By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published April 5, 2007
In the heart of Bethlehem is St. Catherine’s Church, where Christmas Eve Mass is broadcast around the world.
The church of 2,400 families is staffed by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, the official Catholic custodians of Christian shrines. The building incorporates remnants of its 12th century predecessor. One chapel is dedicated to St. Jerome, the fourth-century scholar who died in Bethlehem and who wrote the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible.
Since 2003 St. Catherine’s has had a covenant relationship with St. Andrew’s Church in Roswell, which provides it with financial and spiritual support.
A small wooden door connects St. Catherine’s to the Church of the Nativity, with a stone exterior that displays the Franciscan cross and that of two other denominations sharing custody of the shrine—the Armenian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox.
The dark Nativity church with mosaic remnants of the original church built in the fourth century by the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine enshrines the grotto identified as where Jesus was born and has a bronze star with the inscription in Latin: “Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ Was Born.” Just across Manger Square is a mosque.
The Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, based in Washington, D.C., provides numerous support services for Christians at St. Catherine’s and across the sacred land, and was established as an arm of the custody specifically to stem the Christian exodus. Foundation president Father Peter Vasko, OFM, is encouraged recently by the “very positive sign” that some evangelical Christian groups in the United States have begun to support their work, including Hope Charitable Services, which shipped them 50,000 encyclopedias to distribute to churches and schools. This and other connections were made through the Jewish humanitarian organization MADP-Tarshish Foundation in Israel.
Father Vasko is proud of the Franciscans’ longstanding tradition of service, as without them there would likely be no Catholic Mass in the Holy Land today. St. Francis of Assisi visited the Holy Land in the 1200s during the Crusades and established a rapport with a Muslim ruler that enabled his order to stay under Islamic rule and have custody of Christian holy sites. Another purpose was, and still is eight centuries later, to have friars live among the Muslims in peace and brotherhood, testifying for Christ through their lives.
Through the Franciscans, “the Latin Patriarch … was started in 1297 and remained. In the late 1860s then diocesan bishops were installed. We, the friars, maintained the presence of the Roman Catholic Church,” Father Vasko said.
The Greek and Armenian churches have also strived to maintain their presence at the holy sites, and in the 19th century an agreement was reached on their rights and privileges at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Tomb of the Virgin, and the Church of the Nativity, regarding ownership, timing of ceremonies and other conditions.
Father Vasko gave up a successful career in marketing for the hospitality industry, inspired while visiting the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. After 23 years of living in Jerusalem he is privileged to be “doing marketing for God.”
“I’m penniless and very happy working for God and his people in the Holy Land,” he said in a phone interview from New York, where he’s finishing up a seven-week speaking tour around the United States to raise awareness of “the Christian exodus” from the Holy Land.
He believes there can be a “resemblance of peace” in the Holy Land, which is torn by the struggle over land that dates back to pre-Christian times. He is hopeful about the Roadmap to Peace, proposed by the United States and other parties in 2003, to address the many contentious territorial and other issues surrounding the Palestinian desire for statehood and Israel’s right to exist and land control. He believes that extremists on both sides are exploiting the needs of peace-loving Israelis and Muslims.
“Military victor(ies) by themselves do not bring about security. Only peace built on justice and human rights will bring about peace and security for both people. Both are suffering. We have to work with both parties,” he affirmed. “Negotiation has to continue on and international involvement has to go on, one that is based on compromise, reasonability and rationality and that has to be supported by ongoing negotiations, preferably by the Roadmap.”
In the meanwhile, the Franciscan foundation has provided over 130 students with university scholarships to top tier Middle Eastern universities, has built several affordable housing projects, continues to run a sponsor-a-child program, and is sponsoring several Holy Land pilgrimages this year for Americans in support of their work. They hold an annual Santa Claus Day in Bethlehem, which this year drew some 800 needy children for a play and distribution of $12,000 worth of gifts.
Father Vasko reported that while the unemployment rate in Bethlehem is 50 percent, 65 percent of graduates of the first class the foundation has sponsored through college now have jobs in fields such as pharmacy, education, engineering and law.
In 2006 the Franciscans completed a 70-unit housing complex called St. Francis Village in Jerusalem and recently completed 36 housing units in Bethlehem. The Franciscan Family Center in Bethlehem was able to reopen in 2004 and provides counseling, family educational support, home visits, parenting classes, job assistance, educational sponsorships, and home repairs. St. Catherine’s pastor Father Amjad Sabbara, OFM, and the director both make home visits where they can assess individual needs and begin to help.
St. Andrew’s parishioner Karen Carroll is on the board of trustees of FFHL and initiated the twinning relationship between St. Andrew and St. Catherine’s. After a trip to the Holy Land, she was spiritually moved but also stirred to act when she learned about Palestinian Christians who struggle to make a living and who, at times, are marginalized by neighbors and unable to wear a cross to the grocery store. She felt God was calling her to become involved, which she feels is a privilege and responsibility. St. Andrew’s celebrated a Mass to initiate the formal covenant relationship in 2003. A replica of the Bambino Shrine, which contains a hand-carved figure of the Christ child that once rested upon the spot of Christ’s birth, is now kept at St. Andrew’s.
St. Andrew’s holds a special collection for St. Catherine’s and increases awareness of their situation through prayers, petitions and annual speakers. With a base of support in the archdiocese, the FFHL has been able to hold fundraising events in Atlanta in 2002 and 2005.
Carroll and several others at St. Andrew’s Church sponsor individual children to attend school and together have sponsored one student’s college education. She said the church has been “very generous,” as members have learned of their hardship and of how “we need people to worship in these sites.”
“The midnight Mass (broadcast on TV around the world) is at St. Catherine’s. It’s a small world when you stop to think about it, and we can make a difference and that’s a great thing.”
Father Vasko is grateful for the generous support of the Atlanta Archdiocese to aid in their critical work to maintain fertile Christian soil where the religion began and prevent the churches in another 50 years from becoming “empty religious monuments and museums.”
“Thirty-five years ago 80 percent of Bethlehem was Christian and 20 percent (was) Muslim. Today 91 percent is Muslim and it’s 9 percent Christian.”
For information on the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land visit www.ffhl.org.