For the Patriarchal Vicar of Jerusalem, travelling in the footsteps of Christ is a source for the "rebirth of faith". It is an essential element for Europe and North America, where a crisis of religion is unfolding. The number of Chinese and Vietnamese pilgrims who understand “the wonder of faith" is growing. Israel restricts entry to Arab Christians, especially from Jordan. AsiaNews proposes a pilgrimage.
Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – The act of pilgrimage is a "means of the New Evangelization" because travelling to sacred places in the footsteps of Christ can bring a "rebirth of faith". Whoever accomplishes it discovers that he or she has “received a calling from God, a vocation, a motion of the Spirit." This has now become essential for Europe and the West in general, where "Christianity and religion are undergoing a profound crisis, "said Mgr Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, Patriarchal Vicar of Jerusalem.
Speaking to AsiaNews, he noted that going on a pilgrimage embodies "the theological meaning of the Bible, which is also shared by Muslims and Jews." It is a "rebirth" and a "rediscovery" of one’s origins, "to understand the places where our faith was born".
"Many pilgrims,” the bishop said, “tell us that the journey changed them, and helped them see life through Biblical eyes. The pilgrimage is also a source of vocations, of rediscovery of the faith and the calling to God." However, this path " needs a companion". Pilgrimages "are constructive," said Mgr Marcuzzo, if they are "well prepared at the beginning" and if "they have a follow-up; if there are opportunities, with a guide, to reflect on the experience."
In addition to being a path of search and discovery, pilgrimages are also an essential resource for the Christian population of the Holy Land. According to recent statistics, at least 30 per cent of the local community – in Jerusalem and Bethlehem – earn a living from religious tourism. The decline in pilgrimages in recent years has badly affected the economy and the survival of local Christians.
For Sobhy Makhoul, chancellor of the Maronite Patriarchate in Jerusalem, when there are pilgrimages, "at least 30 per cent work regularly. When pilgrimages are down, that 30 per cent is exposed to unemployment and, therefore, directly or indirectly, to emigration."
This year there were "70 per cent fewer visitors than in the past." It was "a lean year to say the least," and there are multiple factors that have led to this: the security issue, attacks, the poor economy, and the religious crisis, which particularly affects Europe.
"The trend is still downward,” Mgr Marcuzzo said. “This period, traditionally the best par of the year for a trip to the Holy Land, is confirmation of the crisis. Of course, there is a small recovery, but the figure is far from the recent past."
The reasons are economic and security-related. Fears of attack are unfounded however, the prelate stressed. To this, we must add the gradual distancing from religion in certain countries or continents (Europe first, but also the North America). "Europe no longer believes in pilgrimages,” said the patriarchal vicar of Jerusalem. “At best people make a nice trip with a religious background, but its true and deeper meaning is lost".
Shared by Jews and Muslims, the act of pilgrimage "is a process of renewal, because it brings us where the faith was born. It is a rediscovery of the community of origin, because here we find the direct heirs who carry a collective and living memory of Jesus".
The crisis of pilgrims from Europe – except for Poland, where numbers still hold – is compensated by the growth of Asian pilgrims: Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, but also Chinese and Vietnamese. "In particular, for the Chinese believers, the rediscovery becomes even stronger and more intense,” the prelate said. “For them everything is new, unlike Europeans who are more accustomed to the stories and places described in the Bible. For the Chinese and Vietnamese, it is a real discovery with an attitude of gratitude.” One can read the wonder of faith, the element of incarnation in their faces. Here, eastern pilgrims discover the human element which is in the divine and the divine that enters in the human being. And this raises questions, sparks thoughts, generates wonder . . .".
However, there are not only economic or religious obstacles to limit the number of pilgrimages. "For some Arab Christians,” Mgr Marcuzzo noted, “at present, there are problems entering Israel. Jordan is one example. In some groups of pilgrims, half receive the visa, the other half is rejected for no apparent reason. The father is accepted but not the mother, the son but not the brother . . . Lately, a group of eight new Jordanian deacons wanted to hold a prayer retreat in the Holy Land, but had to desist because two of them had their visa application rejected."
"Security issues" have been cited, but they are laughable because "our Christians are not involved in anything related to terrorism, or acts of violence, or protests." The same is happening to Egypt’s Christians, according to patriarchal vicar of Jerusalem. In recent times, “it is the Egyptian government that is discouraging pilgrimages for domestic reasons".
Responding to the calls from local Church figures, AsiaNews has decided to offer again its readers the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the company Fr Bernardo Cervellera with local specialised guides. The departure is set for 28 October 2016, with return on 4 November. There are still some places available. For more details, click here. (DS)