Bishop Nicholas Hudson, Chairing his first Holy Land Co-ordination, spoke to us on the eve of his return home from Amman, the capital of Jordan.
He had just spent five days leading a pilgrimage of Bishops from 11 countries around the holy sites of Jordan, as well as visiting some of the Catholic parishes and projects active in the country.
Jordan today hosts more displaced people than almost any other country, offering support for those fleeing violence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, through the provision of accommodation, skills-training, medical facilities, pastoral care, and advocacy.
“Jordanian people have a real gift for welcome,” said Bishop Hudson. “Their welcome to the refugees is deeply touching and they have a deep desire to welcome more pilgrims too. It’s a land of joy in the sense that whenever you encounter people, you sense the joy in their hearts.”
The Holy Land Co-ordination, based this year in Amman, Jordan, took place from 14-19 January. It is an annual meeting of the Episcopal Conferences in Support of the Church of the Holy Land. It focuses on the three Ps: Prayer, Pilgrimage and Persuasion.
It has been one of the biggest Holy Land Co-ordinations I’ve known – and I’ve been on about five of them. I was counting, at our final meeting this evening, I think we were 35 people sitting in a large circle with bishops representing about eleven different countries – it has been a fantastic week. It began with going to the ordination of two young priests. It was really heart-warming to arrive into such an atmosphere and see a beautifully full church.
The next day saw us go down to the River Jordan, to the newly-developed baptismal site – the very place of the Baptism of Our Lord. There was an almost festival atmosphere with the church completely full and the same number of people outside. They reckoned there were some like 6,500 – 7,000 people there. There was an atmosphere that we recognise from our own experience in England and Wales, where people are so happy to be able to come together for that sort of celebration when COVID prevented them doing it for so long.
The following day we had just as touching an experience, but completely different when we spent the morning with Iraqi refugees, and I’ll say a little bit more about that later on, but that was deeply touching.
Then we went out to different parishes – about seven different parishes. Bishops, priests and some of the lay members of the Co-ordination go out to different parishes. I went about 100km north of Amman, where we’ve been based, to go and celebrate Mass in the parish of Ajloun – and deeply touching it was. The contrast between the 6,500 – 7,000 of the day before and the 40 or so people who were in Ajloun was deeply touching. Just as precious in their smallness, and I could see how much it meant to them when I said, “we’ve come to let you know that you’re not forgotten, because we all belong to the one Body of Christ and we will always hold you in our hearts”.
The next day, the whole Co-ordination went somewhere completely different – a third of the way down the country to a place called Madaba. There we had a really excellent and informative presentation from Caritas, where they were telling us everything that they’ve been doing for refugees. And then we went into an actual school and we had addresses from different members of the school, telling us everything that they’ve been doing to welcome refugees and also local Jordanian Christians and some Muslims into their school.
Then we had one of the most memorable moments from the scriptural topographical aspect of being in Jordan, which was to go up Mount Nebo, which is of course, the place where Moses viewed the Promised Land for the first time. We came off the mountain to go and meet with young people from the Patriarchate in Jordan. The Patriarchate in Jordan has organised a very effective youth leadership scheme and we were all very impressed by their presentation of their work and their vision of youth formation for children and young people across the country of Jordan.
We had an evening with ambassadors the following day and then, on our last full day, it was deeply touching to go and meet children with disabilities and the adults looking after them. Something of an appropriate climax to the week was for us to be able to sit down with the Patriarch, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, and we were able to have a ‘question and answer’ session with him about life, not just in Jordan, but across the whole Holy Land. On our last afternoon, we spent time with Christian parliamentarians working in parliament in Amman – one coming up from Madaba, one based in Amman – came to talk about their vision of Christian life in Jordan.
Q. What will be the main messages that you, as bishops, will be bringing home from the Co-ordination?
What I take away from this week in Jordan is that Jordan is a land of many contrasts. It’s a land of welcome, it’s a land of joy. We experienced that welcome with the welcome extended towards us. Jordanian people have a real gift for welcome. Their welcome to the refugees is deeply touching and they have a deep desire to welcome more pilgrims too. It’s a land of joy in the sense that whenever you encounter people, you sense the joy in their hearts. There was real joy about the liturgies we experienced, there was simply a joy of encounter.
We found a great deal of joy at the pilgrim sites as well, where they were communicating their joy in all that they’ve done to develop those places in order they hope to welcome more pilgrims to this part of the Holy Land.
It struck me as well, from quite early on, that it’s a land of sadness too. There’s a lot of sadness in the eyes of the people you meet. Understandably in the eyes of the refugees – Iraqi refugees, who’ve been here seven or eight years and have been trying time and time again to get a visa, to start a life in another part of the world.
There was a lot of sadness, as well, in the parishioners I met in the parish that I went to for that Mass. When I was talking to the young adults, I asked them, “when you think of those you were at school with here in this town and the young people who were your friends, how many of them have gone away to another country?” And the three people said, and they’re all in their early to mid 20s, they said, “do you know… its almost everybody.” But they said, “we’re going to stay.” The joy, which always contrasts with the sadness, came out and they said it with real joy. One said, with a beautiful smile on his face, “my parents are here, so of course I’ll stay.” Another said, “I’m trained to be a doctor and I want to be a doctor to the people here in Jordan, so I’m staying.” So you get this interplay of joy and sadness all the time.
I think, as well, one of the key takeaways for me is the fact that Caritas are doing absolutely wonderful work to welcome refugees, but they’re feeling under-resourced and they’re feeling that there have been so many waves of different refugee needs that they’re not getting as much resource as they did.
In the parishes, the dominant theme was how many of the parishioners are really poor, so that there is a lot of poverty here as well. So if I take away an image of welcome, of joy, but also sadness and one of poverty, actually. Jordan is a place that has been extraordinarily generous in its welcome but is feeling stretched and is beginning to feel a shortage of resources. I would also want to say, very forcibly and positively, that Jordanian people have an instinct for treating their fellow human beings with dignity. This came to me when I was asking the bishop, who is the vicar for this part of the Holy Land for Jordan, I said to him, “Why is Jordan so generous towards refugees?” He said, “Well, it’s because we’re always generous towards the stranger,” and he said it was a beautiful smile on his face. When I probed a little further, in light of what we’d heard from Caritas, and in light of what I heard about the poverty in the indigenous population, he said, “Yes, we have real difficulties because there’s 25% unemployment.” We heard that there’s 50% unemployment among young adults, young people in Jordan. He said, “Jordan’s very, very short of water.” But then he said, and that beautiful smile came back, “But somehow we manage – somehow we manage to welcome all these people.”
I came away from that conversation reflecting on the dignity with which Jordanian people welcome everybody who comes to them and welcome, particularly, those in need. It really contrasts with the lack of dignity that we’ve seen, and which was actually highlighted in the Advent message of Local Ordinaries for the Holy Land when they were talking about the indignity that comes with the upsurge of violence on the West Bank in recent months with the growth of illegal settlements. There has also been the highest Palestinian death toll in 20 years, so the contrast is very, very marked, actually.
As I stand back from all of that, and prepare to pack my bags to go back home, something that comes to me very forcibly, really, is that countries with plenty need to try to find ways of sharing some of their plenty with a country like Jordan, which is doing everything it can with utmost generosity to welcome those who are in much greater need than they are themselves. Also, let’s face it, countries with plenty need to ask themselves, “Can we not take some of the refugees which Jordan has given shelter to?”
I was deeply impressed by Jordan, deeply impressed by the people of Jordan, deeply impressed by the quality of welcome that we’ve experienced here, and which they show to others.
The words that I will take away in my heart will be, “what dignity.”