Salesiani di Don Bosco, Monastero Beitgemal |Bet Gemal| Beit Gemal | Bet Jimal | Bayt Jamal - Gerusalemme, ISRAELE
Salesian Monastery - Beitgemal |Bet Gemal| Beit Gemal | Bet Jimal | Bayt Jamal - Jerusalem, ISRAEL
Salesians of Don Bosco Beitgemal |Bet Gemal| Beit Gemal | Bet Jimal | Bayt Jamal - Jerusalem | ISRAEL
Salesiens de Don Bosco Beitgemal |Bet Gemal| Beit Gemal | Bet Jimal | Bayt Jamal| Jerusalem | ISRAEL
Salesianos de Don Bosco Beitgemal |Bet Gemal| Beit Gemal | Bet Jimal | Bayt Jamal| Jerusalem | ISRAEL
Salesianer Don Boscos Beitgemal |Bet Gemal| Beit Gemal | Bet Jimal | Bayt Jamal | Jerusalem | ISRAEL
P.O.B. 12 - 99.101 BET SHEMESH - ISRAEL
This article is about St. Stephen, the first Christian Martyr. Some will say that I am preaching to the converted, so well known is St Stephen's "biography", recorded in chapters six, seven, and the beginning of chapter eight [his burial] of the Acts of the Apostles.
Well, the truth is that I am not focusing on the well-known facts of his life [well known, I presume, at least by the Christians], but rather on his tomb [or, to be more accurate, his first burial place].This first burial place has been positively identified, in the grounds of Bet Gemal, an institution belonging to the religious Congregation of the Salesians of Don Bosco and situated 30 kilometers west of Jerusalem.
I tell this story many times, almost every day of the year, to the thousands of people who visit our church dedicated to St. Stephen. I tell this story mostly in Hebrew, because most of the visitors are Israeli Jews and Bet Gemal is in Israel. I can truthfully say that Bet Gemal, with its fine views, its archaeological discoveries, the church with its beautiful paintings, has a special appeal for our Israeli visitors.
This article will be easily understood by those who have an adequate knowledge of the New Testament [especially the Acts of the Apostles] and of the history of the Holy Land.
There are two place names and two dates to keep in mind for the understanding of this story: Kfargamla, AD 415 and Bet Gemal, AD 1916. Let us begin with the first date, AD 415.
It was in this year that a Greek priest, called Lukianos, the "parish priest" of an area called Kfargamla in the Holy Land, sent a letter to the Churches in the East in which he joyfully announced the finding of the tomb of the Proto-martyr, Stephen, a tomb Stephen shared with Rabban Gamliel the First [the teacher of St. Paul], Abibos, one of Gamliel's two sons, and Nicodemus [cf. John, 3]. The letter was later translated into Latin by one of Lukianos' friends, Avitus of Portugal, to make it available to the Latin speaking Church in the West. The letter begins with these words:" Lukianos, in need of the mercy of God and a priest of the Church of God in the estate of Kfargamla, in the territory of Jerusalem, to the holy Church and all the saints who are in Christ Jesus, in the whole world. I greet you in the Lord".
"Go to the Bishop John"
In his letter Lukianos describes how on December 3rd 415, while he was sleeping near the baptistery of his church, a tall old man dressed in the vestments of a priest - a white gown on which there were golden jewels in the form of the cross - appeared to him and told him: "Go into the city which is called Helia [i.e. Jerusalem] and say to John, the Bishop of Jerusalem: 'How long must we remain shut up and you make no opening for us? It is imperative that now, in the time of your priesthood, we should be brought into the light. Make haste and open the tomb where our remains lie neglected . And it is not so much for my own sake that I am concerned, but for those others who are buried with me who are holy and worthy of great honor.'"
To the question: "Who are you?" the person answered: "I am Gamliel who instructed Paul the Apostle of Christ and taught Law in Jerusalem. And next to me in the eastern part of the tomb lies my mentor, Stephen, who for his faith in Christ was stoned by the Jews and the chief priests outside the northern gate of Jerusalem from where a road leads to the Kidron valley. There Stephen's body lay exposed day and night. As a result of the order of the wicked rulers of the city the burial of Stephen's body was prohibited so that it would be devoured by the animals. Yet, by the will of God, none of these touched the body, no wild animal, no bird, no dog."
"I, Gamliel, being in sympathy with the servant of Christ and eager to attain reward and to be associated with the faith of this holy man, during the night contacted as many religious men as I knew, men who believed in Christ and who lived in Jerusalem in the midst of the Jews, and I encouraged them, giving them equipment they would need for their task. I persuaded them to go secretly and carry Stephen's body on my cart back to my property in Kfargamla, [the estate of Gamliel], twenty miles from the city. There I arranged mourning and lamentation for him for forty days."
Gamliel went on to state that the one buried beside Stephen was his nephew Nicodemus [cf. John, chapter 3] who had been baptized by Peter and John, whom he later defended. Because of this he, too, had suffered persecution by the Jews.
Finally he spoke about his son, Abibos, who like himself had become a Christian, while his wife and his other son had not, and so had been buried in his wife's native village.The vision of Gamliel was repeated three times because Lukianos wanted to be sure that it came from above and was not an illusion.
After the third vision which contained a severe rebuke for his lack of faith, Lukianos decided to make a search according to the detailed instructions he had received from Gamliel. He eventually found the tomb. It was located not far from the church near which he lived. The remains of these four people - Stephen, Nicodemus, Gamliel and Abibos - were, by the request or, rather by the order of the Bishop of Helia [Jerusalem], taken back to Jerusalem and placed in the Hagia Sion, the Cenacle, perhaps better known as the Church of the Last Supper. Lukianos' great disappointment was partially assuaged by the gift of some small relics of St. Stephen that were to be kept in a sanctuary which the Bishop John built and which was called the "martyrium".
The information above is found in the letter of Lukianos. At this point I and the other members of our Community remind our visitors of some details of the history of the Holy Land. We remind them how the Persians of Cosroe in 614 AD invaded the Holy Land and destroyed all the churches here, from the largest to the smallest. They spared only one church, the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem [one of the three great churches built by St Helena, the mother of Constantine, the other two being the Holy Sepulchre and that built on the summit of Mount of Olives]. They did this because they saw on the façade of the Nativity Church the three wise men [kings] dressed in Persian costumes. It is logical to suppose that the church of Kfargamla was also destroyed at this time and its memory lost, as was the case with sanctuaries in many localities recorded in the Old and New Testament.
The institutions of Fr Antonio Belloni in the Holy Land
Let us move forward in history, to Bethlehem, around the year 1860. An Italian priest, Antonio Belloni, a member in the clergy of Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and a teacher of theology at the Seminary of Betjala [near Bethlehem] felt called to care for the orphans of the Holy Land who were so numerous at that time. For that purpose he founded a religious congregation whose headquarters were located in Bethlehem, where the Don Bosco Technical School stands today. He looked for another large plot of land, in Palestine, where he could build another orphanage to serve, at the same time, as an agricultural school. There the orphans would have the possibility of working the land to feed both themselves and also the orphans of his first orphanage in Bethlehem. He found the land for this new orphanage and agricultural school around the Arab village of Bet Gemal, which was situated on a hill at the foot of the Judean mountains, thirty kilometers west of Jerusalem, facing the Shephela, the area that had witnessed the feats of the biblical Samson.
Most of the population of the village had died as result of malaria; only a few families remained. Fr Belloni provided shelter elsewhere for these few families, and with the financial help of many European benefactors he bought the land of the village together with two important fresh water springs. The financial assistance of a noble English Catholic, the Marquis De Bute, was crucial in acquiring the land of Bet Gemal, an area of more than 500 hectares. In 1873 Fr Belloni began the construction of the big building we see today, and from 1878 Bet Gemal functioned as an orphanage and agricultural school.
