Tiny town at heart of Christianity

Capernaum: Today, Pope John Paul II will visit the lakeside village where Jesus lived, taught and chose his `fishers of men.'

March 24, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAPERNAUM, ISRAEL — "Leaving Nazareth, he went and settled in Capernaum, a lakeside town on the borders of Zebulun and Nephthalim." (Matthew 4: 13)

CAPERNAUM, Israel -- Of all the sites that draw Christians to the Holy Land, this sun-drenched little town of stone ruins along the Sea of Galilee holds a special meaning for a pastor like Pope John Paul II.

Capernaum was the heart of Jesus' ministry. Pope John Paul will visit here today in what promises to be a memorable day in Galilee that opens with a Mass for 100,000, including thousands of young pilgrims, on a high hill overlooking the Mount of the Beatitudes.

It was here, or close by, that Jesus recruited two fishermen, Peter and Andrew, as his first disciples, promising to make them "fishers of men," according to Matthew's gospel.

Living here, probably at Peter's house, he walked among the lakeside villages preaching a human, down-to-earth interpretation of ancient Jewish law while "healing every disease and every infirmity among the people."

At one point, he expressed frustration over the town's lack of response to his ministry, saying the day of judgment would deal Capernaum a worse fate than Sodom.

Scant signs of the town Jesus knew are apparent now. But basalt walls of buildings from the fourth and fifth centuries give visitors a vivid idea of a town from that period in which early Christians and Jews lived in a sometimes difficult coexistence.

Beneath the visible ruins, archaeologists have uncovered what they believe is important evidence of Capernaum in Christ's time.

The site contains a monastery with a tiny community of Franciscan friars who take evident pride in what their leader, Pedro Bon, calls a "very important" religious site.

"For every Christian, Jesus lived here during his ministry in Galilee. He appointed [disciples] Peter, John, James, Andrew and Matthew, and went every Saturday to synagogue," he said.

In Jesus' time, the town was ruled by Antipas, one of King Herod's three sons. Close to the Jordan River and the border with territory ruled by Herod's son Philip, it was a garrison and customs station.

At one end of the village is the site of the house belonging to Peter, where Jesus is believed to have lived.

Archaeologists have found that one room of the house became a shrine as early as the middle of the first century, distinguished by plaster walls and ancient graffiti mentioning Jesus as Lord and Christ.

In the fourth century, the house and its surroundings apparently were turned into a church, and in the century after that, an octagonal church was erected, the stone ruins of which can still be viewed today. A modern church has been built on pillars above the ruins, which the pope will visit.

Up a slope west of Peter's house are the stately carved walls and graceful Corinthian columns of a synagogue dating perhaps from the fourth century, during the Byzantine period.

"The elevated position, the quality of the external decoration, and the brilliance of the white limestone against the surrounding black basalt houses all give this edifice exceptional status," writes Jerome Murphy-O'Connor in his archaeological guide to the Holy Land.

This synagogue's walls rest on walls of a first century synagogue, suggesting this is the site referred to in Mark's gospel: "And they went into Capernaum; and immediately on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes."

Before coming here, the pope will visit two other notable sites along the Galilee in Tabgha. One is the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves, commemorating the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Built in 1982, it is a reproduction of a fifth-century Byzantine church and contains impressive mosaics of delicate shore birds, flowers and plant life.

Nearby is the small Franciscan Church of the Primacy of Peter, the apostle whom Christ tapped to lead his followers and who is regarded by Catholics as the first pope. The 1933 church is built on the site of a fifth-century Byzantine church and contains beneath its altar the rock thought to be where Jesus offered breakfast to his disciples. It is so close to the shore one can smell the lake.

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