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Every Sunday - 9am Divine Liturgy in English (fully or mostly) at the Holy Family Cathedral

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Thursday, 14 May 2009

Pope Benedict at Bethlehem

The Vatican Information Service reports, 14 May 2009:

The Pope has today visited the Basilica and the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The present situation of co-ownership and administration of the Basilica of the Nativity by Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Latin Catholics dates back to the Status Quo, an 1862 Ottoman decree which regulates religious life at the Holy Sepulchre and at Bethlehem.

The Greeks own the basilica, except for the north part of the transept which belongs to the Armenians. The Grotto of the Nativity belongs to the Franciscans and is divided into two parts: the Altar of the Nativity, of the Greeks, and the Altar of the Manger in the Grotto of the Magi, of the Latins. Next to the basilica the Franciscans built the church of St. Catherine where the Roman rite is celebrated.

On both sides of the Greek choir in the basilica are the two entrances to the Grotto of the Nativity which is rectangular and measures 12 meters in length and 3 meters in both width and height. The bronze doors and marble portals date from the era of the crusades. The apse covers the Altar of the Nativity, under which there is a marble slab with a silver star and the Latin inscription: "Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est" (Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary). To the right of the Altar of the Nativity is the Grotto of the Magi where Catholic Masses are celebrated.

Having completed his visit, Benedict XVI moved on to the Caritas Baby Hospital, a children's hospital founded in 1952 and supported by the "Kinderhilfe Bethlehem" Association, established by Fr. Ernst Schnydrig who died in 1978. The hospital enjoys the support of the German and Swiss episcopal conferences.

Before greeting the medical and administrative staff, and the Franciscan Elizabethan Sisters of Padua who help care for the patients, the Pope visited the chapel and the maternity ward.

Addressing some words to the young patients and their families, he said: "The Pope is with you! Today he is with you in person, but he spiritually accompanies you each and every day in his thoughts and prayers, asking the Almighty to watch over you with His tender care.

"Fr. Schnydrig described this place as 'one of the smaller bridges built for peace'. Now, having grown from fourteen cots to eighty beds, and caring for the needs of thousands of children each year, this bridge is no longer small! It brings together people of different origins, languages and religions, in the name of the Reign of God, the Kingdom of Peace. I heartily encourage you to persevere in your mission of showing charity to all the sick, the poor and the weak".

Today being the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, the Holy Father concluded by invoking the Virgin Mary in these terms: "May love triumph over hatred, solidarity over division, and peace over every form of violence!" And he concluded: "We ask your Son Jesus to bless these children and all children who suffer throughout the world".

Having completed his visit to the Caritas Baby Hospital, the Holy Father boarded his popemobile and travelled the two kilometres separating it from the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem.

The Aida camp is one of the refugee camps in the Palestinian Territories, which house a total of 1,300,000 refugees who arrived in two waves: in 1948 with the birth of the State of Israel, and in 1967 following the Six-Day War. The Aida camp, an example of co-existence between Christians and Muslims, houses some 5,000 people, including a number of Christian families.

Various estimates give the number of people living in the Palestinian Territories as between three and four million. According to 2008 estimates from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Palestinian refugees number 4,600,000 scattered between Jordan (1,700,000 of whom 329,000 live in ten camps); the West Bank (500,000 in nineteen camps); the Gaza Strip (1,000,000 in eight camps, in a total population of 1,500,000); Lebanon (409,000 in twelve camps) and Syria (120,000 in nine camps).

In his remarks, the Pope welcomed the opportunity to express his "solidarity with all the homeless Palestinians who long to be able to return to their birthplace, or to live permanently in a homeland of their own". He also praised the work of UNRWA officials in this camp and others throughout the region.

Benedict XVI reiterated the importance of education and called on young people present to "renew your efforts to prepare for the time when you will be responsible for the affairs of the Palestinian people in years to come". In this context, he also called on parents "to support your children in their studies and to nurture their gifts, so that there will be no shortage of well-qualified personnel to occupy leadership positions in the Palestinian community in the future.

"I know", he added, "that many of your families are divided - through imprisonment of family members, or restrictions on freedom of movement - and many of you have experienced bereavement in the course of the hostilities. ... Please be assured that all Palestinian refugees across the world, especially those who lost homes and loved ones during the recent conflict in Gaza, are constantly remembered in my prayers".

The Holy Father also praised the work of certain Church agencies in the Palestinian Territories, such as the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who "call to mind the charismatic figure of St. Francis, that great apostle of peace and reconciliation", and the Franciscan family in general which cares "for the people of these lands, by making themselves 'instruments of peace'".

"Instruments of peace", the Pope reiterated. "How much the people of this camp, these Territories, and this entire region long for peace! In these days, that longing takes on a particular poignancy as you recall the events of May 1948 and the years of conflict, as yet unresolved, that followed from those events. You are now living in precarious and difficult conditions, with limited opportunities for employment.

"It is understandable that you often feel frustrated. Your legitimate aspirations for permanent homes, for an independent Palestinian State, remain unfulfilled. Instead you find yourselves trapped, as so many in this region and throughout the world are trapped, in a spiral of violence, of attack and counter-attack, retaliation, and continual destruction. The whole world is longing for this spiral to be broken, for peace to put an end to the constant fighting. Towering over us, as we gather here this afternoon, is a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached - the wall.

"In a world where more and more borders are being opened up - to trade, to travel, to movement of peoples, to cultural exchanges - it is tragic to see walls still being erected. How we long to see the fruits of the much more difficult task of building peace! How earnestly we pray for an end to the hostilities that have caused this wall to be built!

"On both sides of the wall, great courage is needed if fear and mistrust is to be overcome, if the urge to retaliate for loss or injury is to be resisted. It takes magnanimity to seek reconciliation after years of fighting. Yet history has shown that peace can only come when the parties to a conflict are willing to move beyond their grievances and work together towards common goals, each taking seriously the concerns and fears of the other, striving to build an atmosphere of trust. There has to be a willingness to take bold and imaginative initiatives towards reconciliation: if each insists on prior concessions from the other, the result can only be stalemate".

Benedict XVI emphasised the fact that humanitarian aid, such as the kind provided in the Aida camp, is essential "but the long-term solution to a conflict such as this can only be political. No one expects the Palestinian and Israeli peoples to arrive at it on their own. The support of the international community is vital, and hence I make a renewed appeal to all concerned to bring their influence to bear in favour of a just and lasting solution, respecting the legitimate demands of all parties and recognising their right to live in peace and dignity, in accordance with international law. Yet at the same time, diplomatic efforts can only succeed if Palestinians and Israelis themselves are willing to break free from the cycle of aggression".

The Holy Father concluded his comments with a plea "for a profound commitment to cultivate peace and non-violence, following the example of St. Francis and other great peacemakers. Peace has to begin in the home, in the family, in the heart. I continue to pray that all parties to the conflict in these lands will have the courage and imagination to pursue the challenging but indispensable path of reconciliation. May peace flourish once more in these lands! May God bless His people with peace!"

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