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In the Holy Land of Jesus, the coronavirus is present, but the faith is stronger

Francesco Patton - nouveau Custode de Terre Sainte © Archivio Vita Trentina
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Father Francesco Patton talks about an unusual Holy Week without pilgrims.

What Christian has never wanted to visit, at least once in their life, the Holy Land: the places where Jesus lived, where the roots of our faith were incarnated?

The growing number of pilgrims confirms this common desire. Suffice it to say that according to data provided by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, about 4.5 million tourists from 115 different countries entered Israel in 2019, and about 630,000 Christian pilgrims—98% of them Catholics—benefited in one way or another from the services of the Franciscan Pilgrim Center.

The numbers are usually particularly high during Holy Week. Not this year, however, because of the coronavirus, which has put the Holy Land in lockdown, as with much of the rest of the world.

The friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, and those who work with them, while complying with the required precautions, have nevertheless managed to celebrate the rites of Holy Week, sharing them throughout the world on the Internet, making Christians feel closer to those holy places. 

The Custody of the Holy Land, created at the initiative of Saint Francis of Assisi in 1217, covers Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Cyprus and Rhodes.  

It’s the responsibility of the Custody of the Holy Land to offer hospitality to pilgrims, to take care of service to the poor, to carry out local pastoral care, and to take charge of the custody and liturgical life of the Holy Places. 

In this interview, the Custody’s superior, Fr. Francesco Patton, Custodian of the Holy Land, tells us about the challenges that Covid-19 is posing in the places where Jesus lived.

How was the first Holy Week without pilgrims?

Fr. Francesco Patton: This is not the first time that we’ve found ourselves living in emergency situations. 

It’s not the first Easter without pilgrims, because after the year 2000 there was the second Intifada, which lasted for almost three years. During that period, the friars were in the midst of a situation of conflict on the one hand, and pilgrims were missing on the other. There was, however, support from the rest of the world, which at that time sustained us, and it was also possible to promote the Good Friday collection back then, unlike this year in which was transferred to September.

And let’s not forget that part of our territory has been going through a terrible experience of war for ten years: Syria, where the number of Christians has been reduced to a third of what it was 10 years ago.  And let’s not forget that another part of our territory, Lebanon, experienced a civil war from ’75 to ’90 which reduced the number of Christians to about a third; while before the war, they were the majority in the country, they have since been reduced to 35-36%. 

So the Custody’s experience of difficulties doesn’t belong only to the past but also to recent history.

Are you afraid of the coronavirus?

Fr. Francesco Patton: I have respect for the virus. I’m a mountain man, and the mountains teach you that you must respect nature. He who underestimates danger succumbs to danger. Fear is a form of respect if it becomes prudence, and therefore you can continue a substantially normal life but with some extra care. I believe that in all situations we must have a bit of healthy fear, because it’s a natural feeling that serves to keep a person safe, but not a paralyzing fear. My life is in God’s hands. 

As a result of the lockdown, many people are poorer. What are you doing for them in the Holy Land?

Fr. Francesco Patton: At the moment, the care that’s being given to the poor is essentially happening through parishes. For example, here in Jerusalem they’re distributing food. In the old city, even before the coronavirus, the Christians whom we host didn’t pay us any kind of rent, and it’s our way of helping them. [We administrate] about 450 apartments, which means 450 families who don’t have to worry about paying rent. 

In other areas, however, we were asking for a small contribution for the rent, but always below market prices. For example, if the market price of rent is one thousand dollars a month, the Custody asks for a contribution of one hundred dollars. And this contribution is important, both to make those in the houses responsible, but also to help the Custody cover the costs.

In this time of lockdown, since there is an unemployment fund and people have a 70% reduction in their normal salary, we have also reduced their rent payment by a further 70%. 

In Bethlehem, the parish—with the help of young people and scouts—identifies people who need help so it can support them. 

The same happens in other territories, for example in Syria, Aleppo, Damascus…, which are the places where this kind of help has been going on for over ten years, in a situation where people were helping the friars instead. Syrian Christians didn’t need help before the war; rather, it was they who sustained our presence.

I think that the poverty emergency will begin in a few months. 

For example, those who live in Israel also have this sort of unemployment fund and they also have a month’s vacation to take advantage of. So we can think that many will be covered financially for two, three months…

In Palestine there’s different legislation, whereby in these situations workers are entitled to two months’ full salary plus vacation. 

If within two or three months things start to function again, there shouldn’t be an emergency of extreme poverty for many people. 

The problem is that pilgrims won’t arrive before the end of September, and their presence is a source of sustenance for local Christians as well. 

Another issue is that of schools, which we should restart in an ordinary way. We have about fifteen of them, and for now we’re using distance teaching.

The real problem isn’t happening now, but we’ll start to feel it economically starting in June-July. 

