Sitting on the pews of the chapel, the children of the Boys' Home of Bethlehem were smiling, despite their hardship-filled backgrounds. They smiled and waited with trepidation, because for them every year, Christmas comes early. The Custos of the Holy Land celebrates mass and then there is time for gifts. On December 21, seated in the first aisles of chapel of the Terra Santa School in Bethlehem, the boys wore their colorful sweaters, small leather jackets, and looked excited, their hair spiked into the air in all of the latest fashionable hair styles; they then stood up when the priests entered. Among those present were the Custos Fr. Francesco Patton, Br. Marwan Di'des, the director of the Boys' Home, and Br. Peter Vasko, the President of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, which finances the project. The twenty-seven young guests, who have come out of difficult family situations, attended mass with enthusiasm, as they read the readings and sang.
“Christmas reminds us that Jesus has two beautiful names, said the Custos of the Holy Land during his homily. One, is in fact 'Jesus,' which means 'The Lord Saves.' Do you know Jesus' second name?” A voice responded appropriately “The Emmanuel.” Fr. Francesco continued: “'The Immanuel' means 'The Lord is with us.' I remember when I was a child, I was afraid of the dark in my room, but I knew that there were my mother, my father or my brother, and my fear would go away. In the same way, when I think that Jesus is Emmanuel, and [since] God is near me, I am not afraid.” Thanks to the Arabic translation by Fr. Marwan, the children were able to enter into dialogue with the Custos, who asked them several questions.
Going downstairs, in one of the rooms of the school, refreshments were ready for the celebration. Gift-wrapped packages and bicycles were waiting under the tree. And then he arrived: Santa Claus came in person! Br. Marwan called the children by name, and Santa played a bell as they approached to receive their gift one by one. A large group of adults, who participated in both the mass and the refreshments, applauded. “We call them the friends of the Boys' Home, and they are all local benefactors from Bethlehem or Jerusalem,” explained Br. Marwan. “They donate $100 or 400 shekels annually to buy chocolates and gifts for the boys,” the director of the house explained: “We started with eight boys, and today there are twenty-seven and last year they were thirty-two. This is the most important day for me. I begin to prepare for Christmas on the first day of Advent, because I choose gifts for the kids and I enjoy doing it.”
“Christmas is seeing how these children sing, and how happy they are,” said Sister Rapha, a collaborator at the Boys' Home. “None of them can forget the Home, so much so that many of them, grow up and go away, but then come back and help the others.” Like one twenty-one-year-old, who was there and who knew and greeted everyone: “I lived here for nine years: life is very orderly. You have time to eat, sleep, wash yourself and study. There are classes after school, and you learn to do homework and to study with the teachers.” Now he works as a freelance filmmaker between Bethlehem, where he lives, and Ramallah. “I come to see Fr. Marwan and I always miss the Home, which is why I visit often,” continued the young man. “I have known many guys who are here since they were six or seven years. I feel like I'm part of their family.” An Arabic teacher from the Terra Santa School commented, “This Christmas Day is amazing for the boys, because they have problems with their families or they have no family at all. And here they do all of this for them.”
The Franciscan Boy Home in Bethlehem
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