Trip revealed dichotomy of the Holy Land

By Glenn Rutherford, Record Editor

Father John E. Burke
Father John R. Burke

The news out of the Middle East seems to unfold like some continuous newsreel footage from long ago.

The names change, the weapons become more modern, but the bottom line of that never-ending conflict remains. Missiles are launched into Israel. The Israeli military responds. More settlements are built on what some say is Palestinian land and, as a result, missiles are launched into Israel…

It’s world without end, as futile as Pickett’s charge up Culp’s Hill, this continuing battle between the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael. And just a little while ago, one of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s own priests spent four months in the midst of the conflicted area, getting a first-hand view of the dichotomy that is the Holy Land.

Father John R. Burke, pastor of Good Shepherd Church and Sacramental Moderator at St. William Church, spent his four-month sabbatical at the Tantur Ecumenical Center which sits between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

It was an experience, he said, both “uplifting and discouraging.”

“There is this remarkable combination of fear and violence around some of the most holy locations in the world,” he said in a recent interview. “For example, one day we went down to the Jordan River, to the site where the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist is celebrated. It is a holy site, and yet it made me a little queasy to be there because I looked around and saw barbed wire and soldiers and a military checkpoint.

“Standing there, literally a stone’s throw into Jordan, there were signs that said ‘Do not walk here! Land mines!’ ” he recalled. “So we were going to that sacred place, down to the water, to celebrate the Prince of Peace and we were surrounded by soldiers.”

Despite the unsettling presence of the military and other signs of the continuing violence, Father Burke was quick to say that his four-month stay was more than worth the effort.

“It was challenging, to be sure,” he said, “but I feel stretched in my faith and in the level of my understanding. It’s not what you do, most cases, it’s who you do it with and I was with some remarkable people while I was there.”

The group Father Burke was studying with at Tantur included four people from Ireland, three from Australia, four from the U.S., a Canadian, an English Anglican priest, a religious sister from the Philippines and an American Jesuit.

“There was an Australian missionary who is now working in Brazil who told me that he ‘only has 80,000 people in my parish,’ ” Father Burke recalled with a chuckle. “There are so many great dynamics that surrounded the people I was with. There were wonderful times of prayer and the whole thing far exceeded my expectations. It was like a retreat as well as a study sabbatical.”

Father Burke said he spent some “sacred time” alone on Mount Sinai when “it was just me and God and the mountains.”

“There was a beautiful sunset on one horizon,” he recalled, “and when I turned around there was a full moon rising, coming up from the valley where, from a mosque you could hear the call to evening prayers. I don’t have the words to describe all the experiences. I think I said ‘wow!’ a lot while I was there.”

Amidst all the reminders of conflict, Father Burke said, there are signs of hope and progress. One of the clearest is Bethlehem University, he noted, “started by (Pope) Paul VI and now it’s two-thirds Muslim and one-third Christian. It’s an oasis of life and beauty.”

Father Burke also said he understood why Jesus spent so much of his ministry in Galilee, “where it is calm and amazingly beautiful.”

“I was overwhelmed by Galilee; it was a deeply moving experience for me, being in such a beautiful place,” he said. “Given the messiness of Jerusalem, I can understand why Jesus spent so much time there.”

Though he said he hasn’t fully digested all of the spiritual and emotional effects of his four months in the Holy Land, Father Burke did say his visit reminded him of the tribulations Jesus faced during his time on earth.

“I was reminded that Jesus walked in a conflicted land,” he said. “He was there during the Roman occupation and King Harrod was a ruthless man. He killed his wife, knocked off a couple of his sons who he thought might threaten his power. That’s what Jesus was dealing with, and it was important for me to remember that.”

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