by Marie-Armelle Beaulieu writing for

The official website of the Custody of the Holy Land has published an interview with an acute observer of the dynamics of ecumenism in the Middle East. Father Frans Bouwen, a member of the White Fathers (also known as the Missionaries of Africa) lives near the church of Saint Anne in Old Jerusalem. We offer Father Bouwen’s reflections to our readers.

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Pilgrims often return home from the Holy Land with a feeling of having personally experienced the scandal that is division between churches. Father Frans Bouwen, a priest of the Missionaries of Africa in Jerusalem who faithfully joins his fellow White Fathers in fulfilling their calling to pray for unity, has observed the evolution of ecumenical dialogue for the past 40 years. He spoke with us about the matter, providing a glimpse of current affairs.

What is the state of ecumenism in the Holy Land?


That’s hard to say in just a few words. But basically, I would say there has been a considerable amount of progress in the past 30 to 40 years. Thirty years ago, it would have been difficult for me to imagine that we would be where we are today. I have witnessed a slow progression that began with Pope Paul VI’s visit to Jerusalem in 1964, his meeting with the Orthodox patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople, and particularly his meeting with the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem at the time, Patriarch Benediktos. The progression has been developing little by little ever since.

When evaluating the state of ecumenism in the Holy Land, it is important to consider the various levels and the different types of meetings. There are so many things going on in the area of ecumenism that it is almost impossible to grasp. Some elements that need to be considered are the Holy Places, the relations between hierarchies, and those between the faithful of different denominations. As for parish priests, that all depends above all on individual priests.

I think that we have come a long way, but progress it not guaranteed forever and we regularly make note of the fact that a small event could take us back 5 or 10 years and make us have to start all over again.

Do the heads of churches meet with each other?


The heads of 13 churches and the Father Custos meet together approximately once every two months. This custom was established in 1994, after the publication of the first common memorandum on the signifance of Jerusalem for Christians.

What do they talk about in these meetings?


The meetings are above all characterized by a spirit of brotherhood, and that’s very important. The subjects discussed often revolve around shared problems and difficulties that are generally external and often related to the situation in the country – for example: access to Jerusalem, whether or not to pay taxes, freedom of movement for Christians, the issue of obtaining visas for the religious as well as students and volunteers, etc. This is already a major step forward, one that was taken when the first Intifada began in late 1987. It is more challenging for them to broach subjects related to problems that there may be between churches. They are able to adopt a united position when there is an external problem but as far as sensitive issues related to the relations between churches, I have the impression that it’s hard for them to approach them directly.

Are these sensitive issues theological in nature?


No. Here in Jerusalem, we do not have all of the competent people that we need to initiate a theological dialogue. The Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches do have such people, but some of the smaller churches aren’t as fortunate. Additionally, the Orthodox churches feel that they do not have the legitimacy to operate on that level, so they refer to higher authorities that are outside the country.

Of the issues that there are between churches, mostly between Catholics and Orthodox – who together account for 95% of the Christians in the country, the most sensitive is undoubtedly the well-known issue of proselytism. The Orthodox still criticize the Catholics for proselytizing their faithful. I think that that does not happen anymore, but this is still a very sensitive point of contention in Catholic-Orthodox relations. We Catholics should be humble enough to recognize that our communities are composed in great part of people who were previously part of the Orthodox denomination.

Did proselytism begin with the establishment of the Franciscans in the 14th century?

No, it primarily began after the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate in the 19th century. There were Catholic communities before that, but they were relatively small and lived primarily in the areas surrounding the Holy Places and in some parishes. The restoration of the Latin Patriarchate gave rise to a missionary movement. It’s important to place things in the proper context. The missionaries did some remarkable work and certainly contributed to stopping the advance of Islam in certain regions, thanks to schools and to the revival of Christianity that they began in the parishes. But working towards revival or unity in keeping with the mentality of the time also consisted in working towards the “return” of non-Catholics, particularly Orthodox Christians.

The Orthodox Church has not yet come to terms with the fact that these things happened this way at a time when the church did not have enough resources and people. Even today, certain Orthodox leaders continue to suspect us of proselytism. But I think that great efforts have been made since Vatican II and that proselytism no longer takes place. Besides, if we ask them to present us with facts, they tell us about old incidents from 15 to 20 years ago. Nonetheless, the fact remains that this is a wound that they still feel, and we have not been able to heal it by discussing the matter frankly. We Catholics should try to understand the sensitivities of others ; that way, many things will become possible little by little.

To go back to meetings between church authorities, is there no joint reflection among them?

On the occasion of one particular holiday, for example, the heads of the churches jointly reflected on a passage from Scripture for two half-days. The event was enriching, but such activities are still the exception and not the rule.

Given the lack of a theology committee, are there other kinds of dialogues at a lower level?


Yes. Some people want there to be exchanges across pastoral apostolates. We do have such exchanges in some places, but it’s very difficult to have them everywhere. We have also addressed the issues of mutual aid among schools and respect for the denominational affiliations of fellow students. Many Orthodox children are educated in Catholic schools because there are more of them and they are more spread out over various regions. This leads us to consider the question of Catholic influence and, in turn, the need to respect the identity of each individual student. Basic education typically lasts 12 years. An Orthodox (or other) child who receives all of his schooling at a Catholic school, who participates in Mass and Confession, may end up feeling more at ease in the Catholic church than in the denomination he was baptized into. The Catholic church knows how to provide Christian education without alienating students from their own churches. This requires a truly special type of attention if we really want to push ecumenism forward.

How are things among lay people?


I think – and this is a sociological phenomenon you will generally find in the Middle East – that the faithful identify more easily as Christians, whereas the clergy identify more with their denominations. For the faithful, what mostly counts is solidarity with other Christians in the presence of non-Christians, and they spontaneously collaborate with each other. Look at how many Orthodox teachers there are in Catholic schools, how many Orthodox members and assistants there are in social organizations like Caritas, and how many are involved in youth movements (the Scouts, the YMCA, the YWCA, the JEC, the JOC, etc.). Everywhere we see Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants working together. And I think that almost every family participates in this type of interaction. That really helps with the spontaneity of collaboration, which Christians feel is vitally important for their presence. Sometimes they say, “Unity is not an issue. The only thing that still separates us is holiday dates.” That’s a little simplistic, but that’s how they feel.

Are there any differences between the Palestinian Territories and Israel with regard to ecumenism?


No major differences, but I think that in Nazareth, ecumenical relations are generally a little easier and more spontaneous ; they’re more fraternal among heads of churches, and I think that’s also the case among lay people. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that the atmosphere is different there and that they are farther away from the center, Jerusalem.

So despite the accusations that are made against the church in Jerusalem – against all the churches – ecumenism is alive in the Holy Land?


When people say that division between churches is a scandal, particularly in Jerusalem, where Jesus prayed for the unity of his people and so on, I agree, but I hasten to add that none of the divisions we face originated here. They were all brought in from outside. So the church in Jerusalem is not responsible for them, but it suffers their consequences. It would behoove pilgrims, who claim to be scandalized by the existing divisions, to be well aware of this.