ROME — Just 72 hours after a cease-fire was announced in the Gaza Strip, Pope Francis welcomed the pastor of the lone Catholic Church in the territory to the Vatican to push him to keep working for peace.
“Francis reminded us that peace is possible, coexistence is possible,” said Fr. Jorge Hernández, shortly after his August 28 encounter with the pontiff at the Domus Santa Marta, the Vatican residence where Francis lives.
Hernández, like the pontiff himself, is from Argentina.
“He reminded us of our duty to be witnesses of our faith in the Holy Land,” Hernández said. “Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Gaza are the lands where Jesus was born, lived, died and was resurrected.”
Hernández spoke in an exclusive interview with Crux.
The priest, member of the Argentina-based Institute of the Incarnate Word, heads the parish of the Holy Family in Gaza. Together with three nuns, he runs three schools and serves a small community of 135 faithful in a land that’s home to fewer than 1,300 Christians.
Hernández returned to Gaza shortly after meeting with the pope, saying “there’s too much to rebuild, and nothing with which to do so.”
This was not the first time the Argentinian pontiff showed support for the priest and his parishioners since the conflict on the Gaza Strip escalated last July, shortly after he had visited the Middle East.
“The fact that he called us during the bombing was, for us, a blessing,” said Hernández. “His message to us could be synthetized in a call to remain courageous and strong, so we can be the salt of the land the Gospel talks about.”
During the conflict, the pontiff was also in touch with the local authorities.
On July 18, a day after Israel launched the ground invasion to Gaza, Francis telephoned the leaders of Palestine and Israel, President Mahmoud Abbas and President Shimon Peres to express his “very grave concerns” about the escalation of the conflict. Two days later, during the Sunday Angelus, the pontiff made a public appeal to put an end to the war.
According to the Vatican’s ambassador to Israel and papal delegate in Jerusalem and Palestine, Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, Francis words had a major impact on the local media, both print as well as radio stations and broadcasters.
“Everyone repeated the appeal of the Holy Father.”
The parish of the Holy Family belongs to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and is supported by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, and Caritas Jerusalem, an international catholic charity with local branches around the world.
The Argentinian priest admitted that they count on external support to be able to resume their activities.
“We can’t work at the full of our capabilities because we have nothing left. Without the help of international organizations we won’t be able to reopen our schools. Patriarch Twal supported us during the bombings, and we know he’ll keep doing so.”
The parish adjoining school suffered important destruction as a collateral damage of a missile that was directed to the house of a neighbor. “We need to rebuild what we have, so that from there we can help others.”
The day of the bombing that destroyed the school, the priest received a warning via SMS that told neighbors of the impending attack. The parish, however, was hosting a group of Missionaries of Charity sisters, the religious order founded by Mother Theresa nuns who were tending to a group of disabled children, and it was impossible for them to flee.
For Hernández, the hardest part of the post-war period is seeing thousands of families head back to a home they’re not sure still exists.
“To those who have been offering their illnesses and suffering for a longstanding peace in the Middle East, know we’re thankful and that we’re praying for you,” he said. “But please, don’t stop praying for us.”