Memory and education: Essential to building a just future

In September 2014, I accompanied 18 U.S. bishops on a prayer pilgrimage for peace to the Holy Land. One of our many stops was the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the headquarters of the Roman Catholic diocese that encompasses Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Cyprus. This was in the wake of that summer’s Israel-Gaza conflict, and the bishops were rapt as a young priest from Gaza recounted his experience.

But a funny thing happened when an auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate stood to brief our group. What topic might be consuming the energies of the church leaders of such a fraught area and vulnerable population? Working toward reconciliation and peace? Rebuilding people’s lives after war?

It was education.

Slide after slide regaled us with facts and statistics about the Catholic schools overseen by the Latin Patriarchate — 44 schools, 22,000 students, K-12, boys and girls, Christian and Muslim. Their curriculum included education in the values of dialogue, respect and interreligious understanding.

Leave it to an institution as old as the Catholic Church to take the long view, I thought. In an area as perennially wracked by violence as the Holy Land, these people understood that they were stuck with the adults that they formed as children. If the hope for peace is to be realistic, then a critical mass of an entire generation will have to be imprinted with these values.

These themes are echoed in this week’s issue, as we see a museum in Israel taking great care to preserve artifacts from the earliest centuries of Christian history so that pilgrims may have a better understanding of the historical context of their religious beliefs (Page 6). Such an effort to foster memory and education seems downright heroic when one contemplates the horrors being perpetrated in Syria and Iraq by the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

This week’s In Focus (online July 3) looks at atrocities committed against Christian communities in Iraq and Syria (Page 9-12). In addition to fomenting the worst global refugee crisis since World War II, this violence has demolished ancient tombs, monasteries and other sites of religious devotion in an effort to obliterate their memory. The same memory-wiping dynamics apply to the eradication of Christians in places like Mosul, Iraq, and Aleppo, Syria. These are some of the deepest roots in all of Christianity, ancient communities of faith that date back to the time of the New Testament.

Finally, this week’s editorial (Page 19) reflects on the words of Pope Francis in Philadelphia, that foundational truths about who we are “must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended.” He added, “Remembrance saves a people’s soul from whatever or whoever would attempt to dominate it or to use it for their own interests.”

These are wise words with urgent, global application.

Don Clemmer is managing editor of OSV Newsweekly.