Custos of Holy Land discusses the vocation of Christians in the region today

Father Francesco Patton Father Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land, presides over the solemn Mass for the 1st Sunday of Advent, on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2023. | Credit: Marinella Bandini

A few days before Father Francesco Patton, the custos of the Holy Land, made his entrance into Bethlehem by crossing the separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territories — an annual tradition marking the beginning of Advent — he met with a small group of Catholic journalists to reflect on Advent, Christmas, and the call of Christians in the Holy Land today.

The meeting took place Nov. 29 at the residence of the Custody of the Holy Land Curia, located at the convent of St. Saviour in Jerusalem.

The custos spoke about Bethlehem, typically bustling with pilgrims, now quiet and somber. As it experiences the consequences of war, including a lack of pilgrims and employment, Patton said that even among Christians there is a sense of unease about the future. In the face of all this, the custos asserted that as Christians, “we must hold our heads high, turned toward Jesus Christ.”

Advent itself, he told the journalists, “compels us to look forward. Not only to the birth of Jesus 2,000 years ago … but especially to the fact that we await his return, the encounter with him, which gives meaning to our entire life and all of history.”

He continued: “Amid wars, pandemics, economic crises, Christians are called to be people who do not withdraw into themselves. As Jesus says, ‘When these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’” (Lk 21:28).

When contemplating the idea of leaving the Holy Land, which increasingly crosses the minds of the small flock of Christians in Bethlehem as well as in other parts of the Holy Land, the custos said that “to stay in the Holy Land, acts of assistance are not enough.”

“What Christians must understand to remain is that being Christians in the Holy Land is not a curse but a vocation and a mission. Being Christians in this context means being those who can build bridges. And being people who know that we believe in a God who guides history, according to times that are not ours, toward that final point that will be the encounter with his son, Jesus.”

Patton went on to say that he does not overly concern himself with the smaller numbers of Christians in the Holy Land.

“Jesus started with 12 apostles [and] began with something very modest because that is the logic of the kingdom of God. The Gospel passages that speak to the small flock are passages in which, first of all, we are told ‘do not be afraid’ because the value of a presence does not depend on how many we are.”

The custos reflected on the general situation in Bethlehem right now, with public Advent and Christmas celebrations such as markets and festivals canceled. What may initially seem strange or sad — such as the absence of lights and decorations, events, and music — can be an opportunity to rediscover the historical roots of these seasons.

“In the Advent season, all signs evoke a certain sobriety and austerity,” Patton said. “The birth of Jesus itself is not a triumphant event. The only fanfare the Gospels report is that of the angels singing ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of goodwill.’” He said this time is opportune for “rediscovering the true and deeper motivations for celebrating. The joy of Christmas comes from the fact that the Son of God humbled himself: It is not the joy of triumphs but the joy of understanding the greatness of a love that humbles itself.”

The custos said this idea was well understood by St. Francis of Assisi, who precisely 800 years ago, in 1223, celebrated Christmas in Greccio, attempting to reproduce the atmosphere and environment of Bethlehem.

The holy founder of the Franciscan order was a pilgrim in the Holy Land between 1219 and 1220 and probably had the opportunity to see the grotto where Jesus was born.

“What Francis celebrates in Greccio,” Patton said, “is the Eucharist in a context that represents the scene of Bethlehem. This is Francis’ insight: The Son of God who became incarnate and was born in Bethlehem is the same who becomes small and offers himself to us daily through the Eucharist. What happens in Greccio is not so much the creation of the Nativity scene, as we understand it today, but the connection between the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God and the mystery of the Eucharist.”

St. Francis, who lived during the time of the Crusades, offered words of wisdom for how Christians should approach wars in our own times. The custos of the Holy Land summarized this advice as follows: “Francis never enters a conflict as a combatant. His words are not violent, his attitudes are not violent, and he explicitly refuses to carry weapons. He approaches the other, recognizing that the other is not an enemy but a person, a brother who shares the same origin and dignity before God.”

Patton continued: “I would also like to emphasize the importance, when looking at conflicts, of paying attention to the concrete suffering of people, not becoming ‘fans’ of one side or the other, as if there were two teams competing for a trophy. War is always a tragedy with many deaths and much suffering. In the face of this situation, we are called to have an attitude of ‘equi proximity,’ as Pope Francis calls it — an attitude of deep empathy: to feel the suffering of people on both sides. And to help each side feel the suffering of the other, and vice versa. Only this allows us to move from suffering that generates a thirst for revenge, resentment, and hatred, to suffering that can generate compassion, mercy, and even paths of reconciliation. This is not just something Franciscan, but something simply and profoundly Christian.”

At Christmas, the eyes of Christians worldwide turn toward the Grotto of Bethlehem and the Holy Land, the custos said.

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“Christians should not forget their roots! And they should not forget that here they have brothers and sisters who are currently facing great difficulties.”

Patton appealed to Christians worldwide to “be in communion with us through prayer, take an interest in what is happening in the Holy Land without becoming ‘fans’ of one side, and show concrete solidarity toward their brothers living in the Holy Land.”

As Franciscans, he said, “we will continue to take care of the Christians in the Holy Land in a tangible way, as we have done over the centuries — through schools, work, and also economic intervention in situations of need.”

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