The streets of Bethlehem still remain quiet and empty, gone are the thousands of tourists who filled the city prior to the global pandemic. Christmas and the holy traditions surrounding the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior looked much different this year than in the past. As Fr. Peter tours some of the historic Holy Sites and speaks with important leaders of the Holy Land, we see how much history and heritage of our Christian faith is anchored in Bethlehem. Sadly, these Holy Sites are empty because of COVID-19 and enforced travel restrictions. We pray that the virus will soon be over, and people will once again be able to travel to and from the Holy Land.
The Franciscan Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem hosts the Christmas Midnight Mass. The Latin parish was formed in 1631 and the church was built in 1881. Over the last 20 years, restoration of the church has been underway to preserve it for the many thousands of pilgrims who come for Midnight Mass.
Under the altar at St. Catherine’s is a very old bambino, which is decoratively placed at the Midnight Mass. After the mass, the Custos or the Patriarch brings the bambino ceremoniously out of the Church of St. Catherine into the Grotto where our Lord Jesus was born, and places it on the star. After prayer, the bambino is lifted and taken to the Chapel of the Three Kings until Epiphany. During that time, Mass is happening every half hour throughout Christmas day.
There are over 1,500 families in the parish. In a city like Bethlehem, everything relies on tourism from Pilgrims. Restaurants, hotels, shops, and souvenir sales have all stopped because there is no tourism. The citizens are suffering greatly from the current political and economic situation. There are few Christians left in Bethlehem, only an estimated 11,000 Christians remain. The primary religion is now Muslim. The church assists parishioners through prayer and pastoral activities in order to build a strong Christian faith, so Christians are able to resist the difficult climate and to help prevent migration. The Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land financially supports the church’s community outreach programs to provide assistance for those in great need of basic necessities in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Retail & Tourism
Since the pandemic began in March 2020, most local city stores have closed their doors. Costandi Canavati, owner of Herodion Store Bethlehem, shares what this year has been like for him. “Since March, because of the coronavirus, my store has been closed. All shops, hotels and restaurants are closed.” More than 300 Bethlehem stores like Canavati’s rely on tourists to come purchase souvenir’s and holy articles. “We wish the coronavirus to go away, and for people all over the world to be safe,” Canvati explains.
Terra Sancta Schools
Father Ibrahim Faltas is the Superintendent of Terra Sancta Schools and Principal of Terra Sancta School in Bethlehem. Father Faltas is the Discrete for the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and is the director of 18 Terra Sancta Schools. The schools receive money from the Custody of the Holy Land, which is funded by different commissaries and people around the world. These schools require a great deal of financial support to continue serving the children and maintaining daily operations.
Church of the Nativity
The church was built in 335 by Helena, mother of Constantine. Later, Justinian restored the structure with 40 columns, each 18 feet high. In 1111 the Crusaders came in and crafted the beautiful mosaics. Below the Greek Orthodox chapel lies the actual Grotto where our Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
Help is needed
The Christians in the Holy Land and its many historic sites need our help. Please prayerfully consider assisting us this year.
It takes only one candle to light the darkness. Will you light the darkness for those in Bethlehem that desperately need our help? Many thanks for your generosity and may the Lord’s blessings pour upon you for your graciousness. May this year bring you good health and prosperity.