In 1891 Fr. Antonio Belloni joined the Salesians of Don Bosco, and all his institutions in the Holy Land [Bethlehem, Bet Gemal, Cremisan and Nazareth] became Salesian institutions.
In 1916 in Bet Gemal, in a garden near the main building and adjacent to the playground for the orphans, some excavations were carried out to prepare for the construction of additional bath rooms. As soon as the digging began, a beautiful colorful mosaic was exposed. Fr. Maurizio Gisler, a Swiss Benedictine Monk of the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem, an expert in archaeology, came to supervise the archaeological excavations, which until then had been carried out by the Salesian brother, Angelo Bormida, who later died tragically in a Turkish detention camp at the end of WWI. In Fr. Gisler's opinion, the mosaics were part of the floor of a Byzantine church of the fifth century. Fr. Gisler and those Salesians, who had knowledge of the letter of the Greek priest Lukianos (415 ) subsequently identified Bet Gemal as Kfargamla since the distance between Jerusalem and Bet Gemal (30 km) was the same as that between Jerusalem and Kfargamla.
The ancient name Kfargamla, mentioned in Lukianos' letter, continued to exist, with some alterations, in the name "Bet Gemal". On ancient maps of the Holy Land it is not unusual to find the word KFAR [village] replaced by the word BET [house], especially when most of the population of the village were part of one large extended family. The other possible meanings in Arabic of the word "GEMAL", such as "beauty" or "camel", did not fit with the word "BEIT" [house]. So, it was argued, the only possible explanation for the name of BET GEMAL was "the settlement of the extended family of Gam(ie)l ".
Convinced that they had found the burial place of St. Stephen, in 1930 the Salesians built rebuilt a church on the spot where the mosaics were found, with the same dimensions and style, and called it the Church of St. Stephen.
Not everyone was convinced of the identification of Kfargamla with Bet Gemal. Those most opposed to this deduction were the Dominican Scholars of the Biblical and Archaeological School in Jerusalem [Fr. Lagrange, Fr. Abel, etc]. They believed that they had discoverd Kfargamla at a place 30 kilometres north of Jerusalem, called Jammala. The controversy was settled just a few years ago in favor of Bet Gemal. Let us see how this happened.
In October 1999, Fr. Andrej Struss, a Polish member of the Salesians of Don Bosco, and professor at the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome, who prematurely died in 2005, directed excavations at an archaeological site called Jiljel, some 800 meters north west of the church of St. Stephen in the grounds of Bet Gemal. As a result of these excavations, the foundations of a round structure or building were revealed.
From several clues it was evident that the structure had been used as a place to make wine [a wine press]. But the structure had been so well planned and built that it seemed unlikely that its original use had been as a wine press. It was evident had been used as a wine press only at a later stage in its existence. It must have been built for some other purpose. But for what purpose? Fr. Struss, the person who had done most research into Bet Gemal's past, from both the historical and the archaeological point of view, believed that the structure must have been built as a funerary monument, a martyrium, or a mausoleum in honor of a very important personage or a saint. In fact, Fr. Struss thought that the circular structure [circular, because Stephen in Greek means "crown"] he had found was the martyrium that the Bishop of Jerusalem had built in Kfargamla to keep the few relics of St. Stephen, whose body had been brought back to Jerusalem and placed in its main Church, that of the Cenacle or Hagia Sion. A wonderful and very intriguing hypothesis, but how could it be proved?
Let the expert of ancient epigraphy have the last word
Some time after the excavations carried out by Fr Struss, a lintel with a "tabula ansata" [a kind of tablet with swallow tails carved on the lintel] was found near the circular structure. The presence of a tabula ansata on the lintel indicated that something had been written, engraved or carved on it. Yet, even if something had been written on the lintel, the severity of the weather over the centuries, made the inscription impossible to read. Look at the tabula ansata with the naked eye, there is nothing to suggest that something has been written or engraved on it.
