by Steve Johnson
ATCHISON — He has traveled the world for the past 40 years as a member of the diplomatic corps of the Holy See. He could have spoken on a myriad of subjects, but Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the pope’s personal representative to the United States, was compelled to speak about the Holy Land.
“While the Holy Land remains a region of conflict — there where God revealed his love for humanity — it will be difficult to have peace around the world,” he said.
The archbishop delivered the keynote address at the academic convocation held on the campus of Benedictine College in Atchison on Sept. 1. Prior to the convocation, he concelebrated the opening all-school Mass with Archbishop Joseph Naumann in St. Benedict’s Abbey Church. Archbishop Naumann also joined him on the convocation dais, along with Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City- St. Joseph, Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Bishop Michael Owen Jackels of Wichita, Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden of Baltimore, Bishop Herbert Hermes of the Prelacy of Cristalandia, Brazil, Abbot Barnabas Senecal of St. Benedict’s Abbey, and prioress Sister Anne Shepard of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery.
Archbishop Sambi, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, serves as the Vatican diplomatic representative to both the nation’s Catholic Church and the civil government. Because he previously served as the apostolic nuncio to Israel (from 1998 to 2004, including the historic 2000 visit of Pope John Paul II to the region), Archbishop Sambi addressed what he considers to be the critical problem there: Christians, already an extremely small minority in the Holy Land, are continuing to leave the region.
“The Holy Land is not a foreign land for us [Christians],” he said. “The Holy Land is a privileged place where the mystery of salvation unfolded. For Christians, it is the land of the patriarchs and the prophets, as well as that of Jesus Christ and the apostles and the birthplace of the church.”
Archbishop Sambi said the holy places are “like the fifth Gospel.” They establish that Jesus is not a ghost or a legend, but is history.
“They help us to understand that human redemption by the work of Jesus Christ is not a legend, but a historical event,” he said. “It occurred in a precise moment of human history — during the reign of Tiberius — in precise circumstances — during the Roman occupation — that the word of God became flesh and entered human history as the Savior of the world.”
Archbishop Sambi spoke of the Cenacle, the room where the Last Supper was held, as well as sites like Nazareth, Bethlehem, Calvary, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. These places, he said, each deliver their own message and help Christians better understand their faith.
“I have not found another place in the world where I felt God was so close as when I knelt in the Grotto of the Nativity,” he said of the site in Bethlehem.
In reference to Calvary, he said, “Looking at the place where the cross was planted, I really did think of how much God, in Jesus Christ, truly loves us — that from there flows a river of mercy and forgiveness.”
In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, he said, “One can almost hear the voice of the angel speaking to those women who went to the tomb on the morning of Easter Sunday: ‘I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here, for he is risen, as he said he would do.’”
In the Cenacle, “the place of the first Pentecost,” he said, “through the Holy Spirit, we are united with the church of every time in every place.”
He said Christ desires unity among all his disciples.
“The spirit of unity is a sign that the Holy Spirit guides us,” the arch- bishop said.
He acknowledged that both Jews and Muslims should have access to those sites in the Holy Land revered by their faith traditions, but he said much of the conflict is based on territorial disputes.
“We Christians do not ask for land,” he said. “We ask for respect — respect for the holy Christian places, as well as for those areas that are sacred to the Jews and to the Muslims. We ask for respect for the small Christian community. We ask that Christians from all over the world may have the right to participate in pilgrimages to the Holy Land in a safe and respected manner.”
Archbishop Sambi said he is not concerned about the holy places themselves, but about the ability of Christians to maintain their connection with them. He said the continuing violence in the Holy Land and the lack of any concrete prospect for peace are creating a situation in which Christian pilgrims are afraid to go to the sacred places, and the local Christian population is moving away. “I am truly concerned about the future of the Christian community [in the Holy Land],” he said.
In addition to the violence, unemployment, economic problems, and a lack of housing are also contributing to the problem, driving young Christians out of the area. On top of that, he said, there are only 13 Christian churches in the Holy Land, and only six Catholic churches. The Christian community makes up only 2 percent of the region’s population, and it is shrinking.
“The bishops of the Holy Land have written recently that if nothing is done to stop the alarming exodus of our Christians from the Holy Land, then, within 50 years, Christianity will disappear in the very land where Christ founded the church,” he said.
He recommended several courses of action.
First, he said, Catholics must pray for the local Christian population, asking the Holy Spirit to give them strength.
Second, he said they must encourage pilgrimages to the Holy Land. “The pilgrimage enriches not only the one who makes such a journey,” he said, “but it also contributes morally and materially to the local Christian community.
“In the Holy Land, Christians suffer from a minority complex. When they see many pilgrims, they are encouraged by their presence and they are able to see themselves as belonging to a large community of universal dimension. If so many people come to the Holy Land from such distant regions of the world, then it is precious to remain in the Holy Land.”
Finally, he said, Catholics and non-Catholics alike must all work to find a lasting peace in the region. This, he said, would be the greatest help for all people of the area.
“I am of the idea that God has given a mission to the Holy Land,” Archbishop Sambi concluded. “The mission that he has given to the Holy Land is a mission of love, a mission of brotherhood, and a mission of peace.”
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