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Papal almoner to spend Christmas in the Holy Land in a ‘journey of closeness’

A Palestinian Catholic woman holds her as he lights a candle in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank, Dec. 17, 2023, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. The church is built on what is believed to be the site where Jesus was born. (OSV News photo/Debbie Hill)

(OSV News) — Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, prefect of Vatican Dicastery for the Service of Charity, landed in Israel on Dec. 22, starting a “journey of closeness” as papal envoy to the Holy Land during a difficult wartime Christmas season.

“We landed at 2 a.m. and, after a few hours of sleep, I rushed to the church of the Holy Sepulchre, to Our Lord’s tomb, to pray,” papal almoner told OSV News on the morning of Dec. 22.

Cardinal Krajewski planned to spend the first day in the Holy Land visiting Christian communities, accompanied by Father Gabriel Romanelli, an Argentine pastor of the Holy Family Parish in Gaza City, who found himself stuck in Jerusalem on Oct. 7 — when Hamas attacked communities in southern Israel — and unable to return to the Gaza Strip.

“We plan to visit orphanages, facilities for the disabled, refugees and the elderly. This afternoon we also want to visit the local seminary, and then I plan to just save the late afternoon for prayer, because this is what I came for, to pray for peace,” the cardinal said.

It was Pope Francis’ desire that “this journey be accompanied by prayer to obtain the gift of peace in the territories where the sound of weapons still resounds,” the Dec. 22 statement from the Vatican said.

The pope, “saddened by the ‘third world war in pieces’ afflicting the world, prays daily for peace, clamoring for an end to the conflicts that blood the earth: in the battered Ukraine, in Syria, in many countries in Africa and now in Israel and Palestine,” it continued.

The Vatican announced that Pope Francis sent Cardinal Krajewski to Israel and Palestine as a “concrete sign of his participation in the suffering of those who experience firsthand the consequences of war.”

“It’s going to be a difficult mission to support them,” Cardinal Krajewski told OSV News. “Because of war, people are left with literally nothing. Only in Bethlehem, there are no jobs, no income, not to mention the Gaza Strip where there is unimaginable hunger. We will try to contact the assistant priest and sisters in the Holy Family Parish,” he said.

On Dec. 25, the cardinal will join the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, during midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on the West Bank.

“Not long ago those streets were full of merchants, joyful pilgrims and open stores. Today, it’s completely empty. When I was praying at the Holy Sepulchre, I was the only pilgrim, others were local monks,” Cardinal Krajewski said.

Early evening local time Dec. 22, Cardinal Krajewski sent a voice message to OSV News saying that in three of the orphanages he visited with Father Romanelli in Bethlehem “there are also infants taken off the street. Two such babies just from yesterday were brought by the nuns.”

“I spent some time with them. We prayed together,” he said, adding that he left religious sisters running the orphanages “concrete help” from the Holy Father “because they also live in great difficulty.”

After lunch at the seminary of the Latin Patriarchate in Bethlehem, where 38 seminarians study, Cardinal Krajewski and Father Romanelli met four Gaza Palestinians.

“One of these girls lost 12 family members,” in the current Israel-Hamas war, Cardinal Krajewski said in a voice message. “They came to tell how things are in Gaza, to be able to tell all this to the Holy Father (through his almoner): that Gaza is hell, that there is no water, no power.”

While in the Holy Land, the papal almoner wanted to “support a little bit the various religious communities and priests who are working in this very, very difficult situation,” and also discuss “how can we increase the aid.”

The cardinal spent Christmas 2022 in Ukraine, bringing humanitarian aid and warm clothes for civilians and soldiers. Today, he said, the prayers for peace are even more needed.

“Peace is our greatest desire, yes. But if we don’t have peace inside us, and if we don’t decide to make peace in our communities, in our families, there will be no outside peace,” he said as the Israel-Hamas war was about to enter its 12th week. “People here long for a cease-fire, they say ‘maybe on Christmas,’ but with very little hope.”

“Peace starts with each of us — if we don’t control ourselves, no peace will be achieved,” Cardinal Krajewski told OSV News, recalling a prayer with which he was especially touched.

On June 8, 2014, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in the Vatican Gardens and in the presence of the pope recited a prayer “that to this day is still very relevant,” the cardinal said.

“Lord God of peace, hear our prayer!

Grant us peace, teach us peace; guide our steps in the way of peace. Open our eyes and our hearts, and give us the courage to say: ‘Never again war!; ‘With war everything is lost.’ Instill in our hearts the courage to take concrete steps to achieve peace.

And may the words ‘division,’ ‘hatred’ and ‘war’ be banished from the heart of every man and woman. Lord, defuse the violence of our tongues and our hands. Renew our hearts and minds, so that the word which always brings us together will be ‘brother,’ and our way of life will always be that of: Shalom, Peace, Salaam!”

Paulina Guzik is international editor for OSV News. Follow her o X, formerly Twitter @Guzik_Paulina

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