This might be true for a lay man, but not for an expert. Fr. Andrej Struss called on assistance of the expert on ancient epigraphy at the Dominican Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, Père Puech. Since I was a witness to the whole process, I have to confess that, at the start, I thought that Fr. Struss was rather naive in thinking that from this very old stone lintel something positive could be found that would help identify the nature of the circular structure he had discovered. Fr. Puech came and applied a kind of papier-mâché or wood-pulp to the tabula ansata.
Once the papier-mâché had dried, it provided something like a negative which he took away to study. The result of Fr Puech's long research appeared in the January 2006 edition of the La Revue Biblique, the biblical and archaeological review of the "Ecole Biblique" in Jerusalem. Fr Puech's findings filled, not only the Bet Gemal Community, but especially Fr. Andrej Struss, with joy. This just some months before Fr Struss died in Rome. On the tabula ansata was written this caption: DIAKONIKON STEPHANOU PROTOMARTYROS. The word "diakonikon" in the Byzantine period indicated the place in which the relics [the remains] of saints and martyrs were kept. We can state, therefore, without any doubt, that Bet Gemal is the ancient Kfargamla where St Stephen was first buried.
Saint Stephen's "burial"
How did St. Stephen's burial occur? At the beginning of chapter 8 of the Acts of the Apostles we read: "That day a bitter persecution started against the church in Jerusalem and everyone except the Apostles fled to the country districts of Judaea and Samaria. There were some devout people, however, who buried Stephen and made a great mourning for him." This is the sparse report found in the Acts of the Apostles. It was Gamliel who, according to Lukianos's letter, as we have reported above, gave the details of this special and unusual burial.
The message of Bet Gemal
In the church of Bet Gemal, above the apse, there is a painting portraying Jesus on the Cross with the Virgin Mary and St. John. Above the Cross, in Latin, stands the request of Jesus to His Father for those who crucified him: Pater, dimitte illis [Father, forgive them]. When one of our community, Fr. Domenico Dezzutto, an Italian Priest who has lived in the Holy Land since 1937 and still at the age of 87 years old, welcomes the visitors to the church, be they in large or small groups or families, and tells them the history of the place and the church, he ends by saying:
"All of us need to be forgiven by God and to forgive one another. It was the message which Jesus gave us on the Cross and it was the same lesson St. Stephen taught us through the prayer he made while he was being stoned to death: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."
In their enthusiasm at having discovered burial place of St Stephen in Bet Gemal, the Salesians of Don Bosco, plan to build, on the spot where the mosaics of the Byzantine church were found, a shrine named " the Shrine of the Forgiveness ". For lack of funds they had to limit themselves to a part of this project, that is, the actual church, very beautifully and well decorated, but far more modest than the ambitious first project.
It is a fact that the Middle East, and in particular the Holy Land, are always on the front page of the world news, be that on the on-line or the traditional newspapers. There is much need of forgiveness, of mutual understanding and acceptance, if peace is to flourish here one day. It has been said that peace is much more difficult and elusive here in the Holy Land because two belligerent peoples, the Israeli Jews and the Arab Palestinian Muslims, have a problem in forgiving and accepting each other. They do not have in their culture or religion the tradition of forgiveness.
And one essential
requisite for making peace, as the great apostle of world peace,
Pope John Paul II clearly stated, is forgiveness. "There is no peace
without justice - he said- and there is no justice without forgiveness." May the Lord,
by the intercession of St. Stephen, move the hearts of all peoples
and give us peace.
first appeared in the Italian religious Review " MARIA
AUSILIATRICE " published in Torino-Valdocco, Italy,
in December 2006).
FOTO GALLERIA 2008 | Photo Gallery 2008 | Photos by Sante SDB, Nazareth:
Beitgemal |Bet Gemal| Beit Gemal | Bet Jimal | Bayt Jamal - Jerusalem | ISRAE - Casa Salesiana e Chiesa di S. Stefano
Beitgemal |Bet Gemal| Beit Gemal | Bet Jimal | Bayt Jamal - Jerusalem | ISRAE - Salesian Monastery - St. Stephen's Church