INTERVIEW – On the eve of his welcome Mass on Friday, February 24, in Amman as the new Patriarchal Vicar in Jordan, succeeding Bishop Maroun Lahham on February 8, 2017 , Bishop William Shomali addresses the Jordanian faithful and calls to mind the main challenges that lie ahead.
– In what frame of mind have you received your appointment for the new office entrusted to you? How do you envisage the recent changes within the Jerusalem Church, especially your departure from Jerusalem and Palestine, after all these years as a vicar?
I would not hide that I was surprised by my recent appointment in Jordan, and at the same time it was with great serenity that I accepted it.I realize that each of my appointments, as General Treasurer and then Rector of the Seminary, Chancellor and Auxiliary Bishop in Jerusalem and Palestine, have always been a surprise. After the Seminary, I was sent to Jordan, a land unknown to me at the time, and I spent eight years as parochial vicar and parish priest in Zarka and then in Shatana. I have an excellent memory of those early years there as a priest, the warm welcome of the parishioners and the strong pastoral dynamics. Humbly I can say that each time the Spirit led me “where He wanted”, where I would never have imagined going, and at the same time the grace of God always accompanied me.
Today, it is a new beginning for me and I leave Jerusalem not without a tear. I love this city, its complexity and richness, its churches, its peoples, its ecumenical and interreligious concerns, and I liked meeting groups of pilgrims and Knights of the Holy Sepulcher who visit us every day at the Patriarchate. Nevertheless, I am confident and enthusiastic that I am going to Amman: the experience I have gained throughout these years will help me continue my work as pastor, within the same diocese, and my mission is to continue it.
I understand that the Vatican did not appoint a Patriarch right away. Rome has its reasons that all know. The Latin Patriarchate needs an administrative and financial reorganization, the stakes are high but we will achieve it, thanks to the goodwill of all.
– What are the first words you would like to address to the Jordanian faithful now that you are their new pastor?
I would like to thank the Jordanian faithful and clergy for their warm welcome and their willingness to work together with the bishops, priests, deacons and all consecrated persons, for the good of our Mother Church, to untiringly continue sowing the Gospel and offering to the needy our works of charity. We are different members of the same body and I am happy to come to this country, which is not entirely new to me. When I was given the opportunity to preach the last retreat of the priests in Jordan, I realized that half of the priests were my former students at the seminary, and the other half were colleagues of my generation. We are one and the same family. I give thanks because from the outset, it is easier to work with people you know and love. That is why I arrive in Amman with as much confidence as trepidation. I like to think of the words spoken by Saint Augustine to his followers in Hippo: “For you I am a bishop, with you I am a Christian: if I am afraid of what I am for you, I am reassured by what I am with you”.
– In your opinion, what could be the most important challenges of your new job?
There are of course the difficulties arising from the construction and management of the University of Madaba. The Patriarchate has accumulated large debts, which had judicial implications. We wish to put an end to this matter in the transparency of justice and charity. This problem has created within the very people of God divisions that will have to be healed.
Another major challenge is the two million Syrian and Iraqi refugees who arrived in Jordan and we welcomed them in large numbers in our schools and parishes.We must help them to build a future with hope, in spite of the regional and local context. The economic situation in Jordan in general, for the refugees and also for the Jordanians themselves, is difficult. Jordan also accepted more refugees than the capacity of a still developing country that limited resources allow. But this generosity is not to blame, on the contrary: Jordan is a land of welcome and we have to offer solutions that live up to our Christian vocation. To do this, we can count on a young and dynamic clergy, Catholic institutions and many lay people trained and capable of building a better future for all.
In addition to the issue of refugees, there is also the challenge of ecumenical dialogue between churches and interfaith dialogue among peoples, especially that of living together with Muslims. For now, there is coexistence but we have to tirelessly ensure that it grows.
– What is your view of the situation in Jordan, the coexistence of peoples, the stability of the Kingdom, which was somewhat shaken last December by attacks?
With regard to the region as a whole, the situation in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and even Egypt, Jordan is often and rightly referred to as an oasis of peace.The attacks in December were very marked but were dealt with well by the government.The Kingdom offers security and religious freedom to all its citizens. King Abdullah has always advocated, following his father, King Hussein, a policy of openness and total religious freedom, quick to silence fundamentalism. The King is also the protector of the Holy Places of Jerusalem and, last year, made his contribution to the restoration of the Aedicule of the Holy Tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Christians are considered as full members of the Jordanian people and as an asset for the country.They maintain many schools, hospitals and charitable institutions. Among them, there are many Palestinians who feel at home living in Jordan.
The coexistence between Christians and Muslims has also been something exemplary, although of course it is not perfect. There are many encounters, at all levels. The Marrakech declaration, in January 2016, on the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities in Muslim countries, nourishes all our hopes in this regard. This document, which I would gladly compare to Nostra Aetate for Muslims, invites Muslim theologians and thinkers to work “the principle of citizenship” for all, and politicians to take the constitutional, political and legal measures necessary to give it body. The declaration, which unequivocally prohibits the exploitation of religion in order to deprive religious minorities of their rights in Muslim countries, is still to be put into practice in many details, but I hope it will have influence.
Interview by Myriam Ambroselli