By Judith Sudilovsky
JERUSALEM (CNS) — In 1964, when Sister Frieda Nasser was 16, she was among 12 girls chosen to greet Pope Paul VI as he entered Bethlehem, West Bank, on his two-day visit to the Holy Land.
It was January, and the girls were in place at 3 a.m., waiting for the pope’s 6 a.m. arrival, but with all the excitement they did not feel the cold, she recalled.
They also did not, in their youth, feel the full importance of the occasion of Pope Paul’s meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras during that visit, she said. It was the first meeting between Latin Catholic and Orthodox leaders in almost 1,000 years.
But today, as principal of the Terra Sancta School for Girls in Jerusalem, Sister Nasser, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, called the visit “very significant.”
Sister Nasser will be among those witnessing the May 25 meeting between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Pope Francis’ May 24-26 trip to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories was scheduled to commemorate the 1964 visit.
“At that time I didn’t understand well the (real) significance of that visit. Now, after 50 years I understand more, and we can see dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox,” she said. “At that time if a Catholic boy brought home a Greek Orthodox girl to marry it was like a funeral, it was a bad situation. Today, after 50 years, if they get married there is no problem, nobody even thinks in terms of ‘Catholic’ or ‘Orthodox.’ We are Christian.”
Sister Nasser told Catholic News Service today that she is able to attend a Greek Orthodox funeral, whereas 50 years ago that would not have been acceptable, as Christians were unable to participate in each other’s services. Entering a Greek Orthodox Church today “is easy,” she said.
“Today I enter with joy and I feel accepted,” said Sister Nasser. “Children today do not realize (the changes.)”
The unity in prayer is especially noted in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, she said, when all Christians pray together in different churches throughout the week.
Sister Nasser noted that at her school today Muslims, Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Catholics all study together, and all the Christians study the same catechism.
“There is no difference,” she said. “Weddings take place between Catholics and Greek Orthodox and they don’t even realize it (was a) problem. It is too difficult for them to imagine.”
Sister Nasser said she would like to see more movement forward in the dialogue, most importantly she said, in the recognition of one another’s sacraments. She said she does not see why Christians cannot receive Communion in each other’s churches.
“I would like to, if we are in agreement. Why not? It is the body of Christ for all of us,” she said. “My dream is that there be no Catholic or Orthodox or Armenian, but that we are all Christians.”
In an interview with the Franciscan Media Center, Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, papal nuncio to Israel and Cyprus and apostolic delegate in Jerusalem and the Palestine territories, reminisced about his own experience as a young seminarian in 1964 in the wake of Pope Paul’s trip.
“I remember these days with a sense of deep expectations, a sense of something new unfolding in front of our eyes, and all of us in some way knew we would be protagonists and what would happen” would change things, he said in the interview.