A video catechism, a blessing to the sound of the bell, an aid parcel of food: these are only some of the initiatives by the parish priests of the Holy Land to continue taking care of their faithful, in this difficult time of restrictions. As in Jerusalem, where this year the light of the Resurrection knocked on the doors of the Christians of Jerusalem home by home. “After the Easter Vigil that is held on the Saturday morning in the Holy Sepulchre, we asked some scouts to take the Holy Light into the homes in the Old City,” Fr. Amjad Sabbara, parish priest of the Latin parish of St Saviour explained. It was an unexpected joy for many parishioners, who heard the scouts knock on their door and they lit a candle with the Holy Fire.
The friars who work in the parish of Jerusalem formed a small committee of religious and each of them has his commitment, such as the video catechism for the youngsters who are to be confirmed or appointments over the Internet with Franciscan youth every two weeks. “On Easter Day, with the help of Fr. Sandro, the deputy parish priest, I called the parishioners so that they can hear that their pastor, even if they cannot see him, is at their side.” There are more than three thousand Latin faithful of St Saviour, plus those of the Church of Beit Hanina, which makes them more than five thousand.
“With the help of eight youngsters from the parish, of our emergency committee and the head of our family centre, we are helping many families in difficulty, also thanks to the contribution of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land,” said Fr. Amjad. It is not easy for many to stay at home, in spaces which are often inadequate and in situations of economic uncertainty.
The Franciscan community of the Latin parish of St Catherine at the Nativity has also taken charge of those who are in difficulty. In Palestinian territory, the effects of the total lockdown, which has now been in force for more than forty days, are beginning to be seen. “Times will be difficult even when the pandemic is over, because here people depend on tourism and many work from one day to the next,” Fr. Rami Asakrieh, parish priest of St Catherine explained. “Everything has stopped for now and probably will not start again for months. The main problem of Bethlehem will be work.” In collaboration with all the authorities, Fr. Rami has selected the neediest families and elderly to distribute aid parcels. The scouts and the youth movement help materially in carrying on the projects of support, with the approval of the parish council.
“We have encouraged people to follow the instructions of the Patriarchate and many celebrated the Easter triduum from home with their families,” Fr. Rami said. “It was wonderful to receive their photos.” Thanks to the Bethlehem Parish - FSSO and St. Catherine Church - Bethlehem pages, the parish priest and his collaborators are continuing to remain at the side of the over five thousand parishioners of Bethlehem, organizing material aid and spiritual appointments over the Internet.
Fr. Toufic Bou Merhi, parish priest of the Latin church of Acre, talked about the same commitment on the social media to keep in contact with his faithful who number about one hundred and twenty. “At the last mass that I was able to celebrate, I started the Facebook page of the parish where the celebrations can be found live,” Fr. Toufic explained. “I am alone in serving this parish and so I am the photographer, the cantor and the celebrant. During Lent I did the Via Crucis every Friday and I celebrated the Easter Triduum, even though I was without parishioners.” The parish priest’s thought in this period is above all for the more than twenty children he was following to prepare them for communion and confirmation. “The Custos himself suggested that I do weekly catechism classes every Monday evening. They can also be useful for the young people I know and who want to join in to listen to what I am saying,” the parish priest of Acre said.
In this small parish community of Galilee, where the Sunday Mas is usually attended by only ten or twelve people, this period has rekindled the desire to start praying. “We were told to follow the celebrations of the Latin Patriarchate in live streaming, but then on Easter Sunday I called people one by one. I only wanted to wish them a Happy Easter and they were not expecting it,” said Fr. Toufic. “I celebrated Mass on Easter Monday and the parishioners were very pleased to see their parish priest again, even though it was only over the Internet.”
“In the first few weeks, we did the adoration in streaming,” said Fr. Agustin Pelayo Fregoso, parish priest of the church of St Anthony in Jaffa. “Then for Holy Week, we did not celebrate together, but we looked for other times to meet our parishioners.” The reality of the faithful in Jaffa is very varied, with over one thousand five hundred Arabic-speaking Christians and the numerous communities of Filipino, African and Indian migrants. A very important time for them was Easter Sunday. We informed them on the social networks that at twelve at the sound of the bells, we would have given a special blessing,” explained Fr. Agustin. “We had told them to kneel when the bells rang and it was a very moving moment for the whole parish community. Some were very moved, because they felt a strong desire for the Eucharist.”
The Franciscan of the Custody related how close the faithful were to the community of the three friars who serve the parish: “This closeness was, for me, the best thing. Many call us to say that they are missing us and so prayer groups have been formed on WhatsApp and on Zoom.” As in Jaffa, in Jerusalem too, when a parishioner was diagnosed with Covid-19, the parish priest invited to community of the faithful to pray.
“On Sunday we will stream Mass and one or two people will come for the services in church,” the parish priest of Jaffa said. “ We are also getting organized to be able to celebrate Mass in the square in the open, when the authorities allow it. People need it, Many even regret the issues that they had before. What I keep telling them is: when we were happy we did not realize it.”