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THE FRANCISCANS IN BETHLEHEM


  
Members of the Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor) have been living in Bethlehem, the place which witnessed the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for almost seven centuries. This presence, which dates from as early as the beginning of the 1300s, later became more stable in the 1340s.
Interestingly, the best documented of their early activities there, are those concerning important restorations to the ancient Justinian Basilica in the years 1393-1399, 1438, 1448-1452 and 1479-1480. However, from the earliest times following their arrival, they instituted and organised a series of pious practices in the shape of paraliturgical processions venerating the sacred events which occurred in the birthplace of Jesus. One of their principal functions was the regular participation in the liturgical choir, a practise which resulted in their being compared by some pilgrims to the canons of a collegiate church.

LIVING IN BETHLEHEM
  
In old prints as well as in photographs from the 18th century, the Franciscan convent at Bethlehem looks like an imposing mansion or fortress. But even as early as 1340 Ludolfo Sudheim writes that the church and friary at Bethlehem are furnished with towers and ramparts like those of a castle, while Fr. Francis Suriano, ofm, Custos of the Holy Land 1493-1495 and 1512-1514, tells us that these fortifications are surrounded by a series of walls with a few ravelins and large towers, built by the Christians for defence purposes. Later, Baedeker, the very accurate guide to Syria and Palestine, demonstrates in the 1882 French edition, how the group of monasteries surrounding the Basilica of the Nativity seem to be truly a fortress. Indeed the Franciscans were often obliged to defend themselves from the attacks of marauders from the nearby desert and from local bandits. In 1817 the Custos, Fr. Salvatore Antonio of Malta reported to the Sacred Congregation of the Faith: "Twice in the year 1811, the family of the religious community of Bethlehem was threatened by loss of life because the Turks took over a part of the friary. And those remaining would have perished if they had not quickly fled the scene. However, two religious who planned to remain, flattering themselves by thinking that they could alleviate the imminent plundering, were forced the following night to climb the walls, and between cliffs and crags to withdraw to the country".

ASSISTANCE TO PILGRIMS
  
Besides officiating at the liturgy, assisting pilgrims was also permitted by the Islamic authorities. Since the friary as such had little space for receiving pilgrims, a fact documented by a floor plan of the friary by Fr. Bernadine Amico, circa 1596, only a few guests could find lodging there. It should be added, however, that the usual visit/pilgrimage to Bethlehem did not require much time, and when someone intended to spend the night there this was usually spent in personal devotions, attending the night liturgical office and the masses celebrated in the Grotto of the Nativity. It was only after the first half of the last century that individual pilgrimages became more frequent and that those organised in big groups were resumed. As a first response it was decided by the friars to restructure the spaces destined for use by the pilgrims. In 1870 an entire wing of the friary was redesigned and partly rebuilt. The results, however, were quickly shown to be inadequate. Consequently in 1908 a "Casa Nova" which was to serve for 70 years, was built. Finally, a new building was envisaged. This building it was said ‘ought to be worthy of its proximity to the most holy, famous and ancient Christian edifice, and with a panorama of the marvellous countryside that leads up to Jerusalem, leave an unforgettable memory of the pilgrimage that has, if only briefly, passed some time close to the cradle of Christ’. Finally, on 28th April 1986 the new "Casa Nova", which is completely independent of the friary was blessed and inaugurated. It can accommodate as many as 129 pilgrims and has a dining hall which can serve twice that number.

THE PARISH
  
The Franciscan apostolate in Bethlehem in the late middle ages was largely one of presence without special exterior actions. The constant hostility of the environment, particularly towards Catholicism, whether from the authorities or from locals, did not permit some public activities that might be considered as apostolate in the traditional sense of the word. Change became possible as the influence of the Catholic Nations in their role as protectors of the Holy Land and of the Franciscans became stronger. Also, the Council of Florence (1438-1445) and the Council of Trent (1545-1563) by imposing new forms of apostolate, created new possibilities of evangelical activity that before might have been deemed unsuitable. A providential development was the creation of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (1622), which resulted in the clarification of the need for regular and ongoing documentation regarding the apostolate in the non-Christian lands. It is interesting to note that it was this Congregation that gave official and juridical recognition to the institution of Latin Parishes in the Holy Land with the Franciscans as Parish Priests of those parishes. It is also from this period, given the certainty of dates and related information, that pastoral activity can be followed. An important register has already been published, with statistics etc. from the parish of Bethlehem, dating from 1664-1848. In addition, no less than 10 documents emanated from the Turkish Authorities between 1545 and 1748, that forbade anyone to harass someone who became Catholic, provided that the convert paid the prescribed tax. Five of these documents are ‘firmans’ of the Sultans dealing with Bethlehem. The existence of so many interventions on the part of the Turkish Authorities demonstrates sufficiently that the situation was never easy for those who were or sought to be Catholic in Bethlehem in those times. And although throughout the ages, the bad-intentioned worked to destroy the Catholic Parish of Bethlehem, it survived and actually flourished in the Turkish period as can be seen from the fact that in 1664 there were 128 faithful, while in 1909 there were 5172. Unfortunately, by 1998 this figure had shrunk somewhat to 4300.
The apostolate of the Franciscans in Bethlehem was not restricted to the inhabitants there, but spread to such nearby villages as Beit-Sahur and Beit-Jala. From reports sent to the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the faith it is known that in1691 at at Neit-Sahur there were ‘20 Catholics homes’, and that in 1692 there were ‘60 souls’ that had recently embraced the Catholic faith.
Catholicism in Beit-Jala, has had similar history to that of Beit-Sahur. Already before 1692 there was a movement towards conversion. And in 1713 the leaders of Beit-Jala presented themselves to the Fr. Guardian in the friary of Bethlehem to declare to him the readiness of the entire village to be become Catholic. Given the delicate nature of the proposal, the case was carefully studied in Rome by the competent ecclesiastical authority, and despite a revaluation on the part of the village leaders of their original proposal, positive results were eventually obtained through the work of the Franciscans. The result was that by 1760, Beit-Jala had a Catholic parish in the Byzantine rite, complete with its own parish priest and dependent on its own ecclesiastical hierarchy. Currently, in Beit-Sahur and Beit-Jala both of which today form almost two suburbs of Bethlehem, Catholic life is fully developed and organised under the vigilant care of the respective parish priests of the Latin and Byzantine rites.

