In Bethlehem, despite the difficulties linked to the conflict that for almost two months has been going on in the Holy Land, the traditional solemn entrance of the Custos of the Holy Land, fr. Francesco Patton, took place, which starts the period of Advent.
The celebrations started in the morning of 12 December, when in the diwan of St Saviour’s Convent in Jerusalem, fr. Patton met the representatives of the Latin parish and the parish priest fr. Amjad Sabbara, exchanging the traditional greetings with the Moukhtar, the person chosen as the representative of the community. “The entrance into Bethlehem,” said fr. Patton, “is particularly important today: we will pass through a wall which separates the two places, like a sort of pilgrimage, but we want to emphasize that Jerusalem and Bethlehem must remain united. And to express our particular closeness to the Christians of Bethlehem, affected above all in their work due to the absence of pilgrims.”
The journey to Bethlehem
In the journey to Bethlehem, the Custos of the Holy Land stopped at the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Elias: here, for the first time, the Christian community of Beit Jala was not there to welcome him, in solidarity and protest with the Palestinian population. The procession then continued its journey towards the Basilica of the Nativity, crossing the checkpoint of Rachel’s Tomb, opened every year for this occasion.
Following what the Patriarchs and the Heads of the Churches of Jerusalem established (which in their press release of 10 November underlined that they “are close to all those who are facing this suffering, giving up all the unnecessary activities and signs of festivity”) this year a line of sobriety is being followed: on the long journey on foot along the traditional Star Street, the Custos of the Holy Land was not accompanied by music and bagpipes, but preceded only by the local scouts of Bethlehem.
However, a festive crowd of children from the Terra Sancta schools gave the Custos and the Vicar, fr. Ibrahim Faltas, a truly joyful moment of celebration. The local authorities – the mayor, the Governor, the head of the Police and the head of the military - welcomed the procession and accompanied the Custos to the entrance of the Basilica, where the representatives of the other Christian Churches (Greek Orthodox and Armenian) were waiting for him. He was welcomed on the threshold of St Catherine’s church by the guardian of the Franciscan convent of Bethlehem, fr. Enrique Segovia: after having put on the surplice and stole, fr. Francesco Patton then worshipped the relic of the Holy Crib of the Child Jesus, donated to the Custody of the Holy Land by Pope Francis in 2019.
Among the military and civil authorities, the Ambassador of Croatia Mrs. Vesela Mrđen Koraćwas was also present.
The celebration of the first vespers on Sunday marks the official start of the time of Advent. The procession in the Grotto of the Nativity, the heart of the Christian mystery, the place were God became man, followed on. Here, at the manger, the Custos lit the first candle of the Advent wreath.
The Solemn Mass of the First Sunday of Advent
On Sunday 3 December, the Custos of the Holy Land presided the solemn Mass of the first Sunday of Advent in St Catherine’s church, packed with local faithful.
“The time of Advent, and this year in particular, is characterized by three aspects,” said fr. Francesco Patton, “sobriety, hope and vigilance.” In his homily, (you can find the full text here) he then explained these three guiding elements of Advent in reference to the conflict underway: “everything beckons us to sobriety in this period: the sobriety of food but also the sobriety in Christmas lights and decorations, as requested and suggested by the heads of the Churches in solidarity with all those who are suffering due to the war in Palestine, in Gaza and in Israel, but also in many other parts of the world.”
Let us ask for the gift of hope
“The attitude of hope is, besides, the most important attitude and we also have to ask for it as a gift from God: it is not when everything is going well that we need hope, but when it seems that our situation is without a future, especially today when we are in the middle of a war with all the dangers and uncertainties war entails… We need hope because the situation we are in makes us fear for the future of our community and our families. With his Word, God helps us to keep the flame of hope burning, despite the difficult situation we are in.”.
At the end of the celebration, the Custos warmly greeted all the faithful and the civic and religious authorities present.