JERUSALEM - On the occasion of the 40th day after the passing of Fr. Anton Odeh Khalil Issa, Canon of the Holy Sepulchre, kindly find below a reflection that Bishop Boulos Marcuzzo, Latin Patriarchal Vicar, prepared for his funeral.
Reflection on Canon Anton Odeh Issa,
Co-Cathedral of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, on 30.12.2020
Fr. Anton Odeh Khalil Issa
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones” (Ps 116:15)
During this Christmas season, our dear brother, Canon Anton Odeh Issa left us and returned to the house of the Father. He truly lived what the first Christians called “dies natalis,” with reference to the day of the death.
The Covid-19 pandemic did not allow us to give a funeral rite homily on this very positive priest figure. The profound gratitude that the Latin Patriarchate owes him and the fraternal love that we bring him, we his brothers priests, urges us to publish, at least, the contribution of his article, instead of the homily, for a duty of information to the faithful and for their edification.
Fr. Anton left us at the age of 86, at the ‘Shaare Zedek’ hospital in Jerusalem, where he was hospitalized since last December 9. There, he was also infected by Covid-19, which, with other complications of old age, led to his death. From November 7, 2020, he was a guest of the St. Louis Hospital of the Sisters of St. Joseph, where he had also received the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. For years, he had lived in the Patriarchate residence, withdrawn from any official commitment, always giving a very edifying witness and, if it is allowed, and constantly accompanied by his inseparable Zimmer walking frame!
His last years were quite challenging and plagued by several ailments, but no one ever heard Fr. Anton complain. Regular in his daily, spiritual, and community life, he was always happy, always grateful for any small service. In short, with his testimony not only of recent years but his whole life, Fr. Anton leaves us the memory of one of the best and educated priests of the Patriarchate. He gave us a beautiful example of a priest of the Holy Land.
In an atmosphere of paschal hope, we can truly sing the funeral prayer: “May the Angels lead you into Paradise, the martyrs welcome you upon your arrival and lead you to the Holy City of Jerusalem. May the choir of Angels welcome you and... may you enjoy eternal rest in heaven.”
Son of the Holy Land and priest of the Mother Church of Jerusalem
Fr. Anton was born on March 12, 1934, in Jaffa into a family of the Fawadhleh tribe originally from Aboud. He attended elementary school in Jaffa and Aboud, and in 1949 he entered the Latin Patriarchal Seminary of Jerusalem in Beit Jala, sent by Fr. Pasquale Appodia. From October 1954, he attended the major seminary’s philosophy and theology courses; he was ordained to the diaconate in October 1960 and the priesthood on June 29, 1961, in the Co-Cathedral of the Patriarchate in Jerusalem by the laying on of hands of Bishop Mansour Jallad, auxiliary bishop. He was thus the first priest in the history of the Latin parish of Aboud, founded in 1910.
Aboud? For many, this name says perhaps nothing special. It is a small, seemingly insignificant village in the geographical center of historical Palestine (currently, on the border between the Palestinian Authority and Israel). In fact, Aboud is very old, probably of biblical origin; for over many centuries, it has preserved a Christian community that has built seven churches there. An inscription in Palestinian Aramaic, rather small but very significant, is preserved in one of those churches called “Abudìa”, and a very old manuscript called the “Gospel Book of Aboud” is kept now in the Apostolic Library of the Vatican. Fr. Anton Odeh came from this ancient Christian community, in its Latin rite tradition. He was, therefore, the eloquent expression of the presence and life of the Mother Church of Jerusalem.
Pastoral ministry and judicial vicar of an excellent tradition
After his ordination, Fr. Anton exercised, for several years, the pastoral ministry as parish vicar in Zerqa-South (1961-63), in Madaba (1963), then as a parish priest in Shatana (1964), and as an assistant in Irbid. In 1967 he was chaplain of the important College de la Salle (of the Brothers of the Christian Schools). He taught catechism in the upper classes and was pastor of the central parish community in Jabal Hussein (Amman).
