On the eve of Advent, the Custos of the Holy Land, fra Francesco Patton, reflects on this “important time” for the Church in the context of the current conflict in the Holy Land. “The whole of History is going towards the meeting with the Lord,” he says, “which gives meaning to History itself and redeems it, transforms it from the story of human misery into the story of salvation.” Here are the main passages of our conversation.
What is the meaning of Advent in this very particular historical moment for the Holy Land?
Advent makes us look ahead. Not only to the birth of Jesus 2000 years ago – to which the liturgy dedicates only the last week, “but above all to the fact that we are waiting for his return. In Advent, we reflect on the fact that being inside History means being on the middle of wars, persecutions, pandemics, economic crises and in these situations being people who do not withdraw into ourselves, but – as Jesus says – “when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand” (Luke 21,28). Despite all the difficulties, as Christians we have to keep our heads held high, turned towards Jesus Christ.
In the Holy Land, the Custos of the Holy Land makes his solemn entrance into Bethlehem on the eve of the first Sunday of Advent. What will happen this year?
It will be a less solemn entrance from the point of view of the outward appearance. We will arrive in a city without pilgrims, where the Christians do not feel the climate of celebration and where, out of a choice of sobriety and solidarity with those suffering in the war there will be no illuminations or lighting up of Christmas trees… but we will be making a very important gesture in going from Jerusalem to Bethlehem crossing a wall. I deem it the most important gesture. It means continuing to say that even a wall can be crossed. In a situation such as the one we are in, it takes on an even greater meaning.
What kind of a Christmas will the Christians in Bethlehem be having?
The consequences of the war are clear: there are no pilgrims and as a result there is no work. This makes the Christmas of the families in Bethlehem anything but happy. We have to rediscover the true and deepest reasons to celebrate. The joy of Christmas comes from the fact that the Son of God became humble: it is not the joy of triumphs but the joy of understanding the greatness of a love that becomes humble. In his writings, St Francis, referring to the mystery of the Incarnation and the Eucharist, says “Look, brothers, at the humility of God.” We must look at the humility of God.
This year, we are celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Nativity scene which is also linked to a particular indulgence granted by the Apostolic See. What is its meaning?
Christmas in Greccio is a very particular celebration, through which Francis helps us understand, on the one hand, the value of the Eucharist and on the other the value of the incarnation, putting them into relation with one another. What Francis celebrates in Greccio is the Eucharist, in a context which represents the scene in Bethlehem. Why is the Greccio Christmas so important? Because Francis – who had been a pilgrim in the Holy Land between 1219 and 1220 – had probably had the chance to see the Grotto in Bethlehem and had had this intuition: the Son of God who was incarnated in Bethlehem, being born to Mary, is the same one who becomes small and is offered to us every day through the Eucharist and in this way nourishes our whole life.
This year it is also the 800th anniversary of the approval of the Rule by Pope Honorius III. Pope Francis has sent a letter to the whole of the Franciscan family to underline the importance of this anniversary. How topical is it today?
In only 12 chapters, our Rule summarizes the evangelical experience of St Francis of Assisi. The Rule for Francis is the Gospel and the Gospel is what shapes the life of the Christian (and the life of the Friar Minor as well). The essence of the Rule is that the Gospel shapes our lives and if we take the Gospel as a call and form of life, the final result is holiness.
What was Francis’s attitude towards the conflicts of his times and what does he suggest to us in front of the conflicts of our times?
First of all Francis does not enter the conflict as a fighter bearing weapons. His words are not violent, his attitudes are not violence and he also explicitly refuses to carry weapons. He goes to encounter the other recognizing that the other is not an enemy but a person, a brother who has the same origin and dignity before God. I would also like to underline the importance, in looking at conflicts, of paying attention to the concrete suffering of people, not to become “supporters” as though there were two teams competing for a cup. 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 “equidistance,” as Pope Francis calls it, one of deep empathy: we have to feel the suffering of people on both sides. And help one side to feel the suffering of the others and vice versa. Only this can allow going from a suffering that generates a thirst for vendetta, resentment and hatred to a suffering that can generate compassion, mercy and even paths of reconciliation.
Many Christians are thinking of emigrating…
Charity is not enough to stay in the Holy Land, it does not give a sufficient motivation. What the Christians in the Holy Land have to understand to stay is that being Christians of the Holy Land is not a curse but a vocation and a mission. From this point of view I am not excessively worried about the numbers. Jesus began with 12 apostles, he began with something very modest because this is the logic of the Kingdom of God. The passages in the Gospel which speak to the small flock are passages in which we are told first of all “not to fear” because the value of a presence does not depend on how many of us there are.
What is the appeal from the Holy Land to Christians all over the world?
The appeal to Christians all over the world is to remember the Christians in the Holy Land – not the Holy Land in the abstract, but to remember that here they have brothers and sisters who are in difficulty at the moment. The appeal is to express communion through prayer, to take an interest in what is happening, without taking sides, and for concrete solidarity. On our part, we will continue to take care of the Christians in the Holy Land concretely as we have done over the centuries, through our schools, work and economic aid in situations of need.