By Gabriela Maria Mihlig

ROME, NOV. 8, 2010 ( The recent Mideast synod had as a main goal to strengthen the presence of Christians in the region, and one important way to do that is to promote pilgrimages to the Holy Land, says Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstätt, Germany.

Bishop Hanke was a participant in the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which took place last month in the Vatican. He is the former Abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Plankstetten, and he was named bishop of Eichstätt in 2006.

In this interview, Bishop Hanke comments on the importance of pilgrimages to the Holy Land,

Q: Excellency, please provide a survey concerning the request of the Fathers of the synod for reactivating the pilgrimages to Holy Land!

Bishop Hanke: The target of the synod was to strengthen the presence of Christians in the Middle East, and it is still a target of particular importance! This target has been looked at from different angles. One way to reach this target is to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Places, where Jesus lived.

For example, one can go on pilgrimage to Nazareth in Galilee, where the Basilica of Annunciation is built (to remember the annunciation of Archangel Gabriel, upon having visited the Virgin Mary), or to Bethlehem, in Palestine, to the Grotto of the Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus, and to Shepherds' Fields.

Also, one can visit Jerusalem, the city of the Lord, which Jesus visited regularly according to Jewish rite of pilgrimage for prayer and to participate in the Jewish feasts. Jerusalem is also where Jesus overcame death for all humanity, for our redemption, and where he rose from death, and showed himself as the risen Son of God in front of his disciples on Easter day. A deeper view into the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord can be obtained when the pilgrim is visiting the Church of Holy Sepulcher.

Popes in the history of the Church have always encouraged pilgrimages to the "House of the Lord," and it is also important for Benedict XVI, who joined with the fathers of the synod in the hope that the spiritual impetus might be reactivated today.

To go on a pilgrimage signifies in the proper meaning of the word "to start on one's way" to the Holy Places of the Bible. Every praying pilgrim can receive the grace of strengthening of faith once more in order to enrich his life in faith with God in a deeper and more fruitful sense.

The fathers of the synod would highly appreciate to see the faithful anew going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Places, which leads them further in the footsteps of the holy Apostles also to Syria, Cyprus and Turkey. This would also be a highly esteemed expression showing our solidarity toward the Christians living in these countries and having the possibility to visit actual projects, like a school project, which is currently under construction.

Q: What can we -- as Christians living in the West -- learn from the Christians living in Middle East with regard to their ability to live alongside Muslim?

Bishop Hanke: The fathers of the synod have drawn the attention many times to the fact that  Christians in the Middle East are living day-by-day together with Muslims. This daily experience provides a profound contribution to the interreligious dialogue led by the Church. Islam is not an "erratic block," but shows diversity. A successful or not-successful daily cooperation has to be seen and to be understood in light of this diversity. Repeatedly voices have been noticed during the synod saying that to this contribution, this empirical value, a greater attention should be given.

Q: Is the idea to include interreligious dialogue as a course in seminaries and theological institutes feasible?

Bishop Hanke: The synod was principally related to the Middle East, and the patriarchs and bishops put emphasis on the subject that the students, studying theology, and also the people living locally will become competent with regard to this interreligious encounter. This dialogue is a "dialogue of life," as described by the fathers of the synod. In daily encounters, the place where life is shared, dialogue is happening.

Q: Is there another important pastoral concern that you have as a result of the synod?

Bishop Hanke: Of high importance is the issue that the Eastern Churches of the Middle East -- staying in full communion with the Bishop of Rome as well as the Latin Church -- should enter into a deeper communion by means of planning and acting together in order to get out of the isolation.

I believe that even this issue has been of great value for the synod, to which the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, the Maronite Church, the Coptic Catholic Church, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Armenian Catholic Church and also the Latin Church dioceses were coming here at the place where the Cathedra Petri is situated in front of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. Having been assembled with him, and having entered into dialogue with him in order to talk about questions of high precedence, I believe that the ice is broken and that this fact has in itself a great value for the universal Church.

[Translation provided by Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem]