ROME – As the Church begins its Advent and Christmas seasons, the pastor of Gaza’s lone Catholic parish stressed the importance of stepping up one’s spiritual life amid the tragedies of war, and said the pope’s attention to them has been a major consolation.

“It is truly a tough time,” said Father Gabriel Romanelli, an Argentinian priest who has served in the Holy Land for over 25 years, and who for the past six years has been pastor of the small Holy Family Catholic parish in Gaza.

In an interview with Father Ibrahim Nino, Director of the Media Office at the Latin Patriarchate, posted to the patriarchate’s website, Romanelli noted that since the war in Gaza broke out following an Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel by Hamas militants, both Pope Francis and Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, have been in constant contact with him and his parish.

Romanelli was in Rome to attend the Sept. 30 consistory in which Pizzaballa got his red hat, and has been unable to return to Gaza since. He has been communicating with parishioners through the associate pastor.

“The nearness of His Beatitude and His Holiness Pope Francis is very important because in this dark hour, in the hour where one experiences Golgotha, nearness is important,” Romanelli said, saying, “This gives strength and courage to the parish.”

Pope Francis “calls us daily to check on us, despite his also big responsibilities and duties for the Church. And through a simple phone call, he gives us his blessing,” he said.

Israel is currently seeking to eliminate the presence of Hamas in Gaza following the Oct. 7 attack, which left 1,200 people, mostly civilians, dead and triggered the deadliest Israeli-Palestinian violence in decades.

So far, thousands of Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s retaliatory attacks and over three-quarters of the Gaza Strip’s population of 2.3 million people have been displaced.

According to Palestinian health officials, several hundred civilians have already been killed since a 7-day truce ended Friday. That short-lived ceasefire allowed more than 100 of the roughly 240 Israelis abducted by Hamas on Oct. 7 to be returned, although 138 people remain in captivity.

Romanelli said that after the war began, Christian families immediately took shelter in both the Latin and Orthodox churches in Gaza, but that some families left after the bombing last month of the 12th century Saint Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza, which left 18 people dead, including one Caritas worker and her husband and young daughter.

Since then, some people with foreign passports have been able to flee Gaza, but there are still more than 600 people taking shelter in Holy Family parish, Romanelli said, saying, “When the pope calls daily and blesses them, of course this encourages them.”

“Times of war are hard, and not a blessing, that is why we need to pray and work for peace. Even though some love to inflict wars, for various reasons, we are the children of God, and as Jesus said, blessed are the peacemakers,” he said.

Of the 2.3 million people in the Gaza Strip, around 1,017 are Christian, and of these, only around 135 are Latin-rite Catholics, including priests and religious sisters. The rest are Orthodox Christians.

Despite its small numbers, the parish still hosts numerous activities, including two daily Masses, the recitation of the rosary, and various groups for young people, men, women, and altar servers who assist at Masses. They also have a school with around 2,000 students, most of whom are Muslim.

The Catholic Church runs three out of five Christian schools in Gaza with the help of two orders of nuns, the Rosary Sisters and the Missionaries of Charity, and they also oversee numerous charitable projects.

Both Pope Francis and Pizzaballa, Romanelli said, have been understanding of those who have chosen to stay at the parish or in their homes in Gaza, despite Israel’s evacuation orders for the northern portions of the Gaza Strip.

“They had to decide whether to move from the north to the south. Parents had to make a decision, but people said, where shall we go?” Romanelli said, noting that most Catholic buildings are in Gaza City.

When orders came in to evacuate, “People did not know where to flee to: to a place where there is no water, food, or electricity? It was dangerous as bombings were taking place both north and south. They chose to remain where they were, trusting in Jesus, so they truly felt the presence of God,” he said.

Continued phone calls from the pope and Pizzaballa, he said, have “expressed to the Christians the love, compassion and involvement of everyone around the globe; the efforts of many to bring about a ceasefire, to end the war and bring a just peace.”

Romanelli recalled how in a recent statement, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem asked families in the Holy Land to forego major celebrations for the Church’s Advent and Christmas seasons this year, in solidarity with those who are suffering.

“There is great shock and sadness” amid the community, Romanelli said, saying his people have strong faith, but “they remain human, and sadness is normal to be experienced. Even our Lord Jesus Christ, God incarnate, wept. These are very hard times, but there has been great trust in God’s divine protection.”

In terms of how Advent and Christmas will be observed in Gaza, Romanelli said there will be no big celebrations, in compliance with the patriarchate’s request, in order to show solidarity with those who have lost loved ones or who have been wounded, with some of the dead still under the rubble.

While the traditional parish and school activities will not take place, Romanelli said they are encouraging parishioners to “prepare spiritually for Jesus to be born in our hearts and lives by cleansing the grotto of our hearts and experience the simplicity of a grotto.”

“Also with the help of Our Lady who carried Jesus, to allow her to birth Jesus in us and take an example of the virtues of Saint Joseph, we are trying to find an opportunity to renew our spiritual life,” he said.

Speaking of the importance of the sacraments, Romanelli said the meaning of Advent as a time of preparation and repentance has been forgotten, but it remains a key opportunity for Christians “to examine our hearts and repent.”

“We need to return to the pillars of our faith, to read and meditate on the Word of God, to attend adoration, and go to confession,” he said, noting that there is a tendency to focus more on the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, two of the three so-called “Sacraments of Christian initiation.”

However, “We tend to forget that we need spiritual healing, we forget that we can die spiritually, but there is a solution for everything, and it’s through Confession and repentance. This is the main goal,” he said.

Romanelli also stressed the importance of charity and of using Advent as a time to help those in need, especially those suffering due to the war.

He voiced hope that charity would be shown “to the people of the Holy Land, including Gaza, as everyone is affected both in Gaza and the West Bank, where many have lost their jobs.”

Acts of mercy are also important, such as visiting the elderly and others who are isolated and alone, he said, insisting that even checking on a neighbor who lives by themselves is an act of mercy.

“In sum, we should renew our spiritual life whether through confession, penance, and repentance,” he said.

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