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Pontifical Mission at 50: Bethlehem

In the “little town of Bethlehem,” now a bustling city, Palestinians gather to honor the work of the Pontifical Mission.

prepared by CNEWA staff
photographs: courtesy CNEWA-PMP, Jerusalem


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It was here at last. After months of preparation by the Jerusalem office staff – the first of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine 50th Anniversary overseas celebrations was about to take place. It was fitting that this first celebration would be in Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem, for the displacement and suffering of Palestinians in 1949 prompted Pope Pius XII to found this “temporary” organization of the Holy See.

Early Friday morning, on 26 November, Msgr. Robert L. Stern, President of the Pontifical Mission, sat with Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches and personal representative of Pope John Paul II for the celebrations, to review the day’s plan. Msgr. Denis Madden, Vice President of the Pontifical Mission, Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., Regional Director for Palestine and Israel, and Msgr. Maurizio Malvestiti, Secretary to Cardinal Silvestrini, also took part in this final strategy session.

Cardinal Silvestrini expressed his desire first to pray at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and to visit with the Jerusalem staff before leaving for Bethlehem, where the celebrations would take place.

The Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre was still fairly quiet when the group arrived – few other pilgrims were there. Visitors from around the world had already begun to form a line: they wanted to pray inside the tomb. Each spoke his own native language as he waited on line but the expression on each face spoke the same message, for it is indeed a once in a lifetime experience to pray at the place of Christ’s burial and resurrection. The Cardinal, dressed in a plain black cassock and overcoat, took his place at the back of the line and waited, a pilgrim himself. For him it was a quiet moment to savor before this day that would bring him into contact with religious and civic leaders and well wishers from among Pontifical Mission for Palestine’s many partners and beneficiaries.

We prayed and gazed up at the rotunda of the dome of the Holy Sepulchre, remembering the role that the Mission’s Jerusalem office played in the four-year restoration process, one that culminated in a dedication celebration in January 1997. The Greek Orthodox priest watching the Franciscan friar who was eyeing the Armenian Apostolic priest as each performed his duty in the Holy Sepulchre were all reminders that there is still work to be done to bring unity to the hearts of these Christians. But the sight of the dome and the mindfulness of the cooperation demanded among the Christian communities and the motioning of the Greek Orthodox priest to the Cardinal to please come to the head of the line were signs of hope.

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Tags: Jerusalem Holy Land Bethlehem Msgr. Stern