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.