Stern Jewish-Catholic relations