In 1969, the turning point took place that radically changed his pastoral commitment. He was sent by the Patriarchate to Rome for specialization in Canon Law at the Lateran University. In June 1971, he obtained a Licentiate in Canon Law and was appointed assistant to the Judicial Vicar in the ecclesiastical court of Jerusalem. In 1979, he was appointed a full-fledged judge. Since then, and until 2015 his life was characterized by this service of justice in the various ecclesiastical courts of Jerusalem, Amman, and Nazareth. He served at different levels, in the court of the first instance and the appellate court.
He distinguished himself for his rigorous observance of Canon law, and in general, for his sense of righteousness. This beautiful virtue, accompanied by a strong pastoral sense, won the admiration of all, including the Catholic Churches’ leaders. In Jerusalem, other Catholic Churches - Melkite, Maronite, Armenian, and Syrian - delegated him to follow their communities’ judicial cases. In Nazareth, the Greek Catholic Eparch of Haifa delegated him to follow the appellate cases of that Church in Galilee.
In 1979, he was appointed Judicial Vicar of the court, succeeding Bishop Salim Sayegh, who was later appointed superior of the seminary and Patriarchal Vicar Bishop in Amman. In 1988, and for some years, he did a relay race, almost every week, between Jerusalem and Amman, where he was appointed judge for Jordan. In 1995, he regularly shuttled from Jerusalem to Nazareth for the patriarchal court of Israel. Those who know the Middle East’s Churches and especially the Holy Land remember that the ecclesiastical tribunal generally deals with a very heavy job, a double job: marriage problems and inheritance issues; each case according to the particular ecclesiastical Code of the faithful and according to his special citizenship (Palestine, Israel, Jordan, and Cyprus).
The priests and faithful are unanimous in affirming that Fr. Anton continued in the wake of the good, traditional, and excellent reputation of the Latin Patriarchal Court of Jerusalem, embodied by the impressive figures of Msgr. George Bateh, Bishops Hanna Kaldani, and Salim Sayegh, and to which he gave prestige and appreciation. We can apply, metaphorically, to Fr. Anton the famous sentence of the psalm addressed to the Lord: “For you upheld my right and my cause, seated on your throne, judging justly… It is he who judges the world with justice, who judges the peoples with fairness.” (Ps 9:5,9).
Responsible for youth ministry and various other pastoral commitments
In the 1970s and 1980s, he accepted several other pastoral commitments. He was put in charge of the youth ministry, that is, of the JEC, JOC, and JUC. In those years, he began teaching catechism in the high schools of the “Schmidt College for Girls” (for 25 years), whose director, Helen Khashram, was the previous head of the JEC. In 1975; he became a Sunday chaplain of the internal school and sanctuary of Deir Rafat and, occasionally, an aide to the Armenian Catholic community in Jerusalem. The Patriarch asked him also to be a member of the “Pilgrimage Commission.”
In the meantime, he worked on the preparation of his doctoral thesis, which he defended “Summa cum laude” on June 20, 1975, in “Les Minorités chrétiennes en Terre Sainte.” In collaboration with the new judiciary of Amman, Fr. Ghaleb Bader, he translated the new entire text of the 1983 Code of Canon Law into Arabic. He also worked to renew the book “Personal Statute of Christians in the Holy Land.” He collaborated in drafting some pastoral steps on the “Guidelines in the event of abuse.”
He also had the happy occasion to take care, as regards the diocesan process and the aspects that concern the ecclesiastical tribunal, the cause of beatification of the Palestinian Sr. Mariam Bawardi, Carmelite, and of Sr. Marie Alphonsin Ghattas, foundress of the Rosary Sisters, canonized in 2015. He also handled the process of the brother coadjutor Siman Sruji, a Salesian from Nazareth, now a Venerable, whose miracle we wait for his long-awaited beatification.
Fr. Anton took great pains for a project, required by the Pastoral Synod of the Catholic Churches of the Holy Land, as important as it was controversial: the reunification of the Catholic ecclesiastical courts in Israel, and for which he also prepared a text of regulations. For reasons independent of his will, that text and that initiative, unfortunately, have not yet been approved and adopted.
