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Pontifical Mission at 50: Bethlehem

Palestinians gather in the “little town of Bethlehem” to observe 50 years of the Holy See’s love and concern for Palestine.

It was here at last. After months of preparation by the Jerusalem office staff – the first of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine 50th Anniversary overseas celebrations was about to take place. It was fitting that this first celebration would be in Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem, for the displacement and suffering of Palestinians in 1949 prompted Pope Pius XII to found this “temporary” organization of the Holy See.

Early Friday morning, on 26 November, Msgr. Robert L. Stern, President of the Pontifical Mission, sat with Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches and personal representative of Pope John Paul II for the celebrations, to review the day’s plan. Msgr. Denis Madden, Vice President of the Pontifical Mission, Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., Regional Director for Palestine and Israel, and Msgr. Maurizio Malvestiti, Secretary to Cardinal Silvestrini, also took part in this final strategy session.

Cardinal Silvestrini expressed his desire first to pray at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and to visit with the Jerusalem staff before leaving for Bethlehem, where the celebrations would take place.

The Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre was still fairly quiet when the group arrived – few other pilgrims were there. Visitors from around the world had already begun to form a line: they wanted to pray inside the tomb. Each spoke his own native language as he waited on line but the expression on each face spoke the same message, for it is indeed a once in a lifetime experience to pray at the place of Christ’s burial and resurrection. The Cardinal, dressed in a plain black cassock and overcoat, took his place at the back of the line and waited, a pilgrim himself. For him it was a quiet moment to savor before this day that would bring him into contact with religious and civic leaders and well wishers from among Pontifical Mission for Palestine’s many partners and beneficiaries.

We prayed and gazed up at the rotunda of the dome of the Holy Sepulchre, remembering the role that the Mission’s Jerusalem office played in the four-year restoration process, one that culminated in a dedication celebration in January 1997. The Greek Orthodox priest watching the Franciscan friar who was eyeing the Armenian Apostolic priest as each performed his duty in the Holy Sepulchre were all reminders that there is still work to be done to bring unity to the hearts of these Christians. But the sight of the dome and the mindfulness of the cooperation demanded among the Christian communities and the motioning of the Greek Orthodox priest to the Cardinal to please come to the head of the line were signs of hope.

We made our way through the lanes of the Old City, from the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre to the offices of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine just inside New Gate. The office staff was very proud, but not only for the Cardinal’s visit – they knew this was going to be a good day after all their preparations under the diligent guidance of Father Guido, who wanted to make sure that things went just right. This early morning meeting also allowed the Cardinal an opportunity to speak with the staff. Once the celebrations began there would not be time to ask any personal questions of the staff or to learn something of their families and find out more about these people who are “so fiercely devoted to the work of the Holy Father” in the Holy Land.

The ride to Bethlehem from Jerusalem served as another reminder that there is still work to be done in this region. We passed through the Israeli checkpoint next to Tantur, home of the Holy See’s ecumenical research and renewal center just outside Bethlehem. Watching Israeli soldiers check the documents of Palestinians on their way to Jerusalem to seek work was a grim reminder that Palestinians and Israelis still had a way to go in their relationship as well.

When we arrived in Bethlehem there was a scene not unlike that in Bethlehem on Christmas. Hundreds of people walked through the narrow streets as young Palestinian policemen tried to keep the traffic moving. Television camera and sound trucks were scattered about and well wishers greeted us as we made our way to the Church of St. Catherine. It was truly a festive spirit on this golden jubilee.

Flanked on one side by Msgr. Stern and Archbishop Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, and on the other by Msgr. Madden and Father Giovanni Battistelli, O.F.M., Custos of the Holy Land, Cardinal Silvestrini presided as principal celebrant for the Mass of Thanksgiving. Many bishops and priests joined in the concelebration in the newly renovated Church of St. Catherine, where Christmas Midnight Mass is celebrated each year. In his homily the Latin Patriarch thanked the Pontifical Mission not only for the material aid offered through the years, “but also for her stands on everything that concerns peace and justice.” At the same time the Patriarch encouraged the local Christian community to “look for ways” that it too might be better able to care for the needy in the local community.

