Welcome to Jerusalem

Welcome to Jerusalem

Welcome to Jerusalem

The Old City of Jerusalem has been a centre of culture, religion and history for thousands of years, from the time of the Judean kings and the Roman era through the Islamic Empire to the modern State of Israel.

This most contested city on Earth is also one of the most beautiful. Jerusalem’s scope of history is staggering, and the role the city plays in the traditions of all three major monotheistic faiths has led to it being continually fought over, across the centuries. This is the heart of the Holy Land, where the Jews raised the First Temple to keep the Ark of the Covenant safe, where Jesus was crucified and rose again, and where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven to receive God’s word.

Jerusalem’s Old City is sacred to Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Church bells, Islamic calls to prayer and the shofar (Jewish ram’s horn) electrify the air and fragrances of incense, coffee and candle smoke drift through the bustling souqs (markets). Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian quarters each add their own character, but this diversity grew from millennia of bloody sieges and transfers of power, leaving still visible deep wounds. In Jerusalem, history isn’t a closed chapter.

And what about Ignatius?

Jerusalem lies at the heart of Ignatius’ life journey and looms large in his imagination. He visits the Holy Land and Jerusalem as a pilgrim, from late August to early October, 1523. It remains the destination for him and for the first companions at their vows at Montmartre in 1534, though events unfold otherwise.

Ignatius and fellow pilgrims arrive at the ancient port city of Jaffa on August 25, 1523. Jaffa, in Iñigo’s time is a totally dilapidated port, a far cry from the stronghold of the Crusaders in earlier centuries. The port, now essentially a small fishing and tourist harbour was — for many centuries — the main port of entry into the Holy Land. They continue on, making their way to Jerusalem, passing ruins of crusader castles and churches, a journey of about 65 km, following the route of Jaffa road, the ancient thoroughfare into Jerusalem and proceed to Mount Sion. They find a city with its wall still in ruins since the end of the Crusades in the late 13th century.

Imagine Ignatius and his fellow pilgrims, approaching on their donkeys. They agree to recollect and prepare themselves for this momentous arrival and approach in silence. Dismounting, they walk on foot for the final 3km, to enter through the Jaffa gate. Ignatius comes at last to the places made sacred by the physical presence of Jesus – places which first came alive in his imagination, on his bed of recuperation and conversion at Loyola, reading Ludolph of Saxony’s, Life Of Christ. Here he can walk the same land where Jesus lived and walk the same roads that Jesus walked, touching the mystery of his Passion, Death and Resurrection.

It was customary for pilgrims to the Holy Land to follow a particular schedule in their visits to the holy places. And two fellow pilgrims with Ignatius kept detailed diaries of what happened so we know where Inigo went. In these long-imagined places, he experiences great consolation and gains a firmer grasp on the reality of Christ. Indeed, Ignatius situates the encounter with Christ through the Gospels, at the very heart of the Spiritual Exercises.

Secretly, Ignatius also is keen on helping souls, on leading others to this Jesus. He desires to convert Muslims to Christianity and thereby become a martyr. Muslims have ruled Jerusalem intermittently since they first conquered it in the year 638. In Ignatius’ day, they permit Christian pilgrims to visit, but they threaten to execute anyone who tries to convert them. In such eventuality, the lives of the Franciscans who were responsible for the pilgrims, would also be at risk.

Indeed, in mid-September, the heavy presence of Turkish troops makes it unsafe for Ignatius and his fellow pilgrims to go around. Though Inigo wants to stay on in Jerusalem, he is prohibited from doing so by the Franciscans who are, to this day, the guardians of the holy places. The situation in Jerusalem is getting harder with the Ottomans now in charge, and the Franciscans themselves will soon be expelled from their convent on Mount Sion, and even spend time in prison.

So, Ignatius’ dreams meet with the harsh reality of Jerusalem, and his personal discernment meets with obedience to the Church, in this case through the Franciscan superior. Inigo spends 21 days in the Holy Land and leaves reluctantly in obedience to the Church, but the desire to return remains within him, though is never fulfilled, as we will discover.

Behind Saint Ignatius, the Holy Land is depicted. The two scenes depicted in the icon are the nativity of Jesus in Bethlehem, a place Ignatius visited on September 8 and 9, 1523, and the transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor.

© Josef Mario Briffa SJ, 2012-2021,
Iñigo’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1523.
Original article © Maurice Gilbert SJ, translated and used with permission.
Translation © Josef Mario Briffa SJ, 2020