And then we hope that on September 13 we’ll be able to do the “Pro Terra Sancta” collection, and that despite the difficulties of the moment, the Christians of the world will continue to show solidarity. 

Otherwise next year will be a hard year for us. But like a good head of a family, we’ll calculate our expenses on the basis of the resources available to us.

Israel, in particular Jerusalem, is a holy city for Christians, Jews and Muslims. In the face of this world pandemic due to the coronavirus, has there been any joint action, any mutual aid? Are there any examples of collaboration?

Fr. Francesco Patton: On March 26, there was an example of collaboration on the spiritual level, with a prayer that we prayed from the terrace of City Hall. Those of us who came together were Christians, Jews, Muslims, Druze and Bahá’í.

It was a shared invocation for the end of the pandemic, for the healing of the sick and for all those at risk. It was a very significant moment, because all the children of Abraham joined together to invoke in prayer the one almighty God. 

Then there are normal initiatives. For example, in the old city assistance is offered, especially to the elderly, and it’s not limited to parishioners, but to whomever is in need. However, it’s evident that society here is structured in such a way that some environments are more open and others are less accessible. So it’s not the same everywhere. We do what we can.

Among our employees there are Jews, Muslims and Christians of all confessions. We try to provide for them, who in turn have to provide for their families.

Also at the institutional level there’s beautiful openness. For example, the President of the State of Israel, Reuven “Ruvi” Rivlin, called me, as well, I suppose, as other representatives of the Western Churches, to wish me a happy Easter and and ask for prayers.

These gestures of attention are significant and important.

Are you already thinking about new ways of welcoming pilgrims? How can we Christians of the rest of the world join in your Easter, despite the quarantine? 

Fr. Francesco Patton: We must wait for the return of pilgrims. In the meantime, the shrines are taking advantage to do maintenance work. We must consider how to reopen them and what arrangements to make, considering that not all places are the same. 

Those who come to Capernaum have an open space, very large, as well as in the field of the Shepherds in Bethlehem. For those who come to Nazareth, the Basilica is large enough, unlike other places like Nain, where the miracle of the resurrection of the widow’s son took place. The church is small and there’s no space. Usually we have space outside the shrine so we can manage the groups. But, we have to organize the reopening. 

In part, we’ll be helped by the dispositions issued at public level regarding the monitoring of people, because for example temperature measurement will already be carried out at the airport. It would be difficult for us to do that for those who enter the church. 

Currently, we take the temperature of those who enter the offices of the Custody, because it’s obligatory by law, also here in the curia. We’ll have to be very careful to sanitize everything, to disinfect the sacred vessels… I repeat, we need to stop and think about this. But I hope and believe that this emergency phase can be managed.

Soon, it will be four years since you were appointed as guardian of the Holy Land. It was a somewhat unusual nomination, because a friar who did not live in the Holy Land was appointed Custodian. 

Fr. Francesco Patton: Thirty years ago, it was a normal thing. But then, they changed the statutes of the Custody of the Holy Land to make it a normal “province.” In reality, it was never a normal province, because it has been the mission of the Order since 1217 and it’s also a special mission entrusted by the Pope, particularly since 1342, when Pope Clement VI, with the Bull “Gratias Agimus,” decided to entrust the friars who lived in the Holy Land with the custody of the sacred places. And in fact, since then the custodian very often came from outside the territory. 

What surprise did the Land of Jesus hold in store for you?

Fr. Francesco Patton: The most significant thing about this experience is linked to the internationality of the Custody of the Holy Land, and I feel it even more in this time of the coronavirus. It seems to me that our fraternity, which is international, can—at this moment, here in the holy places—represent well the cry of all humanity which needs hope, and which needs to find a horizon of meaning, one which is different from a purely material horizon of meaning.

At the same time, I also see in this internationality the blessing, the grace, and the mercy which descends from God upon humanity; therefore, I see it as an international fraternity which is a sign of Pentecost, which is what the Church is called to be. This struck me immediately. It’s demanding but it’s also one of the most beautiful things.

The other thing is the contact with the holy places. The fact of being able to celebrate [the mysteries of Christ’s life] in the liturgical seasons, but also in the places where the mystery is remembered, is really something else. In these days, for example—despite all the restrictions—having been in Gethsemane on Holy Thursday, being united with Jesus who prays, feels anguish, and prays until he sweats blood, in order to make his human will follow perfectly that of the Father, is very moving. Or to pray the way of the cross, this year with just four people… 

Celebrating these events in places where they happened helps our humanity, which also needs to see and to touch. The beautiful thing about Christianity is that it’s an incarnate proposal. It’s God who becomes flesh, who enters into a context that we call the Holy Land, because we are convinced that it has been sanctified by revelation and then by the Incarnation.

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