Cardinal Silvestrini read a special message of the Holy Father in which the Pope reminded all that, “Founded in the troubled times which followed the end of the Second World War, the Mission sought at first to assist refugees and displaced persons. Since then the Holy Land has been troubled in other ways, so that the need for the Mission’s work has not grown less but has changed in character.”

The Pontifical Mission for Palestine’s work for peace in the region was underlined in this message brought by Cardinal Silvestrini.

“I pray fervently that the Mission’s witness of solidarity will continue to ensure the integral development of the peoples of the region, so that peace may finally reign in the land which the Lord himself so loved.” At the conclusion of his message the Pope imparted his “Apostolic Blessing to the President of the Pontifical Mission, Monsignor Robert Stern, and to the staff, benefactors and associates.”

After receiving the Pope’s blessing the congregation made its way to a reception at Bethlehem University. The Pontifical Mission helped establish Bethlehem University, the only Catholic University in the Holy Land, and has continued to support the University throughout the years.

Hundreds of guests attended the reception. They included representatives of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees (UPMRC) with whom we work in Gaza and the West Bank; the Teresians, who staff the Pontifical Mission libraries; the Sisters of St. Dorothy, who care for children at the Paul VI Ephpheta Institute, which is subsidized by the Pontifical Mission; and the De la Salle Brothers of Bethlehem University.

Not only did our partners in relief and development come to celebrate this day but many beneficiaries came as well. Enjoying the reception were the parents of children from Ephpheta; students from Bethlehem University assisted through their years of study; priests and parishioners from around Palestine who received assistance for their pastoral needs; members of the Pontifical Mission libraries; and families from the Old City and the West Bank whose homes had been renovated and made livable thanks to the Mission. The expressions of thanks in their eyes and on their faces said more than words could.

A magnificent banquet for over 200 followed the reception. The university gymnasium was so transformed for the event that it rivaled any banquet facility of a downtown Jerusalem hotel. Father Guido brought great joy to the mostly Palestinian audience as he made his introductions in Arabic. Cardinal Silvestrini noted that the Mission ”has consistently provided for the poorest of the poor in an area routinely ravaged by war, disease and prejudice.”

Msgr. Stern, in his opening address, recalled the genesis of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. “In the aftermath of that first Arab-Israeli war, Pope Pius XII was concerned not only about the holy places but especially about the people of the Holy Land. It was the anguishing plight of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees that touched his heart and prompted him to rally the Catholic world to their assistance.”

Reviewing the history of the Mission’s work in Palestine and in the service of Palestinian refugees in neighboring countries, he offered not only words of appreciation but also of inspiration to Palestinian people still seeking a time and place of peace in their lives.

Dr. Emile Jarjoui, personal representative of President Yasser Arafat, thanked Msgr. Stern for his leadership through the previous 12 years of the 50-year history of the Pontifical Mission. “For the Palestinians you have become the symbol of the Good Samaritan,” he said. As a token of appreciation Dr. Jarjoui offered Msgr. Stern a gift on behalf of the President.

It was not all speeches at this celebration; there was singing and dancing as well. As at the New York celebrations, Al-Baraem, a Palestinian folk group led by Maher Turjman, Projects Manager of the Jerusalem office, provided an entertaining musical interlude. A university dance troupe performed the dabka, a traditional Middle Eastern dance. The Jerusalem staff presented a video of the history and current efforts of the Mission.

Perhaps the words uttered by Cardinal Silvestrini in Bethlehem say it best when one looks at the present and the future of the Pontifical Mission in Palestine:

“Despite the shining example of the Pontifical Mission’s dedicated service, it must be acknowledged that many challenges remain. The pains that led His Holiness Pope Pius XII to establish the Mission in 1949 remain vivid today. Still refugees linger in camps…. Many other Palestinians crave the chance to work and provide their families a future. We can only hope that with activities like yours and constant prayer, this new millennium will usher in a just and lasting peace to this troubled part of the world.”

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