Leaving Bethlehem University was bitter-sweet for De La Salle Brother Mark McKeon.
“It was one of the biggest blessings of my life . . . a wonderful opportunity to be in the Holy Land and live and work alongside a group of people who suffer daily under the challenges of the Israeli occupation,” Br Mark told NZ Catholic. “My first Christmas in Bethlehem, listening to the Gospel story was overwhelming for me. To be able to celebrate Christmas mass at the Church of the Nativity is an experience that will remain with me.”
Br Mark was recently appointed by the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference as pastoral director of Holy Cross Seminary in Ponsonby, Auckland.
NZCBC President Bishop Patrick Dunn said that Br Mark “brings to this position his extensive international experience as an educator and formator, together with a great humility and dedication to the wellbeing of others”.
“We are delighted he is available to take up this important formation ministry,” the bishop added.
Br Mark has been involved in educational ministry for 35 years, teaching in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. Prior to living in Palestine he was engaged in vocation and youth ministry and this important ministry saw him travel to Pakistan, the Philippines and other South East Asian countries.
His three years in Bethlehem University were an enlightening and life changing experience.
Bethlehem University is unashamedly a Catholic University and was the first university in Palestine. It is under the direction of the De La Salle Brothers and has a student population of 3300 students of whom 70 per cent are Muslim. The majority of the Christian students are Orthodox Christians.
“Living closely with people in a multi-faith environment challenged me to reflect critically on the way in which I interact with others, he said. “I went to Bethlehem quite ignorant of the social, political and religious context. However, I felt at home almost immediately being the beneficiary of Middle Eastern hospitality.”
“My three years flew by and it is hard to believe at times I am back in New Zealand. The changeable Auckland weather has me pining for the sunshine of Bethlehem.”
Br Mark’s main role at the university was as the vice president for human resources, in which he oversaw the care of more than 400 employees.
He was also able to teach for a few weeks each semester in the Cardinal Martini Leadership Institute named in honour after the late cardinal from Milan who was a good friend of the university. This ministry enabled him to develop relationships with his co-workers as well as his students.
During his three years, Br Mark was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time with students and teachers in the three De La Salle schools in the Holy Land that were located in Bethlehem, Jaffa and in Jerusalem in the Old City.
“One huge skill I’ve developed is listening. You have to be a good attentive listener. I think in any role but particularly when you are involved in formation work,” he added.
One of the saddest stories Br Mark heard was from a student who had never seen the ocean. The student lived less than an hour away from the Mediterranean Sea.
For security reasons, the Israeli government restricted freedom of movement of some students. This impacted daily on the life of the students especially as almost half the students travelled to and from Jerusalem each day through the security check points.
“It was hard leaving knowing that it will be difficult for my friends to visit me here,” he said.
Despite the political instability, Br Mark said he felt safe in Palestine. He said trouble, when it occurs, happened after Friday midday prayers near Rachel’s Tomb where the famous photo of Pope Francis touching the separation wall was taken.
“On three occasions, I got blasted with tear gas because the wind shifted, not because I was in amongst the trouble. But on the whole, I felt safe, very safe,” he said.
Though originally from Australia, Br Mark said he feels more at home in Bethlehem and now, of course, in New Zealand. This new phase in his life as a brother will allow him to reconnect with old friends and develop new friendships through the different ministries in which he will be engaged.
Br Mark was asked to come back to New Zealand by Br David Hawke, provincial of the De La Salle Brothers of the District of Australia, to help in the formation of three young brothers.
The appointment to the seminary was totally unexpected, Br Mark said, believing that it was one of those calls from out of the left field from God.
“Bethlehem is very much in my heart and always will be. At the same time, in my brief time I have been at the seminary I felt at home there,” he said.
Br Mark will also assist the tertiary chaplaincy team at the University of Auckland one day a week.