OTTAWA (CCN) — A Catholic Women’s League (CWL) pilgrimage to the Holy Land has revealed the challenges facing Holy Land Christians, but also great hope, says CWL president Barb Dowding.
The pilgrimage Nov. 13-23 took 17 CWL members, along with Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) Canada’s national director Carl Hétu and St. John’s Archbishop Martin Currie, to visit the projects CWL supports, to show support for Christians living in the region and to visit the holy sites.
In a Skype interview from Bethlehem Nov. 20, Dowding said she had decided to go as a “personal, private pilgrimage to gather my wits and regroup.”
The trip has been an “amazing experience,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of wonderful things.”
“What we did see was a lot of walls, walls everywhere,” Dowding said. “Walls are such a great divider; we talked about it in almost every meeting: how to break down the walls. Instead of breaking down, they seem to be getting higher and higher.”
Dowding said they knew about the security wall, the checkpoints, and difficulties crossing back and forth between Israel to Palestine. “We could actually feel it and see it,” she said. “That is part of their life and I’m sure it deeply affects them.”
“I never felt the people we met were wringing their hands in despair or lacking hope,” she said. “They went about their business day by day, despite the challenges.”
“What we’ve all agreed is praying for peace is huge,” she said. People they meet are “all saying peace seems very far away but they always cling to the hope that other great divisions have fallen away: Northern Ireland, South Africa, all those things that seemed totally impossible have changed.”
Hope remains and “people asked us to pray, pray, pray!” she said.
Currie, who had previously served as a CWL’s spiritual adviser and now sits on CNEWA Canada’s board, said the Christian population is “very small, roughly two per cent of the population, down from 14-15 per cent in 1948.”
“A lot have emigrated to other countries,” the archbishop said. “Sometimes they feel they have no future here.”
Currie said Canadian Catholics need to “support the Christian communities that are here,” by not only seeing the “holy sites, the old stones” but to see the “living stones” the Christian communities that are there, and have been there “since Apostolic days.”
“How do we support these Christians here, so don’t have to go elsewhere to seek a better way of life?” he asked.
The other CWL members each had their own reasons for coming, Dowding said. “They, like me, met so many people living, working serving here in the Holy Land under very difficult, almost extreme conditions.”
The group visited the two projects CWL supports to “show solidarity and confirm they are good endeavours,” she said. One is the Infant Welfare Centre in the Old City of Jerusalem that supports at-risk teenagers to help them stay in school, even if they face an unplanned pregnancy. “The success rate is really high,” said Dowding. “The centre has a daycare for little children so mothers can work.”
The other is the Shepherd’s Field Hospital in Beit Sahour that provides health care for mothers and small children from pregnancy through early childhood.
“The babies, and children up to age four and five were so well-cared for and loved, you know you’re putting your energies into the right thing,” Dowding said, noting these projects have been called Velma’s Dream, after a previous CWL president, Velma Harrison, who, after a similar pilgrimage in 2010, was inspired to find ways CWL could help Holy Land Christians.
The pilgrims visited a number of Christian ministries, hospitals and ministries for the disabled, mentally challenged, and the deaf.
At the Hospital of St. Vincent de Paul, they saw children with varying ranges of disability, some needing 24-hour a day care. “What was so amazing to me was to see the love, the care, the cleanliness, the joy found in the whole place from the sisters to the staff,” Dowding said. The staff to patient ratio was one to one. “It proved to me the dignity of life at any stage.”
The pilgrims visited the Cremisan Valley where a proposed new stretch of the security wall could divide Palestinian Christian families from their traditional orchards and farmland, and divide a convent from the people they serve.
“The Palestinians feel they are under occupation, hemmed in by fences and roads,” Dowding said. “The sisters who are in the Cremisan valley are doing a “tremendous job and so far have been able to keep wall from cutting a lot of Palestinians off from their farms.”
The “wall’s being built under their noses,” she said.
In Palestine, so many of the major institutions are run by Catholic sisters, Dowding said. “Catholic hospitals and Catholic schools are very high quality.” Most of the people who use these facilities are Muslim.
The Christian community cares for “the least of these, those who are physically or mentally challenged, hearing impaired, the ones no one wants to give the time to care for,” said Currie. “Christians are there because it is the Christian thing to do, to see the face of Christ in them, to love them is to be followers of Jesus.”