“The word of God continues to be sown and we are not giving up.” This is how Fr. Marwan Di’des, parish priest of the Latin church of Nazareth, speaks about this difficult time when the churches of the Holy Land have had to stay closed to the faithful. The efforts of the parish priests to look after the flock entrusted to them, have led them to find new ways to be at the side of their parishioners, despite physical distances. In Nazareth, Fr. Marwan continues to follow the many prayer groups of the parish through live meetings using telecommunications and computers.
Parish life thus goes on even at a distance and does not stop the activity of offering material support to people with economic difficulties. “Many donors have come to the parish to offer money for the needy and I have been impressed by their generosity,” says Fr. Marwan. “We have distributed over 100 parcels of food and small sums of support to families with special needs. It is not thanks to me, but to the many people of goodwill who want to be alongside those who are in difficulty.” During Holy Week as well, the parish of Nazareth did everything it could to let the over eight thousand local Christians feel its closeness. “On those days, we felt the emptiness of the faithful, but we encouraged them to follow the celebrations of the Bishop of Jerusalem in streaming, to increase in them the feeling of unity with our pastor,” the parish priest of Nazareth continued. Many prayed with their children and built a small altar in their homes. It was a strong moment of communion and unity: from the small churches that are the homes to the mother church that is Jerusalem.”
According to the measures of the Israeli government, today it is possible to celebrate a Mass in the open for a maximum of nineteen participants and the parish of Nazareth has also adapted to this. “A special telephone number is active to reserve places and be able to attend Mass in a space in our courtyard,” continued Fr. Marwan. “From Monday to Sunday, I and the other two priests of the parish celebrate 24 masses in the morning, afternoon and evening. We also collect the intentions from people locally and internationally. As the parish priest, I cannot wait for this situation to end and I realize that before we did not know how much grace there was in our lives to have the chance to meet, see each other and embrace one another. Now we feel how precious it was.”
The celebration of Mass in the open air with reservations has also been adopted by St Anthony’s church in Jaffa, which recently obtained the possibility of having about one hundred faithful at the same time, distributing them in the courtyard in small groups, respecting the measures.
In the church of the First Miracle in Cana in Galilee, the parish activities continue remotely. The church is a point of reference for the over three thousand local Christians, 700 of whom are Catholics and the others Greek Orthodox and Melkites. “Our parish church is also a shrine, which has now been closed since 12th March, because an American pilgrim infected with Covid 19 came here,” says the parish priest Fr. Haitham Franso Yalda Hano. “People are waiting to return to life, but we must be patient. As parish priest and as a priest I am trying to do everything possible to convey the message that I am with the parishioners and that the Church is not abandoning them.”
Every day since 19th March, Fr. Haitam has streamed an hour of adoration of the Eucharist with the prayer of the rosary live from the Facebook page of the parish. He is with another friar from the Custody as well as some Franciscan religious sisters. For reasons of space it is not yet possible to celebrate Mass with the faithful, but the liturgies are streamed online as much as possible, just as during Holy Week. “I celebrated the Holy Hour in the grotto of Cana and I set up loudspeakers so that it could be heard in the city,” continued the parish priest. However, the most important time was Easter Saturday, when during Mass I put candles on the pews of the church, as a symbol of Easter. In the homily, I told the parishioners: you are not physically here, but each one of you is here and this light of Easter arrives alive in your homes.”
The church of Cana wanted to support the people in difficulty, and decided to distribute fifty parcels to the neediest families, not only of the parish. “I distributed the boxes myself on Easter Day,” explained Fr. Haitam. “The people were greatly moved by this gesture, because they did not expect to see me knocking on their door.”
In Ramla too, the church gave support and solidarity to those in greatest need. “Youngsters, who at the moment are only connected by the web, organized a collection to help the elderly and families.” Fr. Abdel Masih Fahim, parish priest of the church of St Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus tells us. The parish council also collected gifts and distributed aid in food to more than two hundred families in the city. “Our benefactors are generous and some of them also donated new laptops to students who do not have the means to continue their studies online,” explained the parish priest. “We are a small parish, with about four thousand Christians of different Christian confessions, of whom 100 are Catholics. And yet, the faithful are very active, even in these difficult circumstances.” In these times of restrictions, all the liturgies are streamed online, like the Mass that was celebrated this morning. For the church of Ramla, the possibility of making a reservation to attend the celebrations in the open air and with few participants, according to the authority’s provisions, has recently been made active.
“We are in May, the Marian month, which people love,” Fr. Abdel Masih explained. “This is why we also blessed a statue of the Virgin Mary that will visit the homes of the faithful and return to the parish on 31st May. I have been very impressed that in this period the parishioners are ready to obey and they help enormously.”
In the Palestinian territories as well, in Jericho, devotion to the Virgin Mary is very strong. The parish priest, Fr. Mario Hadchiti therefore decided to go and visit the families, taking with him the icon of the Virgin Mary. “We want to bring the Marian month to life, visiting families and reciting the rosary with them,” he explains. Considering the impossibility of coming to church, we have decided that we will go to the people.” The parish priest, together with another friar, is the point of reference of some 500 local Christians, who for more than two months now have been shup up in their homes due to the health emergency.
“Even though we are a small flock, here at the Good Shepherd, we are a living parish,” continues Fr. Mario. “I always visit the sick, I take communion to people at home and I have distributed food parcels to many families, because many have not been able to work in this period. Every Sunday I send them a spiritual message. For the deaths that there have been as well, I have been close to people as far as possible and I have been able to pray with the families of the deceased.” In Palestine for the time being, the authorities are also prohibiting celebrations, even in the open air. “We continue to long for the time when the church is reopened,” the parish priest of Jericho continues. “In the meantime, we offer every Mass that we celebrate for the intentions of the parishioners.”