GAZA – Traditionally, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Fouad Twal, visits the parish of the Holy Family in Gaza before Christmas. He did this year on the third Sunday of Advent and celebrated Christmas Mass for the faithful in Gaza. The communications team of the Latin Patriarchate was in Gaza three days early and met with the parishioners in anticipation of this visit.
This year, Christmas has a special dimension for Catholics of the Holy Family Parish in Gaza. In the three weeks since the end of the Israeli operation “Column of Defense,” the parish has seen the ceasefire as “a miracle.” Patriarch Fouad Twal who went for the first time to Gaza since the ceasefire, explained in his Sunday homily that “Christmas is a gift from Heaven, but the good will of men so that there may be peace is also needed.” He also invited Christians “to live a strong faith” in order to continue living in this Holy Land where the Holy Family passed during the flight to Egypt and to remember that “even Jesus suffered injustice.” According to the parish priest, Father Jorge Hernandez, IVE: “the parishioners are very appreciative of this visit and it is also a little of Jerusalem that came here to them, and this touches them very much in their faith life.” To thank all those who supported them with their prayers and their gifts during the war, the parish celebrated an official Mass of Thanksgiving. The pastor said “that they all know we have prayed for them.”
After yesterday’s Mass, the Patriarch, together with Bishop Marcuzzo, Vicar inIsrael, as customary, met with the families for the exchange of Christmas greetings. The General Administrator of the Patriarchate, Fr. Humam Khzouz, who coordinated the entrance of the delegation to the Gaza Strip and the Chancellor, Fr. George Ayoub, were also part of the Patriarchal delegation.
The small Catholic parish of the Holy Family has exactly 185 faithful. Among the 1.6 million Gaza inhabitants, a crowded area of 360 sq. kilometers, there are 1,550 Christians (Greek Orthodox for the most part) now only half of the 3,000 in 2008.
Christmas, however, will be celebrated after the bombs. So life goes on in Gaza. Eight days of mass destruction left traces on houses, public buildings and schools. Along the roads are found several ruins as those of the football stadium where the stands collapsed after the stadium was struck by bombs. In the midst of the rubble, violence still resonates and on their faces “exhaustion is seen by the dark circles around the eyes” as Bishop Marcuzzo noted yesterday.
By this, we must recognize, the people of Gaza cling to life. The smiles of the children attest to it in front of our photo cameras, the happy mothers and the daring of their sons, the open shops, the noisy traffic. In fact, Gaza vibrates with life. Men, women, children confronted with violence, scarcity, the conservatism that strongly rules daily life, they suffer from a high unemployment rate (60% of the population) and from the weight of the days without some distraction. But the inhabitants here also live the joyful feasts and marriages. In the Catholic parish, for example, there are on average 1- 2 marriages and 3 – 4 baptisms a year.
Immediately after the ceasefire, the three Catholic schools of the Gaza Strip, which accommodate 1500 students of which the overwhelming majority are Muslims, organized the resumption of classes. The two Catholic schools of the Holy Family reopened their doors. The School of the Rosary Sisters instead had to wait until the following Monday in order to repair broken windows because of the explosions. “The winter cold was arriving and they needed to act quickly” says Sister Davida, Principal of the School. In this school where four Rosary Sisters serve, the principal tells of the resuming of classes: “many children made great effort to concentrate after thirty minutes of class. Some psychologists from Caritas came to help them restart by playing and singing. Restoring to a child the sense of security is a long process.”
The relentless drama continues in the interior of each person. Father Jorge Hernandez noted, together with the School Principal, different problems in children of school age. “When the bell announces the end of classes, when an airplane flies above their heads, some students are afraid” they explain. “Other children stay in small groups near the walls. They always have the behavior of war. They are afraid of the silence, of the grand silence.” The Pastor then says “In Gaza now, when a child begins school, he has already seen two wars. And he is not yet 4 or 5 years old.”
To these children born in war and who live in war, the parish proposes a pastoral life of prayer and playful activity to help them grow “normally” in this little strip of overpopulated land that suffers the embargo by its neighbors. More than ever the religious communities that live in Gaza strain themselves to do everything to help the faithful of the parish, but also the Orthodox and the Muslims so that they catch again their breath after the recent events. The parish is supported by three sisters of the Incarnate Word Institute, to which the pastor also belongs as well as the new parochial vicar, Father Mario, who arrived just three weeks ago.
At their side work the Rosary Sisters and the Missionary Sisters of Charity of Mother Teresa, who are dedicated to disable children. Through “the festive oratorio”, children, parents and families can lead an almost normal life. There are some beautiful moments, the people come to develop themselves, to pray, to see each other and to play. So as in the streets of Gaza, also in the parish life resumes its rights, forgetting the daily problems of security, the health services but also the constant problems with electricity.
The parish is an island of life, where calm seems reestablished again, away from the images of a Gaza “ghost city”. Of course, they have rediscovered their life, but with an embargo. As the Patriarch has said on several occasions “the people of Gaza do not have a normal life. They live in an open-air prison.” On Saturday afternoon, before the arrival of the Patriarch, in the parish courtyard some youth were playing ball, the scout band had its rehearsals, the crib was ready, the Christmas tree decorated, the divan straightened up and the Sunday lunch prepared. It is here that the Patriarch greeted the parishioners the following day, extending to them personally his Christmas wishes.
A mother of a family who welcomed us for Friday evening dinner said: “We will resume our daily life. It was really a very hard period, it was not easy, but with the children we are ready to celebrate Christmas. We need it to live well.” The Christmas tree, the crib, the imminent birth of a fifth child shows that there is life here. Right here! And in our parish we are preparing for Christmas with forgetting the sick and elderly persons. In the ten days that precede the Christmas feast, the pastor visits 4 elderly or sick (that is, 40 persons in all) each evening in the company of a small delegation of youth and the Sisters of the Incarnate Word. We shared in four of these meetings. The visitors, about fifteen, this evening, in the blue night of the Holy Land joined together in prayers and songs, distributing holy water and small gifts. Sometimes the priest administers the anointing of the sick. Father Jorge explains: “For three years, since I am here, I saw that this little round of visits interests many. In the beginning we started with five, now the movement has expanded. All the youth today want to participate. We are obliged to organize turns. During the year, we also distribute communion to the sick. At times it also happens that 2-3 scouts come along to offer their service.
On Tuesday, December 18, the Latin Church in Gaza expects 450 persons for the traditional “Christmas Concert” organized every years at this time of years in the context of the Baroque Music Festival, supported by the service of Cultural Cooperation of the French General Consulate in Jerusalem. On the evening of December 24, maybe some parishioners will have obtained permission from the Israeli authorities to go for Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. But all cannot have it. Those who remain in Gaza will welcome near the living crib His Excellency, Bishop Shomali, Auxiliary Bishop for Jerusalem who will spend Christmas Night in the company of the Parish faithful. And not only that… as many non-Catholics will come to rejoice at the coming on earth of the Prince of Peace and to pray with the pastor who has a message of Christmas: “that the Savior may give His peace to the people of Gaza and especially to the leaders of the region. That He may also give us the strength to continue advancing.”