A Letter From Galilee

by Georges Bacouni

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I send this letter from Mount Carmel in Haifa in Galilee, close to the holy sites of the Prophet Elijah.

When I was 12 years old, I expressed my desire to become a priest to my father. He replied by shouting: “No, get out of my face!” I thought it was the end of my vocation.

Two years later, my father passed away and suddenly I found myself in charge of my family, being the eldest boy. As a poor Christian, my dreams were limited to studying, working and, later, getting married.

But the Lord had other plans for me. In 1990, the last year of the civil war in Lebanon — where I was born and grew up — the Lord called me again to priesthood. The archbishop of Beirut accepted me as a seminarian even though I was 28 years old, a late vocation. I resigned from the bank where I had been working for more than ten years and started my theological and philosophical studies.

I was ordained in July 1995. Ten years later, in 2005, I was elected and ordained bishop to serve the Melkite Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Tyre in the south of Lebanon. And now I have been serving in Israel as archbishop in the Melkite Archeparchy of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All of Galilee for more than three years.

What a blessing, to be in this particular part of the world — where Jesus was born, grew up, proclaimed the Good News, was crucified and rose from the dead.

The Lord entrusted me with the flock of his homeland and to follow in the footsteps of the apostles.

When I was taught how to meditate on a Gospel passage, I was asked sometimes to imagine the places where Jesus lived: Capernaum, Tiberias Lake, Nazareth, Jerusalem.

Now I know all these places, and they remind me of the historical facts. But Jesus is not only part of the history, he is still alive and in the midst of his church.

When you enter Peter’s house in Capernaum, where Jesus healed the paralytic; when you see the place where he fed five thousand people; when you are in a boat in the middle of the lake where he walked on the water; and many other holy sites, I assure you that you feel you are sharing the experience of the apostles and the crowds. You feel privileged being Christian. Visiting these sites — let alone living there — is a spiritual retreat.

Many of my predecessors used to say, “I am the archbishop of Jesus.” I don’t dare say that, but it’s true in a way that the bishop in Galilee is responsible for Jesus’ hometown.

What a blessing! But in the same time, it’s a huge responsibility and difficult mission for many reasons.

First, Arab Christians from all denominations make up no more than 1.7 percent of the population in Israel. Almost half are in my eparchy. And yet, Catholics, Orthodox, evangelical Protestants and many religious orders from all over the Christian world maintain a foothold in the Holy Land — particularly in Jerusalem.

To not be of the majority is a challenge in and of itself, but to be divided makes our mission more difficult and weakens our testimony.

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