“The peace the shepherds announced in this holy place has always been difficult”
The guardian of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem was speaking to the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). “We have to see the Child Jesus in each individual person whom we help. Above all at Christmas time we need to pay very special attention to those in need”, he told ACN. “If we do not see the Child in those who are suffering, then what kind of Christmas is that?”
“How do you do? I am the guardian of the Child Jesus.” This is how Father Artemio Vítores introduces himself during the conversation. In Palestine, the city of Bethlehem is putting the final touches to its preparations for the central role it plays in the Christian world, above all at Christmas time. A beautiful Nativity scene adorns the renowned Manger Square, right next to the place where, according to tradition, Jesus was born.
Bethlehem is beautifully lit up and decked out in all its finery, but it is impossible to hide the fact that the decision by the US president Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has had its effect on the spirits of the inhabitants here. “These are difficult times. The peace the shepherds announced in this holy place has always been difficult”, remarks this Spanish priest, who has by now lived through eight wars and two intifadas.
Speaking of the “problem of Jerusalem as capital”, this Franciscan friar, who lived for 46 years in Jerusalem before moving to Bethlehem, has no need to think twice about it: “Jerusalem has to be the mother of all and not the lover of one. The image of Jerusalem as a mother comes from the Old Testament, and a mother never excludes any of her children. If it is turned into the capital of Israel, or of Palestine, it will be an excluding action and there will not be room for others.” Nonetheless, he is optimistic, expressing the hope “that the situation does not go any further and that people will stop and think”.
And the truth is that the consequences of the waves of violence in Bethlehem and Jerusalem are especially harmful to the Christians. Since the year 1948, the date of the creation of the State of Israel, a total of 350,000 people have abandoned Bethlehem and its surrounding area. Father Artemio recalls the harm done during the second intifada, “which left the Holy Places without any pilgrims or visitors”. It is estimated that during this period, from 2001 until 2005, “around 80% of the heads of families were left without any income. If there are no pilgrims, many people cannot survive. There is no work, there is no food.” The statistics make sad reading: of the Christians who once made up 20% of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, there are only 1.4% remaining. It is quite clear to this Franciscan priest that “if we do not work together, the Christians will disappear from the Holy Land. And how can we help? By visiting this land. This provides both moral and economic support to its inhabitants”, he concludes.
Spanish Father Artemio follows up by quoting the words of Saint Teresa of Avila: “A sad saint is a sorry saint.” And he adds, “We have to bring joy and hope to the Christians of the Holy Land; that is why we are here.”
Despite having lived so many years in the Holy Land, he still sounds like a new arrival, so strong is his emotion when he speaks of Bethlehem. “If there is anywhere in the world a holy place that has remained and still resembles how it was, then it is Bethlehem. The Basilica has suffered many vicissitudes, but it has never been destroyed, and the grotto in Bethlehem still remains as it was, a grotto.”
This grotto of the Nativity, the place of that first Christmas, is a place which – as Father Artemio says – attracts and moves us. “I feel moved, despite all the years, I feel moved each day anew. At present I celebrate Holy Mass there at 4.55 in the morning, and it brings me almost to tears when I think that here, in this place, God chose to become one of us. The simplicity of God who became a Child. A newborn Child, who did not even have a cradle! It is this poverty that moves me.”
Speaking of the work of the international Catholic foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and of the other organisations that are helping the Christians of the Holy Land and the Middle East, Father Artemio insists that this is “like the shepherds who came in haste and with joy to bring their gifts to the Child Jesus. The shepherds did not even know this Child, yet they left everything and ran joyfully and hurriedly to find him. That is how your help must be”, he tells us. And he continues, “When you help those Christians who are in need and suffering in so many different parts of the world, you are being faithful to the Gospel message: ‘whatever you have done for one of the least of these little ones you have done for me”. We have to see the Child Jesus in each individual person we help. Above all at Christmas time we need to pay very special attention to those in need”, he told ACN. “If we do not see the Child in those who are suffering, then what kind of Christmas is that?”
During 2017 the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN gave over 16 million Euros in support of projects in the Holy Land and Middle East.
Maria Lozano – ACN International