“We are proud of our Milk Grotto,” exclaimed happy Bethlehemites on Sunday, December 31, after the Inaugural Mass in the new church built over the ancestral chapel in the Milk Grotto. Their joy was not a foregone conclusion, because over these past months the residents of Bethlehem, and especially those who frequent the Milk Grotto, had been penetrated by a diffuse anxiety. “Their” Milk Grotto was being altered. But the results swept away the fears. Because they love it, the local people found beauty in this ancient chapel, blackened by smoke, where their devotion to the Blessed Virgin had been expressed for generations, but the restoration work amazed them: “They’ve made it even more beautiful!” The ultimate praise of the Christians of Bethlehem.
They turned out in great numbers, then, for the inauguration of the new church built above the old, touched by its somber beauty. And they were not alone, since over 600 Slovakian pilgrims had come for the occasion (see article “Blessing of the New Chapel”), as well as a group of Italian pilgrims, friends and relatives of the architect Luigi Leoni, guided by Father Pasquale Ghezzi, Holy Land Commissioner for Lombardy (in Italy). To tell the truth, the crowd was so large that it filled the entire site. The upper church, but also the one on the intermediate level, where the ceremony was transmitted to a large screen, and along with corridors, in the stairwells… everywhere, there were clusters of praying pilgrims.
The Custos of the Holy Land, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, welcomed the assembly, followed by the architect, Luigi Leoni, who explained the meaning with which he and his colleague Chiara Rovati had sought to imbue the architectural process. He sketched the spirit in which the Custody had decided on the project, and then invoked the meaning of its dedication to the Theotokos, the Mother of God. In this place where we commemorate Mary’s maternal love by meditating on that simplest and most essential of maternal acts, Mary is entirely Mother of God, caring for Emmanuel, God-with-us.
The theme was taken up by Mgr Twal, who was the principal celebrant of the Mass, with four Slovakian bishops concelebrating, when he spoke of Mary as the one who “meditated all these things in her heart”. In the first rows of pews, the city’s dignitaries were seated, among them the Mayor of Bethlehem, but also representatives of the Slovakian and Italian donors whose financial aid helped bring the project to fruition, including representatives of the municipality and the parish of Monte Varchi in Tuscany (Italy). The Franciscan friars, large numbers of whom came from Jerusalem, animated the Vespers of the Mother of God that preceded the Mass, and the Slovakian pilgrims prolonged their prayer with warm and beautiful polyphony in the best Slavic manner at its conclusion.
May the Church soon be filled once again with the songs of pilgrims. While waiting, the Christians of Bethlehem will do as they have always done: watching and guarding the faith in this country.