On Sunday 10th January 2021, after 54 years and 3 days, the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land once again celebrated Mass in the church of St John the Baptist at Qasr Al-Yahud, on the banks of the River Jordan, the Christian site where the Baptism of Jesus is commemorated.
The liturgy started with the procession of the Franciscans who, from the Greek Orthodox monastery of St John, arrived at the Franciscans’ land not far from the banks of the river, where the Holy Mass was celebrated. Before the celebration of the Eucharist, the parish priest of the parish of Jericho, Fr. Mario Hadchity, welcomed the friars and the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton. “We are delighted, on this special day, that the Custody of the Holy Land, with the help of God, after more than half a century, has been able to return to the Latin church of St John the Baptist,” said Fr. Mario. “May it be a place where all those who enter encounter the grace of God.” After kissing the cross and the incensation, the Custos made his solemn entrance, personally opening the gates of the site, which had been closed for more than fifty years.
The celebration, presided by the Custos of the Holy Land, was attended by the apostolic nuncio in Israel and Cyprus and apostolic delegate in Jerusalem and Palestine, Mons. Leopoldo Girelli, the Italian Consul-General Giuseppe Fedele, the Spanish Vice-Consul Paloma Serra and representatives of the Israeli military authorities. In the respect of the regulations due to Coronavirus, about fifty people were present, divided into groups of ten and distanced from one another.
“It was 7th January 1967 when two priests celebrated Holy Mass for the last time in this shrine and signed the register of Masses. Fr. Sergey was able to recover it on 9th August 2018, entering the convent just after the land had been demined,” said Fr. Patton in his homily.
“They were an English priest, Don Robert Carson, and a Nigerian priest, Don Silao Umah. Today, 54 years and 3 days later, we could say at the start of the 55th year since this register was closed, at the end of this celebration of the Eucharist, we will be reopening this same register, we will turn over the page and on a new page we will be able to write today’s date, 10th January 2021, and sign with our names, to bear witness that this place, which had been transformed into a battlefield, a minefield, is once again a field of peace, a field of prayer.”
The land, visited from as early as 1641 for the annual pilgrimage, was purchased by the Custody in 1632, but it was not until 1956 that a chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist was built there and entrusted to the friars of the Jericho convent. In 1967, when war broke out between Israel and Jordan, which touched the area very closely, transforming it into a minefield of fifty-five hectares, the Franciscans were forced to flee in all haste from the convent, abandoning the site. Thirty-three years later, in 2000, an access was opened on the occasion of the visit by Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land.
In 2011, the Israeli authorities made the site accessible to pilgrims but it was only in 2018 that the Halo Trust concentrated its interest on this area, starting the demining in March of the same year and clearing it completely of mines at the end of October 2018.
In October 2020 the keys were returned and it was possible to start the cleaning and restoration of the place to make it accessible to pilgrims in the future. “Urgent work was done to allow the place to be fit for today’s celebration of the Baptism,” commented Leonardo Di Marco, Director of the Custodial Technical Office. “We are aiming to reopen to pilgrims, who will be able to find places where to linger and meditate in corner of prayer which will be created around the central church nestling in a garden of palm trees. The pilgrims’ experience will continue with the visit to the River Jordan by the road behind the church of St John which leads towards the altar on the Jordan’s banks, which is also the property of the Custody.”
At the end of the celebration of the Eucharist, before the signature of the book of celebrations, the Custos of the Holy Land thanked the authorities present and the team of the Technical Office who were involved in the restoring the site. “In particular I want to thank President Rivlin who was strongly in favour of these holy places being returned to the Churches,” said the Custos Fr. Patton. “At many meetings, he always spoke of his dream that the two banks of the Jordan would be at peace and that there could be collaboration between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Kingdom of Jordan thanks to this holy place. This is why the President, over the years, has made many efforts for this place to be once again a place of prayer and where pilgrims can be welcomed. As the Custody of the Holy Land, we are very pleased that the first place that is once again a place of prayer and celebration of the area is this shrine of ours, St John the Baptist.”
After the signature, all those present continued the celebration with a short procession to the second Franciscan altar on the bank of the River Jordan. There, a passage from the Book of Kings was read and, afterwards, the assembly broke up on the river bank where the Custos, barefooted, like thousands of pilgrims before him, dipped his feet into the waters of the river.