The day that kicks off the 2016 Advent season began with a thought for peace. On November 26, before processing toward the solemn entrance in Bethlehem, the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton met with parishioners from St. Savior’s parish and Moukhtar Yacoub Amer, the leader of the Latin community in Jerusalem. The parish priest of Saint Savior’s, Fr. Nerwan, remembered those who are suffering because of the war and then Fr. Patton said: “We need to watch and pray for peace in the Middle East.” To this effect, he also spoke about the Children praying for peace initiative, for which the friars around the world will encourage children to pray for the end of conflicts on the first Sunday of every month.
“The Church of Jerusalem is referred to as the world’s Mother Church,” said the Custos. “Being part of this Church is having your heart and mind open to the whole world, and we at the Custody of the Holy Land, feel honored to serve this Church.” Also on the occasion of the feast of St. Catherine, Fr. Patton recalled the witness of the martyr who loved Jesus above all other loves. After a moment of communion with the parishioners, the Custos and the Vicar of the Custody left for the traditional procession and the entry into Bethlehem. A procession of cars, escorted by security, the procession departed from Saint Savior’s, with the Custos as its leader. Walking along the streets of Jerusalem and passing traffic, which was blocked off in some areas so as to allow the procession through, the crowd made a stop at Mar Elias. The mayor and the parish priest of Beit Jala, along with a group of other parishioners, welcomed the Custos. The procession later reached Bethlehem, in front of the Basilica of the Nativity, after passing—but not stopping at—Rachel’s Tomb.
In Bethlehem, enthusiasm and participation marked this Saturday celebration. Children waited in line with their red uniforms, and the friars before them, were also in line, ready to welcome the Custos for his solemn entry. Scouts played the drums and a large crowd was abuzz. Then the Custos arrived, to the applause and the joyful songs by the children present. Fr. Artemio Vitores, the new guardian of the Bethlehem fraternity, welcomed the Custos and the procession. Fr. Francesco Patton first greeted civil and political authorities from Bethlehem, like Mayor Vera Baboun, and afterwards, he entered the Church. According to the rules of the Status Quo, the Armenian Superior and the Greek-Orthodox Bishop of Bethlehem waited for the Custos inside the Basilica.
After entering St. Catherine’s Church, the Custos spoke about the example given by the saint and about Advent, “may today’s blessing give us the strength to love the Lord, like St. Catherine, and to wait for him, vigilant in prayer.” To officially begin the liturgical year, the congregation processed to the Grotto of the Nativity and Fr. Patton lit a red candle from the grotto’s flame. From there, the light was shared, and the priests’ candles and those of all of the faithful were also lit.
The friars had lunch in an atmosphere of fraternal joy in between prayer times. Then, First Vespers were said, and a little later so was the Office of Readings, with a new procession to the Grotto of the Nativity. With songs in Latin and prayers, the Christmas [season] was announced.