Christian pilgrims carry palm branches during the traditional Palm Sunday procession last year on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. (CNS/Debbie Hill)
By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service
JERUSALEM (CNS) — Ghassan Rafidi, 53, remembers enjoying celebrating Easter twice as a child in his village of Jifna.
“We had two times to celebrate and two vacations. My father’s family gave us gifts on the Greek Orthodox date, and my mother’s family on the Catholic,” said Rafidi, the son of a Catholic mother and a Greek Orthodox father.
But today the Christian community has shrunk, and it is important that the celebrations be united, he said. Employers honor vacation on only one of the celebrations, putting pressure on families to decide which to celebrate, he said.
“The Muslims always ask us how many Jesuses do we have,” he said.
There are many families like Rafidi’s, both in Israel and the Palestinian territories, with members belonging to the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Protestant churches.
For the past 15 years, Catholic parishes throughout the Palestinian territories and many in Israel have been celebrating Easter on the Greek Orthodox date. Now, following a directive from the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, within two years all Eastern Catholics and the Latin Patriarchate in the Holy Land will officially adopt the Greek Orthodox Julian calendar date.
The Latin Patriarchate calls the move a “decisive step toward ecumenism.” The official directive will take place after completion of the decree and approval by the Vatican.
“The main reason for the unification of the Easter celebration is for members of the same family, village and parish to be able to have one celebration, and one calendar, and to show the unity and enjoy the unity. We want to give a good example of unity to our non-Christian neighbors,” said the Latin Patriarchate chancellor, Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali.
The Latin-rite diocese of the Holy Land includes Israel, the Palestinian territories and Cyprus. Parishes in Jerusalem and the Bethlehem, West Bank, area will be exempt this year because of the Status Quo, the 1852 agreement that preserved the division of ownership and responsibilities of various Christian holy sites. The parish in Tel Aviv has also received an exemption for this year since there are many foreign workers who are members of the parish.
The Greek Orthodox Church follows the Julian calendar and did not adopt the Gregorian calendar, which was implemented by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 to correct a miscalculation in the rotation of the earth.
Next year, Easter falls on the same day according to both calendars, so the change by decree will only be adopted in 2015.
The spirit of the holiday is lost if it is celebrated on separate dates, said Father Raed Abusahlia of Holy Family Parish in Ramallah, West Bank. Easter in the Eastern church is all of Holy Week, starting with Palm Sunday, and includes special prayers during the week, he said.
“The liturgy is very beautiful if done together as a family. It can’t be spiritual if it is only part of the family,” he said. During the week following Easter there are traditional holiday family visits as well, he added.
Father Ilario Antoniazzi of St. Anthony Parish in Rameh, Israel, has been celebrating Easter with the Greek Orthodox for 15 years; he said the date is not important.
“The most important thing is to be together on the feast, to give a good example of our love and to show that we are united in our love,” he said.
In the northern Israeli port city of Haifa, the change did not come easily for some parishioners, said Father Agapios Abu Saada of St. Elijah Melkite Catholic Cathedral, who has been pivotal in pushing for unifying the celebration.
“My experience in seeking solidarity … was not a smooth one,” he said. “The decision was not unified even within the same congregation.”
He said those initially opposed to the idea were swayed by the joint religious processions during Holy Week.
“Unifying the feast is a vivid Christian testimony in a multicultural and multireligious society,” he said. “Christians in the Holy Land are a minority that keeps dividing itself to inner minorities within the minority, creating diverse subcommunities … which deteriorate the goal of Christians as one unrestricted community living in a multicultural and multireligious society.”
Father Abusahlia said some of his parishioners are “a little bit disturbed” because the Greek Orthodox Easter comes so late this year: May 5.
“In the past years, we celebrated it together or with a difference of one week, so they didn’t feel it. Now it is very late, with a difference of 35 days. But we will celebrate together, it is good and important,” said he said.
The change also involves celebrating Lent and the period between Easter and Pentecost, said Bishop Shomali.
“Christmas is just Christmas and Epiphany, but when we unify the calendar (on Easter) we are unifying 90 days of the year. It is important,” he said.
He said he would be happy to see the unified celebration adopted universally by all Christians.
“The solution is to fix one Sunday in April as the date,” he said.
Bishop Shomali said although the Catholics did not ask the Greek Orthodox Church to celebrate Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar, he expects they will do so to unite Christians for that feast.