By Warren Brown, OMI
Sabbatical Program in Jerusalem
The Theme song for the program was Psalm 122.
“I rejoiced when I heard the people saying, Let’s go to the temple of the Lord…
Some might ask what a sabbatical is – A sabbatical is defined as an extended period away from one’s normal assignment: to attend a formal program that will enable one to become more effective in ministry, to experience prayer at a place established for the development of the spiritual life. After 15 years at the Oblate School of Theology and 12 years on the General Council in Rome, I sincerely looked forward to having time apart to reflect on these past years and grow in my relationship with Jesus. It was a good point to do this after 40 years of priesthood and almost 45 years of religious life.
Last year, on finishing my appointment as part of the Central Gov’t of the Oblates as the General Councillor for Canada-United States, I was encouraged and given a chance to take the time. I joined some of my General Council colleagues, namely Frs. Louis Lougen, Peter Stoll, and Guillaume Muthunda, for the experience of 3 months in Jerusalem.
The program, run by the White Fathers (or the Missionaries of Africa), was from March to May, so we could witness the period from winter to spring, seeing the desert slightly green and then the blooming of all the wildflowers. Being in the Holy Land during the Lenten and Easter periods in the Liturgy was a very rich experience because Jerusalem and Galilee are the central places of the salvation mystery of Jesus Christ’s ministry, His death, and resurrection.
The program had 3 White Fathers as the team leaders and 18 participants, of which 6 were religious sisters. The sisters’ presence helped enhance the Liturgy and the general atmosphere. Most participants were from African countries, which was an important part of the experience in better understanding the African Church context. As a group, we worked well together, supporting one another. The program was in English, even though, in some cases, it took a while to understand all the variations of spoken English fully. Some, understandably, had difficulty understanding my Texan English!
My expectation for this program was to follow Jesus’s steps and life and deepen my relationship with Him. During the three months, I surpassed these expectations by visiting many places in Israel, visiting many Old and New Testament sites. One of the White Fathers was particularly knowledgeable about the history and culture of the Bible and served as an excellent guide. The program had 3 phases: introduction, visiting the sites, and finally, the 30-day retreat based on the Ignatian exercises.
We stayed in the Muslim section of the old city of Jerusalem, namely, at St Anne’s Basilica and the pools of Bethesda. This place was so central as it was at the Lion’s Gate and the beginning of the via Dolorosa, the traditional Way of the Cross leading to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. The church of St. Anne’s had special meaning for me, as my home parish in Midland was St. Ann’s. Also, it had special meaning for us as Oblates, as the Crusades-era Basilica was built on a traditional site for the birth of Mary. The Pools of Bethesda are one of the more authentic sites from the New Testament of Jesus’ ministry, where the healing of a paralytic by Jesus took place, mentioned in the 5th Chapter of John. One could feel that the Lord was alive and present at that place even today.
It was truly a privilege and a great blessing to experience such an extended time in the Holy Land. The program had a well-balanced schedule with free time as well. We received many experiences and materials that still need to be digested and implemented in our lives. We were challenged and stretched and finally sent out as messengers of Peace for Jerusalem.