Pope’s Patriarch Observes Somber Christmas Eve in Bethlehem

Heidi Levine for The Washington Post
The Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, arrives at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, in the West Bank, on Dec. 24, 2023.

BETHLEHEM, West Bank – On Christmas Eve, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, entered into this ancient city through a clanking metal gate built into a high concrete wall beside an Israeli army watchtower scorched by petrol bombs and covered with graffiti.

The cardinal came in a procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank to say midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, the 6th century basilica built upon the grotto where tradition holds that Jesus was born.

In his homily, he spoke of “hatred, resentment and the spirit of revenge” in our hearts. He asked the people to look for the light. It was that kind of Christmas Eve here.

Heidi Levine for The Washington Post
A Nativity scene in Bethlehem’s Manger Square on Dec. 24, 2023, created to honor the victims in Gaza.

At this time of year, Bethlehem should be blazing with light and song. On Sunday the mood was quiet and dark, the public celebrations canceled because of the war in Gaza. There were no parades, no carols, no Christmas trees.

The midnight Mass was filled with local Palestinian Christians who would not normally score a seat.

The Latin patriarch oversees the Catholic churches of Israel, Jordan, Cyprus, as well as the West Bank and Gaza. He is Pope Francis’s representative in the Holy Land. It is no easy job.

After he passed through the Israeli checkpoint in a VW sedan, his entourage drove through the half-empty streets lined with half-empty shops, past a facsimile of a Banksy mural that showed a peace dove wearing a flak jacket. There were scattered Palestinian forces holding riot shields they did not need. No one lined the roads.

At Manger Square in the center of town, where a giant Christmas tree usually stands, there was only a somber crèche – with gray ghostly figures representing the holy family, surrounded by barbed wire and strewn rubble, with a baby wrapped in a white shroud.

The patriarch, for the first time, wore a black-and-white kaffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, around his neck, atop his red robes. Usually, the religious leader is heralded by hundreds of marching Palestinian Boy Scouts, playing bagpipes, very enthusiastically. This year a lone troop was given the honor of escort, and the young scouts were silent, holding signs reading, “we want life, not death” and “blessed are the peace makers.”

Before he entered the Church of the Nativity, the cardinal stopped and spoke a few words to the small crowd, mostly to journalists. “We have to stop the bombing,” he said. “To bring people back to normal life. I can’t say back to their homes, because they have no homes to go back to.”

The patriarch, who is Italian, has also spoken against the brutal attacks by Palestinian militants on Oct. 7. Earlier in the war, he offered himself up to be exchanged for Israeli children taken hostage by Hamas.

At the Church of St. Catherine, adjacent to the Nativity grotto, the Rev. Louis Salman, head of Palestinian Catholic youth groups, said, “You don’t think children understand the war in Gaza, but they do. They understand the misery.”

Heidi Levine for The Washington Post
Palestinian children in front of a giant Palestinian flag in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, near the Church of the Nativity, on Dec. 24, 2023.

In his homily at the midnight Mass, the patriarch spoke to those “in mourning and weeping and waiting for a concrete gesture of closeness and care.”

“At this moment our thoughts cannot be far from those who have lost everything in this war,” he said, “who are now displaced, alone and paralyzed by their grief. My thoughts go, without distinction, to all who are affected by this war, in Palestine and Israel and the whole region.”

“My thoughts go to Gaza and its 2 million inhabitants. Truly the words, ‘There was no room for them,’ describe their situation,” he said.

For decades the Palestinians have been waiting for the international community to find solutions to end the occupation under which they are forced to live, the patriarch said, but “it seems to me that each of us is entrapped by his own pain. Hatred, resentment and the spirit of revenge occupy all the space in our hearts and leave no room for the presence of others. Yet, we need others.”