By Beatrice Guarrera
For Christians in the Holy Land, the time of Lent and Easter always has had a slightly different flavor from the rest of the world. But during the time of the pandemic, Franciscan parishioners have been able to count on their pastors in a special way.
A video catechesis, a blessing at the sound of the bell, a packet of food: These are some of the initiatives implemented by Franciscan parish priests to take care of their faithful during the restrictions imposed by COVID-19.
Jerusalem—St. Savior Parish
In Jerusalem, Franciscan Father Amjad Sabbara led prayers on the rooftops—as long as it was allowed—and he distributed palm branches from house to house in the Christian Quarter, where he also led the Way of the Cross on Good Friday in its streets. “After the Easter Vigil at the Holy Sepulchre,” says the friar-pastor of St. Savior’s Parish, “we instructed Scouts to bring the Holy Light into the houses of the Old City.” It was an unexpected joy for many parishioners, who were thus able to light a candle with the flame of the Paschal Candle. “We have set up a religious committee,” Fr. Amjad continues. “Everyone has a role: video catechesis for children preparing for confirmation or videoconferences of Franciscan youth. Easter day, with Father Sandro [Tomasevic], we called parishioners to [let them] feel that their pastors were by their side.”
Fr. Amjad added, “With the help of eight young people from the parish, our emergency committee and our social center manager, we are helping many families in difficulty, also thanks to the contribution of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land.”
Bethlehem—St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish
In Bethlehem the Franciscan parish took care of people in need, since in the Palestinian territory,the effects of the total curfew, which began on March 5, weighed heavily. “We will have difficult times after the pandemic, because here people depend on tourism and many are daily workers,” explains Franciscan Father Rami Asakrieh, pastor of Saint Catherine Parish. “Now everything is stopped, and it will probably be the case for long months. The main problem in Bethlehem will be that of work.”
In collaboration with the authorities, Fr. Rami selected the families and the elderly in greatest need, to whom he distributed subsistence packages. Scouts and the youth movement provide stewardship. “We have encouraged people to follow the provisions of the Latin Patriarchate and many have celebrated the Easter Triduum during family sharing and prayers,” continues Fr. Rami. The pastor and his collaborators continue to stay alongside the parishioners of Bethlehem, in particular via Facebook and by organizing material aid and spiritual meetings online.
Akko—Saint John of Acre Parish
Franciscan Father Toufic Bou Merhi, pastor of the Franciscan Church of Saint John of Acre, in the seacoast city of Akko, expressed the same commitment on social networks to keep in touch with his followers, who are about 120. “I launched the Facebook page of the parish where the celebrations are taking place live,” he explains. “As I am alone, I am at the same time the photographer, the cantor and the celebrant. During Lent, I made the Way of the Cross every Friday.”
In this period, Fr. Toufic’s thoughts go above all to the 20 or more children who are preparing for First Communion and Confirmation. “The Custos suggested that I do a weekly catechesis every Monday evening. They can also be used by young people I know and who want
to connect to hear what I say.”
Jaffa—St. Anthony Parish
“The first week [of restrictions] we worshiped by live-streaming,” says Franciscan Father. Agustin Pelayo, parish priest of Saint Anthony Parish, Jaffa. “Then, for Holy Week, we looked for other moments to meet our parishioners.” The reality of the faithful in Jaffa is very varied, with more than 1,500 Arabic-speaking Christians and many migrants of various origins, Filipinos, Africans and Indians. “We had announced on social networks that Easter Sunday at noon, at the sound of bells, we would give a blessing,” explains Fr. Agustin. “We suggested they kneel when they heard the bells. It was a very moving moment for the whole parish.” He continues, “We are three brothers in community, and we felt a real closeness with the parishioners. It’s the most beautiful grace for me. Many call us to say that we miss them and prayer groups have been created on WhatsApp and Zoom.” Fr. Augustin adds, “We are also organizing ourselves to be able to celebrate Mass in the open air square, when the authorities authorize it. People need it. Many even regret the problems they had before. What I repeat to them is that when we were happy, we didn't realize it.”
At all the Franciscan parishes, when a parishioner is diagnosed with COVID-19, the community of the faithful meets in prayer at the invitation of the pastor. The Custody’s mission of parish ministry continues—as it has for centuries.