The White Fathers' community
at St Anne's, Jerusalem
W are a community of 21 Missionaries of Africa; the youngest is 27 years old and the oldest 78; we come from 4 continents: Europe (12), Africa (8), Asia (1) and America (1): 14 different nationalities
St Anne is situated in the old city, in the Muslim quarter. The place is more spacious than it appears from the street. There is a big courtyard surrounded by several buildings: the local community lives in the main building; the missionaries who follow the session are in the second building; the same building also houses the museum. The Basilica and the Bethesda excavations are further away; the Sisters' house and the carpentry workshop are hardly noticeable to the eye of a visitor.
The management and maintenance of this complex site is in the hands of Günther Zahn, a confrere of competence, supported by his confreres and a good team of employees.
THE BEGINNINGS OF SAINT ANNE'S
St Anne's is near the big square where the Temple formerly stood before its destruction by the Romans in 70AD. In its place now stand the Golden Dome and the Al Aqsa Mosque. - In antiquity, because of the scarcity of rain in this region, water was usually collected in big cisterns and pools. Even now, there are several underground cisterns on our property. There was also a system of pools which supplied the Temple with water; there was a great need for it because of the sacrifices. One of these was the famous Bethesda Pool ('with five porticos') where many sick people sought healing; its water had apparently a curative effect. John 5:1ff tells us how here Jesus healed a man paralysed for 38 years. Interestingly, close to this site, archaeologists unearthed a very old place of worship dedicated to the god of healing and which the Romans later dedicated to the god Aesculapius. In the 5th century a Byzantine church was built on the dike, commemorating the healing of the paralysed and Mary's birth. After partial destruction by the Persians (in 614) it was restored and flourished again with many priests and nuns.
In 1130, the Crusaders built the present Basilica, dedicated to St Anne in memory of Mary's birth, and a small monastery commemorating the miracle of healing. After the defeat of the Crusaders, the Moslems recaptured the city and in 1192 transformed St Anne's church into an Islamic Law School, and so the building was preserved practically intact.
In 1856, after the Crimean War, the Ottomans offered the Basilica to France, who entrusted it to the White Fathers. The Basilica was thus returned to its original use: the Church commemorating the birth of the Virgin Mary and the healing of the paralytic.
The White Fathers arrived in 1878 and in 1882 opened firstly an apostolic school (a minor seminary) then in 1886 a major seminary for the training of future priests of the Greek Melkite Catholic Church. After the events of 1967, this seminary was transferred to the Lebanon.
Among the confreres who taught at St Anne's, we could mention the late Bishop Pierre Duprey (from 1956 to 1963), who would later become the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.
Icon in the Crypt: Mary's Birth Icon of the healing in Bethesda (unknown origin)
This openness to the Oriental Rite Churches corresponds well with the vision of Cardinal Lavigerie our Founder, because he inculcated respect for the local culture and language into the minds of his missionaries, to avoid turning the people into 'little Europeans'. Moreover, in 1882, concerning the Middle East, he wrote: "The fundamental mistake made by many Catholic missionaries in the East is to be distant with the Orientals and to show disdain for their rites and to want to Latinise them in making them enter the Church The perfect approach for these missionaries in the East, therefore, will consist in their becoming Orientals themselves, adopting the dress, language and liturgy of the Oriental clergy "
Thanks to this openness and respect, today we have excellent contacts with the Orthodox and the Oriental Catholic Churches.
Former dormitory in the main building, end 19th/beginning 20th cent
Brass band of the catholic Greek Melkite (Christian Arab) Seminary at St. Anne's Jerusalem (year?)
Saint Anne's respectful approach towards the Oriental Rite Churches became known even beyond Palestine, in Ethiopia. During the Italian occupation in Abyssinia. two Ethiopian priests were sent into exile. because they were considered as dangerous nationalists. One of them chose Jerusalem. Towards the end of the War, the latter was dying and his brother Abba Haile Mariam came to visit him. He also visited St Anne's and met these Latin missionaries teaching at the Melkite seminary, respecting Oriental Rite theology, spirituality and liturgy.
Later, as bishop, His Beatitude Haile Mariam participated in Vatican II. In 1964, he asked for an audience with Pope Paul VI and spoke about his intention to build an Ethiopian Rite seminary. The Pope promised him financial support, but enquired if he had enough competent professors. Remembering his experience at St Anne's, 17 years before, Bishop Haile Mariam replied that he would like to have a mixed teaching staff, consisting of diocesan priests and White Fathers. The Pope put him in contact with Fr. Volker, the Superior General. Bishop Haile Mariam wrote to him: "It's because there are no better missionaries in Africa than the White Fathers, and because they proved how much they were able to help the Oriental Church and be ecumenically minded that I dare to ask you to help us God has willed that a liturgy of African expression with an Oriental background should slowly develop in our people " (8 September 1965). After some initial hesitations, Fr Volker decided to send him some confreres
The Basilica, view from the main building balcony. Interior of St Anne's Basilica
SAINT ANNE'S TODAY
In 1967, the Melkite Seminary moved out of Saint Anne's, but the ecumenical openness continued here and other activities developed on this beautiful site:
- Thanks to its local insertion and its history, St Anne's is known for its openness to the Orthodox world and to dialogue; this spirit is very much alive even today. Frans Bouwen and Thomas Maier are actively committed to this ecumenical dialogue: Thomas on the local level and Frans on the international level. Frans is also a member of different international ecumenical committees, while Thomas, who is also the Superior of the house, takes part in the different events and services organised in Jerusalem and maintains fraternal contacts with the different Oriental Churches. Bill Russell is also involved in dialogue, with the Churches stemming from the Reformation.
