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Custos of the Holy Land in Bethlehem for first Sunday of Advent

Towards Christmas with hope

 Towards Christmas with hope  ING-049
07 December 2023

A few hundred meters west of Checkpoint 300, along the separation wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, there is a heavy, tall steel gate that provides direct access to Manger Square and the Basilica of the Nativity. Since 1995, it has been customary for the Custos, or, Custodian, of the Holy Land to make a solemn entrance into Jesus’ native city on the eve of the first Sunday of Advent. However, on 16 April 2002, after the second Intifada, the Israeli government began to build a separation wall that eventually limited this access route to the city and to the basilica. The Franciscan Friars of the Custody pressed Israeli authorities to create an additional gateway along the wall near that access point. Today, that large gateway is opened three times a year: on the eve of the first Sunday of Advent for the entrance of the Custos of the Holy Land, on Christmas Eve for the arrival of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who celebrates midnight Mass, and on 5 January for the arrival of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, who celebrates the Orthodox Christmas.

This year the Custos’s traditional solemn entrance into Bethlehem took place on Saturday, 2 December. It would not have been noteworthy had it not been for the fact that Custos Fr Francesco Patton’s entrance — 57 days after Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel and the start of the war in Gaza — marked the first reunion between the Christian communities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Only nine kilometres separate the two cities, but for over 20 years, the wall’s construction has created a distance that, while being inconvenient for pilgrims, is an unbearable burden for the people of Bethlehem. Many residents commute to work in Israel. If granted permission, they must pass through the checkpoints along the wall, which is neither simple nor routine. Firstly, it is not easy to obtain permits. “Even crossing with a bicycle requires a special permit, so special that it never arrives”, says Mahamud, who works in catering in Jerusalem. And, at the slightest hint of tension or crisis, the checkpoint closes, and people are left waiting for hours or days before being able to return to work. During the time of covid, the wall remained closed for months and many people lost their jobs.

Since the morning of 7 October, transit permits have been suspended. Only teachers, medical and paramedical staff, and people delivering essential goods are allowed into Israel. Everyone else stays at home, and in Palestine, there are no social safety nets or any compensation for small artisans and traders. The few who are authorised to cross undergo checks even after crossing the wall. Victor, who teaches at a school in Jerusalem, recounts, “I was stopped at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem. In addition to the usual checking of documents and searches, they took my phone to see if there were any photos or videos in favour of Hamas”. Moreover, Israel’s armed forces entered the city several times in the last eight weeks, mostly to execute arrest warrants, leading to clashes and the killing of young Palestinians. The scene that welcomed Fr Patton upon his entrance into Bethlehem was that of an impoverished, depressed and fearful city. A small procession of cars carrying some 30 Franciscans and several journalists, led by Fr Ibrahim Faltas, Vicar of the Custody and parish priest of Bethlehem arrived at Saint Elias Monastery at 10:30 a.m, on Saturday, 2 December. Escorted by Israeli soldiers and Interior Ministry authorities, the Custos and his entourage passed through the heavy steel gateway, where they were met by Palestinian police. Fr Patton and the friars made the last part of the journey on foot. They were welcomed by Bethlehem’s Mayor, Hanna Hanania, local civil authorities and a small group of scouts. The solemn entrance concluded with a brief liturgical prayer in the Church of Saint Catherine, adjacent to the Basilica. “In past years, these days were the busiest days for pilgrims in Bethlehem. Instead now, you see before you a city without trees in the square, a depressed, wounded, and kneeling city”, said Fr Faltas. He added that this suffering “cannot be compared to the tragedy that is unfolding in Gaza, after the end of the ceasefire. I spoke with the vice-pastor of Gaza recently, who told me that, during the ceasefire, some parishioners left the Church of the Holy Family, where they had been sheltering for two months now, to check on their homes”. Not only did they not find their homes standing, he explained, “but they even got lost on the way back because, with all the houses razed to the ground, it was no longer possible to distinguish the streets”.

On Sunday morning, 3 December, Fr Patton celebrated Holy Mass with Bethlehem’s Catholic community. Concelebrating were Fr Faltas and Msgr Natale Albino, Secretary of the apostolic nunciature in Israel and the apostolic delegation in Jerusalem and Palestine. During the homily, Fr Patton focused on sobriety, hope, and vigilance. “We are called to sobriety in this time of preparation for Christmas, sobriety in food so as not to offend those suffering from hunger in Gaza, sobriety in lights and decorations as requested and suggested by the heads of the Christian Churches, but also sobriety in speeches, words and expenses, for those who can afford it, out of respect for the suffering of many”, Fr Patton said. He added, “Sobriety must not prevent us from cultivating the right attitude of hope. We must ask for hope as a gift from God. [...] God is close to us especially when we find ourselves living in difficult times and circumstances”. Indeed, “it’s not when everything is fine that we need hope, but rather when the situation seems to be without a future. Waiting for God and hoping”, he concluded, “means asking him to manifest himself and be present in our lives and our history. Today’s Gospel invites us to remain vigilant, awake. Being awake means being attentive because, in a difficult time like the one we are experiencing, it’s easy to fall into the trap of manipulation by those who propose other easy and false forms of salvation”.

By Roberto Cetera
from Bethlehem