Archive for September 21st, 2015

imageJesus Was Once a Refugee

I’m sure you’ve asked yourself on more than one occasion what members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre do during their annual meetings.  Actually, most people I know have never asked that question, largely because they’ve scarcely heard of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  And if they have, they tend to ask more basic questions like “Who are they?” and “What in the world do they do?”  Well, I can’t answer all of of the questions, but as a chaplain in the Order for several years I can shed some light on what they aspire to do.

People who have a nodding acquaintance with some members may recall seeing them in their ceremonial robes.  I certainly do not want to make light of them, because the robes are elegant and dignified.  But for those who have not seen, the sleek black robes of the women tend to make them look like female versions of Zorro, while the men’s hats suggest they are chefs at some fancy restaurant.  There’s also something counterintuitive about these outfits, since the women wear black and the men white.  I vividly remember the elderly couple who had never been to an investiture before, and so they had never seen anyone wear the outfits.  At the hotel in Saint Louis they stepped out of the elevator and into the lobby, and the room full of three hundred people went silent, and then roared with laughter.  He was wearing the woman’s outfit, and she was wearing the man’s outfit.  So they eased back into the elevator and whisked themselves away in ignominy.  Everyone got over it — but they all remember, to this day.

imageIn the Middle Ages there were lots of special perks attached to being a member, among which was the right to ride on horseback into the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  No one does that today, likely due to the cost of shipping a horse from Minnesota or Texas to Jerusalem.  It’s just way too expensive for most people I know, and riding a horse through the narrow streets of Jerusalem is something of a nightmare anyway.  Plus, it’s just cheaper to use a taxi.

The Order of the Holy Sepulchre had its start in the 12th century, and its mission was the defense of the church built over the burial place of Jesus.  Back then it had a military function, but today its mission is humanitarian.  Today the members of the Order support the Christian communities in the Middle East in general and the Catholic parishes in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in particular.  I scarcely need to say that their generosity is absolutely vital to the survival of these impoverished churches and their schools and orphanages.

A few years ago I went on a pilgrimage with a group from Minnesota, and from Jerusalem we travelled to places which our members support in the region.  In one particular instance we stopped for an afternoon at a parochial school in Amman, Jordan, and at the school the number of students had ballooned to six hundred almost overnight.  Three hundred were recent refugees from Iraq, and about the only thing these people had going for them was this school and the parish church.  It was amazing to realize that this church had become the center of their lives.  It was about all they had to give them hope.

imageEvery year members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre gather in cities across the United States, and there they have the chance to learn about the current activities of the Order.  My first meeting was in Kansas City, several years ago, and back then I thought the report on the Christian community in the Middle East was scary, but not grim.  That is not the case today.  “Horrific” better describes the situation for many Christians in the Middle East today.  And as we learned this weekend, the same is true for an awful lot of Muslims.

Among our speakers this year was Msgr. John Kozar, who serves as the president of The Catholic Near East Welfare Association.  He’s charged with a Vatican-sponsored effort to provide support for the Catholic communities in the Middle East, and in his presentation he hoped to put a human face on some of these groups.  The best word to describe the situation of so many was “horrific.”  He had visited with refugees in Iraq and Syria, where he heard stories from mothers who had seen husbands and sons lined up and executed by ten-year-old kids.  He spoke of church communities that dated back to the time of the apostles, but they are churches no more.  It was sad to hear; but even in the midst of such gloom there was hope, he said.  Time after time he heard from refugees, young and old, who held on to their faith as the one thing that gave them life and hope.  These were people who had lost everything, but they assured him of their prayers.  There was an obvious irony here, because he had gone to help them, and here they were, praying for him.

imageHis presentation was a sobering lesson to all of us in the room.  We who chafe in heavy traffic and worry about all sorts of little things, and we who think of God as a Sunday-kind-of-thing — we live with such paltry concerns compared to those who live clinging on to a sliver of life.  And yet these refugees have an appreciation for the generosity of God that leaves us looking ungrateful, at best.

Hearing such a presentation can be a transformative experience, and that personal transformation is why people choose to be part of organizations such as the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  Like people in similar kinds of organizations, we get involved thinking that we can do some little good and make some sort of difference in the world.  But once there are faces to connect to the people we try to help, we discover that helping is a two-way street.  We give to them out of our abundance of material wealth, and they give back out of the abundance of their faith.

A few days ago Pope Francis asked every parish in Europe to take in a refugee family.  Not a few people balked at that, for all sorts of reasons.  But it seemed not to occur to many that in receiving these families they would be receiving Christ.  Once upon a time Jesus, Mary and Joseph were refugees, in Egypt.  This same Christ returns today in the faces of persecuted refugees, and that’s what those who help them soon discover.  What a small price it is to pay from our own abundance, only to have before us the vision of the face of Christ.


+On September 18-20 I attended the annual meeting of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, held in Minneapolis.  Saint John’s Abbey was well-represented this time around, with Abbot John and Fr. Bob Koopmann in attendance, as well as newly-invested Fr. Michael Patella.  On display were the seven volumes of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, and images from The Saint John’s Bible graced the pages of the worship aid as well as the programs for the meeting.  On Friday the 18th I spoke to members of the Order, talking about The Artist as Preacher in The Saint John’s Bible.

image+To readers who were surprised to see that I published a post on my blog last Friday, I can only say that no one was as surprised to see that than I was.  That entry was supposed to be an attachment to today”s post, but that’s not the way it happened.  I blame this on a so-called “computer upgrade,” which did not really turn out to be so.  Like many others who are scarcely computer-literate, I find the upgrades from our friends in the tech industry a minor irritation at best, and the law of unintended consequences works full-tilt with these “improvements.  It can take me days to uncover the errors and mysteries that show up.  This was not the only item that has disrupted my work, and I’m sure more surprises are in store.  Just about the time I get everything fixed, a new upgrade will be on the way.

+The photos in today’s post include ones from the meeting of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as photos of the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, where the investiture took place.

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