You will notice, this morning, that we have a very nice looking new crucifix mounted just before the first Station of the Cross. We had a visitor a few weeks ago -- Denise Scalzo, who is one of the officers of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land -- a very interesting and articulate lady with whom I had the pleasure of discussing the condition of Christians and Christianity in the Holy Land. It was just a few days after they lifted the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and many of the images from the magazines and television were still fresh in my mind. Well, just last week, this beautiful crucifix arrived -- very well wrapped -- in my mailbox.
You will note that it has four reliquaries, one on each arm of the cross. The one on top is from Mount Calvary where our Lord was crucified; the one on the bottom comes from His tomb, the Holy Sepulchre; on the left from the Cenacle, the site of the Last Supper; and on the right from Gethsemene where our Lord prayed in agony before His capture by the soldiers of the Sanhedrin. We will bless the crucifix this morning, and it will remain with the Stations to help us remember that they represent the sites through which our Lord passed in Jerusalem as He went to die for sins. I would hope, also, that it will serve to remind us of the plight of Christians -- particularly in the Holy Land, but throughout the world as well -- who are suffering various forms of persecution (in some cases, outright extinction) because of their Faith.
As Americans, the Holy Land probably seems like an almost mythical place. Most of us know of it only in little snatches of information: what we may have read in the Bible, or gleaned from devotions like the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross and the Brown Scapular; some of us have read about the Crusades and the religious orders like the Hospitallers and the Templars; all of us have seen little video-takes on the television, almost always describing the on and off war that has existed for the past fifty years or so. Depending upon just how we define the territory of the Holy Land, we think of it as place largely occupied by Jews and Moslems.
If we consider the Holy Land to be those places mentioned in the Bible, we must include not only modern day Israel and its disputed Palestinian territories, but also Jordan, Iraq, and Armenia, together with the Mediterranean countries of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. Then, if we look in an historical atlas, we will see that all of the population centers of those countries were strongly Christian during the first six or seven centuries. Very few Jews, and no Moslems at all. These were territories held first by pagan Rome -- Christian in varying degrees, even whhen Christianity was illegal in the Empire -- and strongly Christian after Constantine made it legal. But then, following a brief invasion by the Persians, much of the area I have described fell to the armies of the Moslems. Modern day Turkey took a few centuries longer, for it was the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire, and modern day Israel, Lebanon, and Syria enjoyed about a century of Christian rule during the Crusades.
In some degree Christians endured Moslem rule and continued to populate the Holy Land over the centuries. In most of the countries I have mentioned, Christians were second class citizens but were tolerated if they paid some additional taxes and remained pretty much out of public view. There was something of a resurgence of Christianity after World War I under the influence of Allied occupation troops, primarily British and French. But that was short lived, with most of it being returned to Moslem control: Turkey in the 1920s, and the rest shortly after World War II. That is, of course with the exception of a Jewish state fashioned out of Palestine by United Nations fiat in 1947, and coming into existence with a great deal of fighting in 1948. Roughly a million people were forced to relocate.
For the most part, the lot of Christians in the Holy Land is poor. We are a strong majority only in the tiny land that is today Armenia (94%), and a strong minority only in Lebanon (30%). We are 6% of the population in Egypt and Jordan, about 5% in Iraq (roughly a million Christians, including 800,000 Catholics), and a mere 2/10th of a percent in Turkey. In Israel -- the land of Jesus Himself, we are about 2% and shrinking. But in Jerusalem, the Holy City from where our crucifix comes -- we have suffered a frightening decline. At the time of the UN mandate in 1947 48,000 lived in Jerusalem alone -- down to 28,000 by 1967 -- and down to a pitiful 10,000 this year (2002). If that trend continues, by linear regression, Christianity will be extinct in Jerusalem somewhere around the year 2020. This is a terribly war torn area, and the Israelis make no distinction between Christian and Moslem -- they are all "goyim" -- gentiles, or "cattle,&quuot; actually, all equally subject to being shot or bombed with American made weapons.
I've been speaking about the Holy Land, but it would be seriously wrong to ignore the fact that Christians are severely persecuted in other countries as well. In Saudi Arabia, for example, Christianity is illegal, with any public observance being severely punished -- so much so that during Desert Storm our military chaplains were forced to remove the insignia from their uniforms! US troops there cannot receive Christmas cards or packages with Christmas paraphernalia, like Christmas trees. Christians are imprisoned, even for meeting in private to pray.
Bloody civil wars are ongoing in places like Nigeria, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Sudan -- civil wars in which the Moslem population is intent on wiping out the Christian population. Algeria and the Sudan (and perhaps others) have a death sentence for those who convert to Christianity. Only the good Lord knows what is happening in Communist China.
Guiseppi Bernardini, the Archbishop of Smyrna, successor to St. Polycarp the disciple of St. John the Apostle, has been vocal in asking for an effort by the Catholic Church, and Christians in general, to recognize this problem of persecution. The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch, Raphael I Bidawid, has also made public efforts along these lines. But both have generally been ignored in Catholic circles for fear of disturbing ecumenical efforts with Moslems and Jews. Our Lord told us to expect persecution -- you remember that last week we spoke about His discourse at the Last Supper, in which He promised us that those who are not of the world would be persecuted as He was (John 13-16). We are lucky that we don't see it in our own country -- at least not much, and rarely quite so violent -- but it is hard to believe that such good fortune can continue for many more years, with the de-Christianization of both our nation and the world.
So today, when we bless this crucifix, and whenever you happen to look upon it, I would ask you to remember the persecuted Christians in the Holy Land and throughout the world. Pray for them, certainly -- and pray that their persecutors may be converted to the True Faith, for that is the only way the persecution is likely to stop. It is with good reason that traditional Catholics have never given up such prayer for the conversion of those who reject Christ.
Be generous when you are asked to support the work of relief agencies trying to make life a little more bearable for our persecuted brethren. This is not a commercial for the Franciscan Foundation (at 1400 Quincy St., N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017), but do keep in mind that Church related organizations are generally the most efficient in getting the job done at the lowest cost.
And don't forget that you have a say in the running of our government. Our congressmen ought to hear from us regularly -- whenever we have some conviction about the way Christians and Christianity are being treated in our country and throughout the world. They probably don't hear from too many people, so a few letters or phone calls may make difference now and then.
But above all else, please remember to pray. The crucifix is a symbol of our Lord's sacrificial death for our sins on the Cross; a symbol of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; a symbol of our Holy Faith and God's Holy Church. It is only fitting then, that whenever we pray, we call to mind the Cenacle and Gethsemene, Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre. May the crucifix remind us of the events of our salvation, 2000 years ago -- and may it remind us of the needs of our brethren in 2002, so that there still may be Christians in Jerusalem (and throughout the world) in the year of our Lord 2020.
Rite for the Blessing of a Crucifix: www.rosarychurch/rituale/crucifix.html