Since 1951, Saint Anne's has been publishing the ecumenical review 'Proche-Orient Chrétien'; Frans has been its Director since 1969 and Roger Merceron its Secretary since 1998. This Review, another important means for ecumenical dialogue, appears twice yearly and contains articles on Orthodox theology and spirituality as well as information about important events in all the Oriental Churches.
Let us not forget the contact with the Muslim neighbourhood in which we live: Thomas Maier and two students, Leonce Zinzere and Jonathan Bahago, are active in this area, either in our neighbourhood or with the Bedouins outside town.
Michael O'Sullivan is the director of 'Maison Abraham' (Secours Catholique - Caritas France); it is situated on the periphery of Jerusalem. Founded at the request of Pope Paul VI after his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1964, it welcomes pilgrims with modest financial means and is also intended to be a meeting place between the three religions that claim Abraham as their common ancestor in the faith.
- The second activity which almost doubles the 'population' of St Anne's, is the series of Renewal Sessions. Since 1976, the Missionaries of Africa (here known as White Fathers) have been organising Sessions with a biblical, spiritual and missionary character as well as retreats. It offers two sessions a year: 'Missionary Disciples Today' (in the Autumn) and 'Retreat-Session: 30 Day Retreat' (in the Spring). The programme also takes into account recent developments in the missionary field. Each Session lasts 3 months and offers 25 places for missionaries. It is clear that Jerusalem is an ideal place for such spiritual and missionary renewal. Guy Theunis is in charge of this programme, while Tom Wijffels looks after its administrative side and gives a hand in the running of the Sessions. A third confrere will soon join them to complete the team.
1. 2007 Session group with Theophilos the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem 2. The Bethesda excavations
- The third activity is welcoming pilgrims at the Basilica, because they are many who visit our sanctuary. On certain days there can be more than 3,000. A visit to St Anne's and the Pool of Bethesda is practically a 'must' for anybody who comes to Jerusalem on pilgrimage. There are the excavations of Bethesda beside the Basilica; it is the place where, according to John 5, Christ healed a paralytic. One can still see the remains of the pools and of the small monastery, columns and mosaics. Unfortunately, due to lack of personnel, the museum remains closed to the public.
The most important site is the 12th century Basilica. It is renowned for its sober lines and its astonishing acoustics. Sometimes, choirs provide concerts here where people can appreciate the exceptional resonance. There are also groups of pilgrims who come to celebrate Mass in this famous sanctuary. The Crypt attracts many for a quiet moment of personal prayer. Just as at the Western Wall (Wall of Lamentations), some people place prayer intentions here also, written on a piece of paper, sliding them into the cracks of the wall or into a basket. Three confreres are committed to this important work of welcoming pilgrims and are available to people seeking personal contact with the White Fathers or in need of information that the official guide cannot provide. These three are: Michel Lavoie, Thomas Bahmer and Jean-Marie Amalebondra.
Comparing Jerusalem with Rome, one realises that being a Christian is more than just being Catholic because here we meet Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical Christians and others. They come from all directions and horizons: Russia, China, Japan, India, the United States, Nigeria, Brazil, etc. This multi-ecclesial and multi-cultural atmosphere sometimes reminds us of the very first Pentecost: "How does it happen that each of us hears them in his own native language?" (Ac 2,7).
Statue of St. Anne and Mary in the Basilica Michel Lavoie talking with pilgrims
- The last arrival at St Anne's is the Small Formation Group (SFG), since September 2006. Though living on the 2nd floor, the group is well integrated into the community. There are eight students: Jonathan Bahago and Victor Shehu from Nigeria, Evans Chama and Bernard Chowa from Zambia, Gaetan Tiendrebeogo and Leonce Zinzere from Burkina Faso, Jean de Dieu Bukuru from Burundi and Kanto Hembram from India. Joe Buholzer is in charge of this SFG, assisted by two confreres of the community, Thomas Maier and Tom Wijffels. Theological studies last 4 years and are completed at the Salesian Institute in town.
- " We live here in a big community, with a great diversity of personalities and cultures. Though this could be a dividing factor, we have a common vision that is rooted in our common faith and our common missionary vocation. In addition, the more one is in touch with his own humanity, with his gifts and limitations, with very human aspirations and questions that each one carries within him, the more he also discovers that we have a lot in common, beyond our cultural and personal differences.
Living and studying in Jerusalem presents us with great challenges and chances: a better knowledge of the biblical milieu and geography where Jesus of Nazareth has lived and where the Church had its origin before it moved out to Europe and to the other continents; also, the awareness that the Church is bigger than the Latin Church (ecumenism). As we live here in Jerusalem, rubbing shoulders with Moslems and Jews, we are also encouraged in interreligious encounter with these two other faiths present in this Holy City of Jerusalem
We live already what the first community of Jerusalem did: living together in a spirit of brotherhood, faithful to the Word and the breaking of bread, sharing together what we have and what we are. Moreover, at the end of our formation we will go forth from Jerusalem following in the footsteps of the apostles sent out into the world "
" We want to continue being involved in the encounter taking place between men and women of differing cultures and religions, so as to journey together with them in search of God and of a more just world".
Chapter of the M.Afr. 2004
Sunset in Jerusalem, view form the main building balcony
Text & photos : Joe Buholzer, Donald Macleod M.Afr