By Anna Dellinger, Editor-in-Chief (Photo by Anna Dellinger/The Bison)
Many Evangelical Christians dream of visiting Israel, and as the birthplace of our religion, that dream makes perfect sense. Upon visiting the country, however, many Christians may not anticipate the extreme amount of historical and biblical significance found in Catholic churches throughout Israel.
Often, evangelical Christians have an aversion to the word “Catholic.” This avoidance of anything related to Catholicism can at times even edge on obsessive, with it being 500 years since the church split, and there is no foreseeable chance of it getting back together again. Nevertheless, the animosity remains.
Born and raised Southern Baptist, daughter of a pastor and granddaughter of missionaries for Wycliffe and the International Mission Board, I never thought I would find myself encouraging other evangelical Christians to visit Catholic churches in the Jewish Holy Land, but here I am with seven reasons.
1. There are no ancient Protestant churches.
First and foremost, it is easy to forget there is no such thing as an “ancient Protestant church.” They do not exist, because Protestants did not exist until around the time Martin Luther publicly posted his 95 Theses in 1517. The Reformation broke up the Catholic church into what are now known as the Catholic and Protestant churches. Therefore, if someone is going to visit a church building in Israel any older than 500 years, that church is almost certainly “Catholic.”
2. Present-day holy sites are often built upon already-existing holy sites.
Many Holy sites have been used by multiple religions and sects throughout the centuries. One of the most striking examples of reuse are the third-holiest Islamic holy sites of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, built upon the Temple Mount, the foundations of the Jewish temple built by Herod the Great in the time of Jesus.
Archaeologists have discovered multiple layers of civilization at Bethesda. On top, the Church of St. Anne still stands in pristine condition, along with ruins of buildings, all of which were constructed by the Crusaders between the 11th and 13th centuries. Buildings from the Byzantine era are found in the next layer down, and the furthest layer down contains Roman architecture and a deep pool.
In the same way, these centuries-old Catholic churches are often built upon sites with vast historical Christian significance. For example, one of the most visited holy sites in the world, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is thought to be built upon the sites of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Christ.
Another example is seen at Capernaum, where St. Peter’s Church – with the vague appearance of a spaceship – hovers over the remains of what many deem to be Simon Peter’s house. Catholic mass is held in the modern-looking church building while tour groups peer underneath the church’s foundations into the ruins of 2,000-year-old Capernaum. Inside the church, there is even a glass floor to enable visitors to look straight down at the ruins.
The Franciscan order of the Catholic church now maintains many of the Catholic churches within Israel, preserving centuries-old buildings and cultivating gardens for visitors to enjoy. More examples of these Catholic churches at biblically significant sites include Har HaOsher at the Mt. of Beatitudes and Duc In Altum at Magdala.
3. Required silence interrupts the daily busyness of life.
Modern churches today are often chaotic and full of people and programs. People rush to and fro grabbing coffee, passing out bulletins and greeting each other. In contrast, many of the Catholic churches are silent buildings, and can better allow a person to focus on the God they are praying to. They lend an air of serenity and create a moment of sacred time amidst the busyness of a tour of the Holy Land.
4. Singing can be more meaningful than silence.
In contrast to the silent churches, visitors are encouraged to sing in the Church of St. Anne at Bethesda. At the Pools of Bethesda mentioned in John 5, a church was built. Today it is known to have some of the best acoustics of any building in the world. An African American tour group got on the steps leading up to the altar and sang their hearts out. Worshipping in song with a group there was one of the most incredible experiences of my entire time in Israel. Additionally, only singing is allowed in the church building (several people including myself got shushed by the priest for talking).
5. Extravagant art and architecture brings glory to God.
These churches allow any visitor to see the beauty of art and architecture God can inspire within human beings. Archways, stonework, statues, paintings, mosaics and stained glass are all exhibited to bring glory to God. While I may not agree with some depictions of biblical figures at Catholic churches, the extravagance and talent on display cannot be denied.
6. A collaboration of many countries is a reminder of the transcendence of Christianity.
At least two Catholic churches in Israel demonstrate the unity of the church across borders. Next to the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of all Nations stands peacefully. Its majestic domes and mosaics were donated by many different countries including Ireland, Hungary, Poland, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Italy, France, Spain, England, Belgium, Canada, Germany and the United States.
Mosaics from many nations across the world line the walls surrounding the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. From Singapore to South Africa, each mosaic is unique and features the Virgin Mary, for this basilica claims to be the place in which Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel who foretold the birth of her son Jesus as seen in Luke 1.
7. Seeing pilgrims from all over the world can strengthen personal faith.
Religious pilgrims visit these sites, coming from dozens of countries across the world. Many of them have dreamed for years of visiting the Holy Land and seeing the sites honoring the saints and the Virgin Mary.
While my personal faith does not require me to visit such sites, it was inspiring to see people pouring out their hearts and fulfilling their dreams. I was encouraged to be more dedicated to praising and serving the God I love.
Visiting these sites reminded me that God’s kingdom is seen in different places throughout the world. These Catholic churches created for me a realization that God has been moving since the world began, and that my way of worshiping and honoring God is not the only way to worship and honor God.
In silence and singing, in wondering at beautiful artwork and architecture, my mind and heart could not help but be drawn to the God I serve in the Catholic churches of Israel.