Wednesday 2nd July 2014
Today I was invited by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald to lunch with the Missionaries of Africa (formerly known as the White Fathers) at St Anne’s, just down the road on the Via Dolorosa. Archbishop Michael is an expert on Islam, the former head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the former nuncio to Egypt. He retired from the last post a couple of years ago and now lives in Jerusalem. I first met him when I went to Rome in 1983. I met him on a couple of his visits to Australia, in 2001 and again in 2008 for World Youth Day.
He contacted early last year to say he was coming to Australia in May the following year and would be willing to do some event for us. He was very generous with his time. With my colleagues in Sydney, we arranged for him to be a speaker at the Abraham Conference, at an international interfaith conference at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, and at the Catholic Institute in Sydney. The irony is that he lives in Jerusalem and I live in Sydney, but when he was in Sydney I was in Jerusalem! He gave a talk on Islam for our programme in Ecce Homo a couple days after his return from Australia. Now that our programme is finished, I was able to accept his invitation for lunch.
Over pre-dinner drinks and lunch and coffee afterwards, Archbishop Michael told me about his various engagements in Australia. He was very happy with them. He appreciated what the Columbans there had done in arranging everything for him. We talked about family (my mother was a Fitzgerald), Christian-Muslim relations in Pakistan, in Australia, in Israel, my experience of the Camino. I thoroughly enjoyed the meal, the company and the conversation.
Afterwards I visited the Church of St Anne, which is run by his community of the Missionaries of Africa. There is the by now very familiar pattern of devotion by the early Christians, construction of a Byzantine Church, later destroyed, construction of a Crusader Church, later destroyed and then rebuilt. This last building was appropriated during the Ottoman times and used as a madrassa (= Muslim religious school – there is still a Muslim inscription in Arabic over the front door), which, ironically, preserved it from a further round of destruction. Later it fell into disrepair and after the fall of the Ottomans was given to the French who accepted the offer from the founder of the White Fathers to staff it. The French flag still flies over the building today.
The building is very plain and simple, even stark, but it is exquisitely proportioned so does not need much adornment. I think it is a lovely church.
One of the features of the church is that the stone arches and stone domes make for wonderful acoustics. Individual pilgrims and groups of pilgrims come and sing here. It is wonderful to listen to the voices ringing through the sacred space.
St Anne’s is claimed to be the birth place of the Virgin Mary (but the Greek Orthodox Church just down the road makes a similar claim!).
Below the church is a crypt with a couple of chapels, one with the Blessed Sacrament and another a Marian chapel dedicated to the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The other reason for the early Christian devotion is that this is the site of one of Jesus’ miracles. Archaeological excavations have uncovered several very large ancient cisterns underground, which were used to hold water for use in the Jewish Temple. These have been identified as the pools of Bethesda mentioned in the following story in Chapter Five of John’s Gospel:
Jesus Heals on the Sabbath
1. After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath. 10 So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” 11 But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” 12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take it up and walk’?” 13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. 14 Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16 Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” 18 For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God. (Jn 5:1-18)
For more information and images of St Anne’s see:
Shalom, Peace, Salaam!!!