THE PAROCHIAL SCHOOL
  
One of the most characteristic and oldest activities of the Franciscans in Bethlehem is represented by the boys’ school, which is the oldest of all the schools founded by the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land. The first mention dates from the year 1598. In that year a Dutch pilgrim, Jan van Kootwyck, notes that in Bethlehem everybody knows the Italian language and that as children they learn it in order to be able, as adults to use it as guides and interpreters for western pilgrims. Kootwyck further clarifies that the religious of the friary busy themselves in instructing boys in foreign languages, a fact clearly demonstrated by documentation of a few decades later.
From an initially rudimentary system, the instruction of the school continued to organise and develop, adapting itself to the demands and circumstances of the times while remaining at the level of elementary education. It was only in the last 50 years that upper grades, including high school were added, so that today the graduating student is ready for university studies.
Regarding students a few statistics are worth mentioning. In 1692 there were approximately 50 alumni, in1848 there were 90, and in1898 in excess of 300. In the 20th century, in the scholastic year 1989-90 students numbered 736, in the current academic year 1999-2000, they number 903.
With this growth it became necessary to plan for the construction of a separate building that would be used exclusively as a school. This did not become possible until the early 1960s. The newly completed school was first used during the scholastic year 1964-65.
In the first half of the last century, the Franciscans also established a school for girls in Bethlehem. The administration and teaching was initially done by lay women from the area. Later, however, a congregation of female religious, the Sisters of St. Joseph were invited to take care of the running of the school. This was done to ensure both educational continuity and to maintain the high standards of learning. Today, while the girls’ school remains an activity sponsored by the Custody of the Holy Land, it is the Sisters of St. Joseph who continue their important role in its administration and teaching in it. The student population for the 1999-2000 academic year is 975.
The Franciscans have always tried to maintain a Catholic ethos in their schools and while these schools were built for the Catholic community, they have whenever possible, opened their doors to non-Catholics and non-Christians. This openness has facilitated contact and dialogue between segments of the local people which otherwise would have been difficult to establish.
Other Catholic organizations that have their origins in the parish are the Third Order of Franciscans, Catholic Action, the Legion of Mary and the Crusaders.

HEALTH CARE
  
In addition to parish and educational activities, health care was also important. Records indicate that the Bethlehem Friary, for example, functioned as a pharmacy from the1850s until the First World War period. From one such document we learn that the pharmacy "was well furnished with medicines for the needs of a multitude of sick people that daily receive treatment and free medicine from a friar doctor". In modern terms this activity could be thought of as a medical dispensary and first aid station with expert staff.
Under the British Mandate which replaced Turkish rule, pharmacies and their standards improved. At the same time civilian medical personnel became more numerous and professional. As a result, the activity of the Bethlehem Franciscans in the field of health care lost its importance and its raison d’etre. The Franciscans therefore, after a realistic appraisal of the new situation opted for new ways of serving the needy. One of these ways was expressed in 1931 through the founding of "The Youth of St. Anthony". The aim of this association was to promote devotion to St. Anthony of Padua together with a commitment to a more Christian life, so that devotion and Christian responsibility would be translated into works of charity. A result of this process was the opening and sponsoring of a rest home for the elderly who were in particularly difficult situations. This took place in 1943 when a house was bought in the pleasant section of Bethlehem. Later in 1946 the house was enlarged and of course, over time has been refurbished. All of this was possible because under the administration of the priests of the parish, the parishioners laboured to find the means necessary to support this charitable work.


Text by Fr. Methodius Brlek ofm


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