This week, our Holy Father Pope Francis makes his first trip to the Holy Land.
His pilgrimage reminds us that our Christian faith is rooted in the history and geography of the land that was made holy because God once walked upon it.
Our faith is unique among the world’s religions.
As Christians, we believe that at a certain time and in a certain place, God came down from heaven and became man. He was even identified by the village he grew up in. He was known as Jesus of Nazareth.
The Creed we profess is rooted in this memory. We believe, as an article of our faith, not only that Jesus was made to suffer and die, but that he was made to suffer and die “under Pontius Pilate.” In other words, during the specific years when Pontius Pilate was prefect in Judea, a province of the Roman Empire.
The Holy Father’s visit will be anchored in this history. He will celebrate Mass in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. And he will pray at the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus was buried.
Pope Francis knows that this land is sacred, not just for Catholics, but also for the religions of Judaism and Islam.
To symbolize this, he will travel with two old friends and collaborators from his days in Buenos Aires — one a rabbi, the other a Muslim leader.
He will lay flowers on the grave of Theodor Herzl, to honor the founder of the state of Israel.
And at the Holy Sepulcher, he will be joined in prayer by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, to highlight the ancient unity of the Christian faith.
These gestures of ecumenical and interreligious friendship are significant at this moment in history. Because today, in the land where Jesus was born and throughout the lands where his Church first grew and flourished — the Christian faith is under attack.
At the start of the last century, followers of Jesus made up 20 percent of the population of the Middle East. Today, Christians number less than 5 percent.
In some countries it is a crime to wear a crucifix or carry a Bible in public. Christians are harassed, beaten, their churches destroyed. There are kidnappings of priests and clergy, and forced “conversions” under the threat of death.
On Christmas Day, more than three dozen Catholics were killed by bomb attacks in Baghdad as they worshipped at Mass. A couple weeks ago, it was reported that two Christians were crucified in Ma’loua, an ancient Christian village in Syria.
What makes this persecution more painful is that the persecutors claim to be motivated by their belief in God. But as Pope Francis has said, the living God is a God of mercy and love and “to say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.”
So the Pope goes to the Middle East this week carrying a message of peace and mutual respect and tolerance for all religions and peoples.
And as we pray for his pilgrimage, it’s important for us to renew our sense of solidarity with the universal Church. The Catholic Church is more than the parish we worship in or the Church of our Archdiocese or nation. Catholic means “of the whole,” or “universal.”
In the face of anti-Christian persecution in the Middle East and throughout the world, we need to commit ourselves to praying daily for those who are suffering and giving their lives for their faith in Jesus.
We need to allow their suffering to touch our hearts. We cannot be indifferent. These are members of our family — our brothers and sisters.
We are brothers and sisters in the family of God. But we are also citizens in a nation that is founded on the principles of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. So we need to urge our government to make these issues a priority in our diplomacy with other nations.
In a world marked by rising secularism on the one hand and religious fanaticism on the other, we need to insist that freedom of conscience is a fundamental human right.
So let’s pray for our Holy Father this week. And let’s pray for the Church in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East.
And let’s pray for one another — that we may intensify our identity as Christians. With so many witnessing to Christ by the testimony of their blood, let’s honor their sacrifices, by living out our own faith with courage and joy.
And let us ask Our Blessed Mother, Queen of Martyrs, to be a mother to all those martyrs — known and unknown — whose blood is the seed of the Church.
Archbishop Gomez’s book, “Immigration and the Next America,” is available at the Cathedral Gift Shop (www.olacathedralgifts.com/immigrationandthenextamericarenewingthesoulofournation.aspx). Follow him at www.facebook.com/ArchbishopGomez.