By Bishop Edward J. Burns
Summers can go by fast, and this summer is a perfect example. As my schedule includes travel around Southeast and beyond, as well as having a number of visitors come into town — tempus fugit — time flies. Some good friends stayed with me during the week of July 4 and I thoroughly enjoyed some of the things that bring people to our area. We went hiking, fishing, whale watching, flew to Skagway and took the ferry back, and even had a beverage at the Red Dog Saloon (and of course we raised a glass to the Pittsburgh Steelers Terrible Towel hanging on the ceiling there). As I write this column, I am traveling to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day, an international gathering of Catholic young people from around the world for worship, catechesis, and fellowship. Over 50 Alaskan youth will be part of the 10,000 youth from the US who in turn will be part of the projected 1.5 million expected to gather there with the successor of St. Peter — Pope Francis.
All of this has me reflecting on travel, hospitality and the way we interact. Not all travel is the same, of course. Many of us must travel as a part of our work or schooling. Other travel may be the result of some urgent need, such as medical treatment or because of the death or serious illness of a friend or family member. Some people travel as pilgrims on a spiritual or religious quest. Others are fortunate enough to be able to travel for pleasure. We know that summers in Juneau are filled with tour buses going up and down Egan Highway and our streets are filled with vacationers, either here for the day off of the cruise ships or in Juneau for a longer stay.
But what all travelers have in common, regardless of the purpose of their travel is that they are men and women who are on a journey. Being on a journey means being away from the familiar sights, sounds, people, customs and routines of home. This can be exhilarating and renewing. Visitors to Southeast experience with wonder and awe what we too often take for granted, as they see with their own eyes the glacier, or eagles or whales for the first time.
Travel is more than new vistas and experiences, it includes interacting with people of other cultures, languages, points of view and experiences. In the course of the journey travelers have the opportunity to see life from a new perspective.
But travel, which takes us away from our familiar locales and routines can also be disorienting and difficult for some. Food, water and shelter, which at home we take for granted, on a journey can become a concern. Where do we stay? Where and what will we eat? Will the people we meet and depend on be friendly and helpful or rude and indifferent to us? For this reason, travelers have always relied on the hospitality (commercial and otherwise) of others.
In many cultures worldwide, but especially in the Middle East, hospitality to travelers and strangers has been and remains a sacred obligation. We see this reflected in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. The book of Genesis tells of how three travelers approached the tent of Abraham and his wife Sarah. They welcomed the strangers, pressed them to remain with them and while Abraham washed their feet as a sign of welcome and Sarah prepared a festive meal to share with them. In the gospels, Jesus and his disciples constantly on the move, traveling on foot through the Holy Land. In some places he and his disciples are received with great warmth and hospitality. In other places they are viewed with suspicion and hostility and are not welcome to remain even overnight. Paul and his companions relied on the hospitality of the communities that he visited throughout his missionary journeys throughout the Mediterranean. Hospitality is regarded as such an indispensable virtue that in the gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus teaches his disciples that when they welcome the stranger they are welcoming him. That is, in the Christian tradition, we should everyone as we would Christ.
But the hospitality we extend to travelers and strangers is not only a sacred human obligation and a charitable act, but is an opportunity for growth. When we are hospitable, we are confirming, in ourselves and for those who we welcome, our common solidarity with those whom we journey, even for a brief time, through life.
From my perspective, I am grateful for the hospitality with which our community welcomes all who travel to our city, especially during the summer. Sometimes the sheer number of visitors on a particular day can be daunting. But I am convinced that their presence in our community, even for a short time, coming as they do from all over the nation and the world, is mutually beneficial and enriches us all.
As I travel to Rio de Janeiro, I look forward to the opportunity to encounter another culture and to witness a historic moment — the visit of the first Pope from South America on his first return to his homeland since his election. It is sure to be a momentous and grace-filled time for both visitors like myself and for our hosts.
While the Summer continues to fly by, may all who travel be met with hospitality and ultimately find fulfillment in their journey.