MOUNT SION – The “upper room” where Christ celebrated the Last Supper and where the apostles received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit has endured a turbulent history and remains quite controversial. In this important place of Christianity, where worship is forbidden almost all year round, Pope Francis will celebrate a Mass on May 26. An event that causes uproar among religious Jews who fear a transfer of sovereignty.
A church, a mosque, a synagogue
The sanctuary may be visited but worship itself remains prohibited. In this place of great importance to the Christian faith, the Mass can be celebrated only once a year. In 1964, Paul VI only visited the Upper Room, and it is exceptional that John Paul II was able to celebrate Mass there in 2000. Next Monday, May 26, 2014, Pope Francis in his turn will celebrate a private Mass in the presence of the bishops of the Holy Land.
An important celebration as this is the first church of the apostles. The event does generate apprehension and anger on the part of religious Jews who see it as an attempt at “ownership” on the part of the Church, and that every other worship with the alleged “Tomb of David” would be a sacrilege. Two celebrations per year are allowed the Franciscans, the washing of feet on Holy Thursday and Vespers of Pentecost. No Mass!
It’s a complicated building with a synagogue on the ground floor adjacent to the remains of a Franciscan monastery of the XIV century. Upstairs, a “room” with Gothic capitals, the remains of a Christian church, and a Mihrab facing Mecca, irritates the ground floor yeshiva (Jewish religious school studies).
The history of the site is dramatic and shows the complexity of the place. The Upper Room was first identified as such by Epiphanius of Salamis in the second century. It was later restored by Bishop Maximus of Jerusalem and rebuilt by Bishop John II of Jerusalem in the fourth century. Destroyed by the Persians in the seventh century, it was rebuilt by the Crusaders three centuries later with a monastery dedicated to St. Mary Mother of the Church, because according to tradition she fell asleep on Mount Zion, because she did not die, before ascending to heaven in the Assumption.
In 1335, the Cenacle was purchased by the Franciscans who restored it with a Gothic vault. In 1523, the Franciscans were expelled by Muslims who converted the place into a mosque. And because in the Holy Land of three religions’ inextricably intermingled history, the “lower house” of the building later became a synagogue following a tradition of the twelfth century that there would be a cenotaph (a monument erected in honor of a dead person whose remains lie elsewhere) of King David. This provides the opportunity to honor him. Probably a Christian tradition to begin with, which could help to reconstruct the context of the episode of Pentecost. Indeed, when the Apostles received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, there were “Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven … and Parthians, Medes, Elamites, inhabitants of the Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, and Asia …” Maybe they were first in this area to honor David when the apostles addressed them “everyone hearing in (their) own language”.
Until 1948, the site was a mosque in the hands of a Muslim family, as evidenced by the Mihrab, two columns and a niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca, which is still there. After the 1948 war, the site passed to the Israelis. From 1948 to 1967, the “Tomb of David” is their only accessible site in the old city, the remainder being under Jordanian control. It is only then that the Jews could pray in Jerusalem. An episode of history that make this site a sanctuary for some and a bastion of Zionism. For others, Muslims, the place is still “Waqf” (Muslim property).
As Franciscans, waiting to recover the Cenacle, they built another shrine a hundred meters away, the ad Coenaculum, colloquially called “Little Cenacle.”
Transfer of sovereignty rumors
That Israel is prepared to return the Cenacle to Catholic Church through the Franciscan Custody is a topic that has been and continues to be controversial. The question of a possible transfer of sovereignty was officially denied, especially after several protests by religious Jews and vandalism referring directly to Mount Zion, as some Price Tag graffiti as “King David for the Jews, Jesus is garbage.” Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister of Israel and Zion Evrony, the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, on May 14, 2014, brought to the attention of the Vatican that Israel had no intention of ceding control of the Cenacle.
The rumor was revived last year after Shimon Peres visited the Vatican. The Italian newspaper La Stampa explained that the Cenacle “would become a place of Catholic worship.” And that a “permanent protocol” had been defined between the two parties, stating that Mass could be celebrated and that the Franciscans would take place, which nevertheless would remain under Israeli control.
The Orthodox Jews’ outcry in the media could be a sign that this agreement is or has indeed been discussed. With the approach of the Pope’s visit, Israel announced yesterday that activists considered dangerous will be under “house arrest” because Israel feared hostile demonstrations.
The Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Pizzaballa, in an interview with Vatican Radio on May 20, emphasized that there is no question of “returning” the Cenacle but possibly a “liturgical use” while stating that “the discussion is still ongoing.”
For Bishop Shomali, Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Jerusalem, the Church is clear: “we do not ask sovereignty. We just want to be able to freely come and pray there.” He recalled that the Tomb of David is also honored by Muslims and that the site is “destined to become a place of prayer and encounter between the three religions.”