Almost 2,000 French Students in the Holy Land | Custodia Terrae Sanctae

Almost 2,000 French Students in the Holy Land

From July 21 to 31, more than 1700 French students came on pilgrimage “to the springs of faith”. A slightly crazy wager that resounded strongly with the French young people. 74 of the 104 French dioceses were represented, and some twenty bishops came along in order to live with the young people this experience of rootedness in the Word of God and the holy sites that bear witness to the history of salvation.

In groups of between 30 and 50 people, the students traversed the Holy Land from the south to the north, coming together for four celebrations that united them all: on the shore of the Lake of Galilee; in Bethlehem at the site of the manger for a Mass over which His Beatitude Msgr. Fouad Twal presided; at Gethsemane, in the same place where Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass and where the young people came together twice for a prayer vigil and the next day for a last Eucharistic celebration in common.

With 1700 students, the whole diversity of the Church of France was represented, from the most traditional fringes to the most progressive ones, which was a beautiful ecclesial experience for the young people and for all their chaplains, both priests and lay people.

Each group lived its own pilgrimage, which was rich in spiritual and human experiences. Thus for example, Msgr. Laurent Ulrich, the bishop of Lille, had the joy of naming one of the diocese’s seminarians as a reader and acolyte on Mount Tabor, as well as confirming three young people in Taybeh.

At the human level, the pilgrimage was marked by a collective food poisoning, which affected some one hundred of the pilgrims in the desert and necessitated the hospitalization of ten people. However, as even the sick said, being hospitalized for two or three days, “even there we lived something really strong”; some of them received visits in particular from Msgr. Marcuzzo, the auxiliary bishop for Galilee.

Still at the human level, it is an understatement to say that the young people were touched by the night spent in a Christian Arab family, either of the Melkite or of the Maronite rite. They will not forget the welcome that was given them. The Christian families doubled the attention they gave their guests, whom they thanked warmly for having taken the time to stop in order to get to know them and to share. For many of the young people, that encounter was the experience of something which until then had only been an idea: the universality of the Church. “It’s marvelous! We are Christians together in our diversity.” Some of the young people were able to accompany their bishops when they were officially received at the General Consulate of France in Jerusalem.

Other encounters marked the young people, as for example the two colloquia they experienced in order to get to know, to understand, and to debate on what is being lived in the Holy Land now. The first of these was at the University of Bethlehem and had as its theme gBeing 20 years old in Bethlehem h. Two young female students, one a Christian and the other a Muslim, spoke of their life. From student to student, contact was made immediately, whereby the simplicity of the testimonies revealed the same aspirations, the same questions, nevertheless with a difference that could be felt and that was disconcerting: the political situation, which is all-pervasive. Thus Marie is passionate about chemistry; nevertheless, she chose to study mathematics: gIf I did chemistry, I would be registered on a black list and would be deprived of an exit permit from the Territories. For the Israelis, knowledge of chemistry is an open door to terrorism… h The two young girls’ witness gave rise to tumultuous applause.

Another place and the same enthusiasm: on July 29, the participants in the pilgrimage all came together at the conference center in Jerusalem for a second colloquium on the theme, ÅgHow to live together?Åh The witnesses there were Father David Neuhaus, the patriarchal vicar for the Hebrew-speaking community, Professor Stroumsa from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he has the ÅgMartin BuberÅh chair for the history of religions, and Professor Rein, the head of the children’s cardiology department who, in the context of the program Åga heart for peaceÅh, cares for Palestinian children from the Territories.

During the two colloquia, very many questions from the participants showed their thirst for understanding the situation. They rarely put on gloves in order to question and even provoke their speakers, sometimes also embarrassing them with wonderful ingenuity, as for example this question asked of Father Neuhaus: gSo when all is said and done, to whom does the Holy Land belong?

Not all of their questions received an answer, not all of their rebellions were pacified, but their enthusiasm was so great that they had trouble finding the words. “it was super, gigantic, great, too cool, magnificent…” When they fill out their language a little, they remember a thousand anecdotes.

They will certainly need several months in order to deepen everything that they have received. Many among them already hope to return, and in any case, to become at their level and where they live builders of peace for the Holy Land and witnesses to the life of God, which should really be the same thing.


The Gethsemane site prepared to welcome other groups

From the moment it had been decided that the Mass of Pope Benedict XVI would be celebrated on the Franciscan property below the Basilica of all Nations at Gethsemane, the Custody envisaged servicing the site in order to welcome other groups, including that of 2,000 French people which had been announced a long time before. Thus some of the installations provided on the occasion of the papal Mass are permanent. The platform on which the pope and the bishops had been seated was taken down, but a smaller platform was built, and the wooden altar at which the pope celebrated can be put up and taken down at will.

At this altar, André Cardinal Vingt Trois presided at the young people’s last Mass; he was surrounded by his French brother bishops as well as His Beatitude Fouad Twal, Msgr. Marcuzzo, Msgr. Joseph Zerey, the Melkite patriarchal vicar in Jerusalem, Msgr. Melki, the Syrian Catholic patriarchal vicar, David Neuhaus, the patriarchal vicar for the Hebrew-speaking community, Father Charles Galichet, osb, the abbot of Abu Ghosh.

Thus, in its own way the Custody accompanied this pilgrimage. In addition to its discrete welcome at the holy sites, it provided the sacristy for the Masses in Bethlehem and at Gethsemane in Jerusalem and rendered some administrative services which were greatly appreciated by the organizers. Here and there, some brothers joined in the celebrations, and they were very touched by the fervor of these pilgrims.