Celebrating Palm Sunday in Bethpage

(Custodia) Saturday, April 12th. The Custody of the Holy Land celebrated Christ’s entry into Jerusalem a little early. Faithful to biblical tradition, the friars met at the Betfage church on the Mount of Olives. As they arrived, they crossed paths with the Indian and Sri Lankan Catholic communities and their Franciscan and Capuchin chaplains. Fifteen hundred of these migrant workers took advantage of the Sabbath, the Israeli day off from work, to assemble in the courtyard of the little monastery prior to beginning their Palm Sunday procession.

The Betfage parishioners were also on hand to welcome the friars of the Custody. It was for them that the friars had built ten apartment buildings where some sixty Christian families now live. The Franciscan sanctuary and its monastery have found a new vitality thanks to the presence of these Palestinian Christians. Norma, one of the parishioners, explains: “Our community is small; we are united around this church. The Custody has always supported us, whether it was for housing or parish activities, but today we are especially grateful for the priest they sent us.”

The priest is Fra Agustin, a thirty-seven-year-old Mexican, who was appointed superior of the monastery in September 2013. A man of action, he is also the director of the Christian Information Center in Jerusalem and the Franciscan Media Center, which that produces daily news broadcasts for television networks around the world. Upon arrival, Fra Agustin says, “The church, its frescos, its sacristy, its altar… everything had lost its brilliance. So in a few months we set to work – the Custody Technical Office and its workers, but also the parishioners and friars. The materials were brought exclusively from Bethlehem.” One month later, the church was ready for the solemn celebration of Palm Sunday.

Inside the church, recently renovated especially by the Palestinian sculptor Fausto Nastas, Father Grassi preached a homily about the two essential elements of our lives: the altar and the donkey. He explained this surprising pairing: “The altar, like this altar that we are preparing to bless, is the sign that God invites us to the liturgy. He allows us to enter into his life and helps us turn our lives into joyful praise. […] The donkey is more than merely the animal that Jesus rode to Jerusalem; it is a symbol of service. No one asks it anything; it doesn’t even know where it’s going. Only God knows the direction of our lives; Jesus is trustworthy. In turn we should give ourselves to God to become this altar and this donkey.”

Before beginning the Eucharistic liturgy, the Custos of the Holy Land, Fra Pierbattista Pizzaballa, blessed the altar, which be consecrated in October in the presence of the Archbishop of Spoleto, an important source of support during the renovations. “We pray that this altar may be a sign of the life and dynamism of the Betfage community,” prayed the friars. Before the final benediction, the Custos expressed his gratitude to Fra Agustin who so ably brought the faithful to work together for a common goal. Fra Agustin replied with gratitude to the exemplary parishioners whom he accompanies day by day. They contributed financially to the church by donating, for example, the pews, which cost over 4,000 dollars. That large contribution is one of many, some more modest but all just as useful, such as caring for the access routes around the church, flowers… At Betfage, everyone is now impatiently awaiting the beginning of Holy Week and their feast day: Palm Sunday and the procession.

Before this, however, in the afternoon of this same Saturday the Franciscans gathered at the Holy Sepulchre for the last solemn entrance of Lent, as can be seen in the photo gallery.