I returned home to Edmonton last evening from London, England. The great blessing I have been given, and the reason for my travel there, has been the opportunity to represent the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops at a two-day international forum July 18-19, 2011, co-hosted and co-chaired at Lambeth Palace by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, and the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams. At their invitation approximately ninety people came together from North America, South Africa, the Middle East, the United Kingdom, Europe and the Holy See to discuss how to manifest solidarity with and support for the Christians who are living in the Holy Land.
The conference brought together Palestinian Christians and Israeli Jews, a Muslim woman, representatives from the British Parliament, the European Union, and the European Parliament, members of the ecclesiastical and secular media, and, of course, Church officials who live in the Middle East or who work for peace in the Holy Land, including Cardinal Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, His Beatitude Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and Bishop Suheil Dawani, the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem.
During our two days of presentations and conversation we heard a variety of voices speak of the immensely complicated and difficult situation of many Christians in the Holy Land. Restricted mobility in their own land, unemployment, educational difficulties, and the inability of families to live together are just some of the issues with which they must grapple on a daily basis. The cry that came to us loudly and clearly was for solidarity, which I believe they experienced very tangibly in our time together.
Even though the stories we heard were of great suffering, the conference was, in fact, hope-filled. I believe this is because the very frank conversations revealed a deep desire, shared among all participants, whether Christian or not, to affirm the gift and mission of the Christian presence in the Holy Land and to work together toward a transformation of the status quo that will ensure a real and sustainable peace, based upon a recognition of the common humanity and dignity of all people in the Holy Land. The challenges are enormous, but the commitment to dialogue and action, rooted in hope, is strong. Please join with me and with all of the other participants in frequent prayer that the privileged place of God’s revelation, the Holy Land, will be a place of true peace.
On a personal note I went a few days early to London with my parents to do a bit of sight-seeing and, most importantly, to visit the place of my paternal grandfather’s birth. William Ernest Smith was born and baptized in Woolwich, which is part of Greater London and is in the Archdiocese of Southwark. I had made arrangements beforehand with the pastor of St. Peter the Apostle parish, and he and his parishioners welcomed us warmly. The visit afforded us the opportunity to see the Church of my grandfather’s baptism, to pray at the baptismal font, and to offer Mass for him at the altar. We also found and visited the street where he lived before emigrating to Canada with his family. A very moving experience, indeed. It gave us the chance to “touch” family roots. It also was a powerful reminder of the roots that all Christians share in Jesus Christ, who draws us into union with him through Baptism and thereby makes us sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.
The experience at the parish Church of being part of a universal Christian family was deepened still further when I met with the conference participants. When a family member suffers, we all suffer. Our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land are struggling and suffering in ways that many of us would find difficult even to imagine. May they know the hope that comes from real solidarity and the strength that is given by shared prayer.