For years, Catholics in the Holy Land have lived with a great deal of political and economic pressure and, therefore, are tempted to emigrate, putting the Church there in risk of disappearing.
But, according to Franciscan Father Peter Vasko, president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, there is “some light at the end of a very dark tunnel” for the Christian community in Israel and Palestine.
For the priest, that light shines from the 75 percent of Christians who have recently graduated from universities in or around the Holy Land, have secured professional jobs and are able to afford the high cost of housing there.
Father Peter spoke about the plight and the prospects for the Church in the Holy Land during a recent visit toIndianapolis for a Sept. 12 fundraising dinner for the foundation that he leads.
The dinner, at which Eternal Word Television Network personality and author Raymond Arroyo spoke, raised approximately $118,000 for college scholarships for Catholics who live in the Holy Land.
According to a foundation official, the financial support it receives from Indiana donors is second in the United Statesonly to donations from New York.
Father Peter said that supporting the college education of young Christian adults in the Holy Land is key to maintaining the Church’s presence there.
“They can’t pay for education [or for housing] because they don’t have a job,” he said. “With an education, they’re not only able to support their families, but they can also purchase or rent a modest apartment in Bethlehem or Jerusalemor Nazareth.”
Catholics from the United States and elsewhere who go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land are also important, Father Peter said, in part for the economic boost that such travel brings, but, perhaps more importantly, for the moral support it provides for the people.
“There’s nothing like moral support,” Father Peter said. “The greatest moral support [Catholics in the United States] can give is by coming on pilgrimage and being with these people, and talking with these people and understanding where they’re coming from.”
That is what happened to Msgr. Paul Koetter, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis, through his travels with the foundation.
He has gone on two foundation-organized pilgrimages in 2006 and 2008. Prior to that, he spent 11 weeks in the Holy Land while on sabbatical in 2003.
“[The foundation] kind of opened a door to something that I was kind of oblivious to,” Msgr. Koetter said. “I think the foundation has just made me much more aware of their plight and the real concern of the Church being lost to that environment.”
Msgr. Koetter said his travels to the Holy Land have enriched his life of faith and his priestly ministry.
“It’s been tremendously helpful because it makes the Scriptures so much more alive,” he said. “It creates a tangible connection with Christ. When you have seen the land and you can geographically place things, what is said in the Scriptures starts to make a lot more sense.
“All those things really do impact how you view the Scriptures and, therefore, how relate to Christ, I think.”
Another pilgrim who gave moral support to Catholics in the Holy Land, according to Father Peter, was Pope Benedict XVI, when he traveled there from May 8-15 of this year.
Father Peter said the Catholics in the Holy Land were especially encouraged by Pope Benedict’s call to various Catholic institutions to support the Church there.
“The people are a lot more hopeful after his visit, knowing that there is something concrete that’s there that’s going to help them in their life,” Father Peter said.
Catholics living in the Holy Land need help, in part, because of the discrimination they experience from both the Israeli and Palestinian military forces.
“The militant Muslims look upon the Christians as pro-West and traitors to the Islamic cause,” Father Peter said. “And the Israeli military looks at them as Palestinians and, hence, the enemy.
“ … [And] you have discrimination on both sides in the political and economic arena. They’re the ones who are caught in the middle. Without any help, they’ll want to leave and get out of the situation.”
But Father Peter said that Catholics in the Holy Land are able to persevere under such difficult circumstances, in large part, because of their faith that they see vindicated in the support they receive.
“Faith is the recurring theme of why our people are still there,” Father Peter said. “They trust in the Almighty.
“Some of their trust has proven positive because look at what the foundation is doing. They can’t afford a college education, but they’re getting a college education. They’re getting jobs. And we’re building housing for our people.”