ROME – Like much of the rest of the world, the Holy Land – the place of Jesus’s birth, ministry and death – has felt the ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic, and as a result, will be celebrating Christmas a little differently this year.
According to Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Church in the Holy Land is preparing for “a very scaled-down Christmas.”
At the moment, “the economic situation doesn’t allow large celebrations,” Pizzaballa said, explaining that between coronavirus lockdowns and the lack of pilgrims, the region has suffered a major financial crisis, particularly for families whose work depended on pilgrims, such as tour guides, taxi drivers and shop owners.
These repercussions are being felt especially in Bethlehem, where some 7,000 people involved in tourism are now unemployed as a result of the pandemic, and where Catholic schools are also seeing large reductions in enrollment.
This year’s Christmas Mass at the Church of the Nativity, widely recognized among Christians as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, will be “scaled-down,” but it will also be “intimate, in family,” Pizzaballa said.
Until now the exact time of Mass on Christmas Eve and Christmas day are still up for debate. Traditionally, everyone goes at the same time on each day, however, in the time of the pandemic, discussion is still underway about how many Masses to hold and the number of people who can attend each Mass in keeping with social distancing requirements.
Pizzaballa said the Latin Patriarchate is trying to ensure that the representatives of each of the major Christian communities and institutions will be able to attend the principle liturgies, but said civil authorities, who traditionally attend Christmas liturgies, will likely not attend given the risk of contagion.
“This year, we will have Mass among ourselves,” he said.
Appointed in October, Pizzaballa is the first non-Arab Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem since 1987. He has been stationed in the Holy Land since 1993, just three years after his priestly ordination within the Franciscan order.
Prior to that appointment, he was named custos of the Holy Land in 2004 and was tapped as administrator of the Latin Patriarchate in 2016.
The custos heads the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, which is in charge of the major shrines of the region.
In terms of the coronavirus, Pizzaballa said nearly the Latin Patriarchate itself currently has 6 positive cases, himself included, most of which are people who are either asymptomatic or are experiencing mild symptoms.
The Latin Patriarchate oversees the territories of Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Cyprus, which combined have a total of more than 638,450 cases and nearly 8,000 deaths.
With fears that a new lockdown could be enforced should cases continue to rise, liturgies will continue to look different, Pizzaballa said.
Noting that many places around the world have become dependent on virtual, livestreamed Masses amid tight COVID restrictions either preventing or severely limiting public worship, Pizzaballa said this has not been as much of a trend in the Holy Land, where different faiths mingle in close proximity, and where Christians “have a thirst for prayer.”
“This is a different perspective than the West,” he said, recalling how one Palestinian pastor during the first wave of the coronavirus refused to organize livestreamed Masses, arguing that if they were to begin online liturgies, the churches “will all close.”
Yet despite the challenges of attending public liturgies in times of a pandemic, Pizzaballa said Advent, while different this year, has been a time of pastoral creativity and an occasion for families to rediscover common prayer.
“Here the tradition is very important,” whether it be traditional foods, events, or liturgies. This year those things “that create an environment of expectation” were not possible, but in their absence, pastors became “creative in encountering the people and encouraging them in prayer,” he said.
Among other things, Pizzaballa said his people in general “are no longer used to praying in the family,” which is something the pandemic has reversed. Parents and children now “pray together,” he said, adding, “It’s not like going to church, but it has its value, it’s a way to restore relations in the family.”
Speaking of the economic challenges that have arisen because of the coronavirus, Pizzaballa said the area has endured challenges before, but this is “much more difficult.”
It is the first time in recent memory, he said, that the ordinary pastoral and spiritual lives of the faithful have been interrupted; it is the first time that Easter and Christmas liturgies have had to be adjusted in such a dramatic way; the first time that sacraments such as confirmations and first communions could not be administered.
The financial crisis is also unique, he said, adding, “We’ve had crisis, but not like this.”
Vaccines will ideally arrive in Israel after the holidays, he said, but cautioned that even once these are distributed, it could be up to a year or more before pilgrimages begin again.
“We hope it arrives soon,” he said, saying he is willing to receive the vaccine once it becomes available.
Noting that the Vatican has offered assistance to the Holy Land amid the pandemic, sending three ventilators to St. Joseph’s hospital in Jerusalem, several diagnostic kits to Gaza, and financial help to the Holy Family hospital in Bethlehem, Pizzaballa said this has helped ease the impact of the outbreak, but he stressed that “the Holy See can’t solve all the economic and financial problems of the Holy Land.”
Noting that the patriarchate has already issued an appeal for donations during the first wave of the virus, Pizzaballa said he feels bad having to issue more requests but will likely have to because of problems such as unemployment.
“After the holidays, we’ll see where we’re at,” he said.
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