What is fast becoming a tradition is the annual visit to the West Bank town of Nablus by Archbishop Patrick Kelly writes Father Mark Madden.
As in previous years this event takes place at the start of the week-long Holy Land Coordination Meeting in Jerusalem. This is an annual gathering of Bishops and Episcopal Conferences from across Europe and North America who meet in the Holy Land to look at the present situation and to offer the Christian Community much needed support.
The meeting begins with the delegates going to various parishes on the Sunday morning to celebrate Mass with parishioners. This year Gaza and the Syrian Catholics in Jerusalem were chosen and it seemed that Nablus was also a non-negotiable venue.
Eight of us accompanied Archbishop Patrick to Rafidia, the Nablus suburb where the majority of the Christians live, and it was clear that this year would be a little different. Joining us were two television companies recording Mass for Palestinian and Lebanese Television Companies. Palestinian TV is the only station in the Arab world to broadcast Mass every Sunday which has a large viewing population.
After numerous tv and radio interviews, Mass to celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord began, in English and Arabic. During his homily, the Archbishop reminded us that Jesus became one with us, sinners, by being plunged into the waters. He told the parishioners that we in Liverpool are with them through our deep relationship and we are also with them through the Coordination Meeting. It was made very clear after Mass that those listening were moved by what he said and its heartfelt sentiment. This is why this visit is important and necessary. The Christian Community need to feel that they are not forgotten and this visit strengthens the communion between us all.
At the end of Mass Father Johnny, the Parish Priest, on behalf of the parish thanked the Archbishop and congratulated him on his 50 years of priesthood which he will celebrate next month. A gift was presented to him with a request for daily prayers. The Archbishop assured them that they are already in his daily prayers and an invitation to join him in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool for his Jubilee Celebrations was given.
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord marks the end of the Christmas Season and a beautiful tradition in the parish on this Feast Day is the veneration of the Christ Child. Father Johnny took the child from the crib which was placed on a silk cushion and handed to the Archbishop. Reminiscent of Good Friday when we queue to venerate the Cross, the same was done with the Christ Child, reminding us that this Child would die for us and we will soon kiss, not a depiction of the Babe but a depiction of the broken dying body of this Christ.
An important aspect of the Sunday worship is the social gathering after Mass. Coffee and chocolate is a staple part of Arab hospitality balanced with chatter and laughter. Again, it was good to see the genuine affection the parishioners have for visitors and especially Liverpool visitors and that our being with them makes a difference and gives much needed hope.
We were joined for lunch by the Deputy Governor of Nablus, Mrs Anan Atire who went into great detail about the issues facing the local people and the need for a new Patriarchate School. Lunch provided a further excuse to celebrate the Archbishop's Jubilee when a splendid Anniversary Cake was produced and duly eaten.
Visiting Nablus must always include time at the Well of Samaria, a major highlight and an important sacred place. Standing near the Well reminds us of the incredible conversation that Jesus had with a Samaritan Woman, who like his Baptism became one with this Woman through water. He offered her life-giving water which only he could give and would open up a new life which she only dreamt about. That is the message given to us and standing at the place where this encounter took place is spine-chilling.
It was good to once again meet Father Justinus, the Orthodox priest and Custodian of the shrine. Looking old and frail since we last saw him, his welcome and joy was still real. A touching moment, standing in the church was when he gave a blessing of thanksgiving to the Archbishop for 50 years of faithful ministry.
Driving through Palestinian countryside back to Jerusalem gives time for silent thought and reflection. A pilgrimage to the Holy Land for it to be life-giving must include a day like we had in Nablus. There is no point in visiting the various holy places if we don't meet those people who daily walk the footsteps of the Lord, the living stones. The Holy places will become dead if our Christian brothers and sisters leave this land and we cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend that it's not our responsibility to offer support and hope to them. The blessings we can give to each other are immense and will sustain us throughout life. Surely this is the water that Jesus gave to the Woman and which everyone has the right to receive.
See more pictures from the visit
More on the Holy Land Coordination