I remember that many, at the time, were critical of this too much diversity of pastoral commitments. I can concede that could be true for some minor details. But, as a direct witness of that time and those commitments, I can now affirm that Fr. Anton fulfilled the necessary and essential part of his pastoral mission in a satisfactory and successful way. In the memory of the young people of that generation, for example, the 70s and 80s were considered among the most memorable years of JEC-JUC-JOC.
Canon of the Holy Sepulcher and exemplary style of priest life
In 1992, Patriarch G.G. Beltritti appointed him a Canon of the Holy Sepulcher, and, since then, he accompanied the Patriarch on several official occasions. In 1993, he was appointed by the Apostolic Nunciature in Jerusalem as a member of the Bilateral Commission to apply the “Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel”.
In 2009, he handed in his resignation from the Court of the First Instance for health reasons, and from the Appellate Court in 2015. Fr. Anton was, therefore, a priest who worked a lot and well in various aspects of the priestly ministry, but above all in the management of the ecclesiastical courts. He worked very much with regularity, with much humility, modesty, and simplicity, without seeking personal interests, without aspiring to position and ostentation, and in any case without the slightest shadow of negative aspects in his testimony as a priest. He maintained good relations with everyone, especially with the priests who never had to find cause for conflict or disagreements with a brother so good, serious, of few words, cooperative, and willing to any pastoral service.
The Christian Community in the Holy Land and the Latin Patriarchate must be proud of this priest. His example was and will be a stimulus and encouragement for priests, seminarians, and faithful in the local community’s history. The Latin Patriarchate in particular, and the Christian community of the Holy Land in general, owe him a lot and sincere gratitude. For this we say to him unanimously: “Thank you very much, dear Abouna Anton, for all you have done, the way you've done it and for what you were!”
The last years, especially the last five, were years of retirement and deserved rest that Fr. Anton spent in the patriarchal residence in prayer, reading, in the simple life of the community, giving a great example of serenity and goodness. Even in his time of retirement and infirmity, he did not lack some healthy interests. He cultivated, for example, a search for everything that could have a relationship with his beloved Aboud (local Christian history, ancient churches, and the famous “Aboud Gospel Book” whose old manuscript is kept in the Apostolic Library of the Vatican). He remained very attached to his country of origin, which, without causing the slightest disturbance, occasionally he had the pleasure of visiting and having friends call on him.
Participant in the Passion of Christ
The Christian tradition affirms that “the priest is another Christ” and, in the eventual sufferings of him, he is a participant in the passion of Christ, as are all Christians. In recent weeks, as a guest of the Saint Louis Hospital in Jerusalem, we can say that Fr. Anton participated, with his various health complications, in the passion of Jesus Christ, enduring sufferings and pains with patience and tranquility, with his regularity in prayer, always giving to everyone a profound testimony of goodness and good humor, of a strong man and a priestly submission to the will of the Lord.
We can apply the expressions of the Apostle St. Paul to his disciple Timothy to Fr. Anton: “For I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on, the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but to all who have longed for his appearance” (2 Tim. 4,6-8).
Duty of collecting his rich human, priestly, and professional inheritance
Many faithful, especially his fellow citizens, were unable to come to Jerusalem today for the final farewell, as they would have liked. Only a few close cousins and relatives obtained permission to attend the funeral here in Jerusalem. In the coming days and weeks, Holy Masses will be celebrated in his village and in the parishes where Fr. Anton served. In the future, when the pandemic is over, in all regions of the Patriarchate, it will be useful, even necessary, to organize commemoration meetings (“Ta’been”) to remember the dear deceased, to collect the beautiful, precious, and abundant human, Christian, priestly, and professional heritage that Canon Anton Odeh Issa left us, to relive it and pass it on.
Then we repeat with gratitude Psalm 112, which genuinely can be applied to a man who has dedicated almost his entire life to justice: "Blessed is the man who fears the Lord and finds great joy in his commandments ... Happy is the man who... administers his business with justice because he will never falter; the righteous will be remembered forever. The righteous will not waver forever…, Eternal will be the remembrance of the righteous. His righteousness remains forever, and his forehead raised in glory." (112:1,5-6,9).
Latin Patriarchal Vicar, Jerusalem
Jerusalem, December 30, 2020