The official liturgy for pilgrims at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem is the Mass for Christmas. Celebrating Mass in Manger Square Sunday, Pope Francis followed the pilgrim’s program and chose as his text, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child . . .” Francis took the occasion to preach on the trials of children today.
“Today, too,” the pope told the crowd, “They are a sign of hope, a sign of life, but also a ‘diagnostic’ sign, a marker indicating the health of families, societies and the entire world.” They are a sign of love, he said, a sign “the family is a healthy, society is healthier and the world is more human.”
As an example of love for children, he cited the Ephetha Paul VI Institute for the Hearing and Speech Impairment. Ephetha, in fact, is one of several institutions in which the Church serves children in Bethlehem and its environs, including the Holy Family Maternity Hospital, and a Daughters of Charity orphanage in Ein Kerem in the shadow of Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl, which looks after physically impaired and mentally challenged children.
As a “diagnostic,” however, the pope also named the evils from which today’s children need to be protected. “All too many children continue to be exploited, maltreated, enslaved, prey to violence and illicit trafficking,” he told the crowd. “Still too many children live in exile, as refugees, at times lost at sea, particularly in the waters of the Mediterranean,” referring to a near daily problem at Europe’s door which he dramatized with his visit to Lampedeusa.
In Palestine, he found another, bold way to demonstrate the plight of Palestinian families by lunching with five Palestinian families and their children, ages three through thirty, and three single adults at the Franciscan pilgrim hostel, Casanova, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity. Among the Palestinian guests were people from Jerusalem and Gaza as well as the West Bank. The five families particularly represented different forms of injustice suffered as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank.
The Sbeit family from Ikrit in the north of Galilee were expelled from their homes by the Israelis after the War of Independence, and despite five High Court orders to be returned, they still cannot return home, victims of an early and continuing Israeli land grab.
The Abu Mohor family from the beautiful Cremisan Valley near Bethlehem risk losing their agricultural land to the Israeli Security Wall which will divide them from the family’s agricultural land.
Israeli law, which forbids West Bank residents from marrying Jerusalemites, has divided Joseph and Rima Haboun and their children from one another.
Shawki Halab and his wife Abla have a son serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison.
Layla Shatara, a widow from Bethlehem, is separated from her son who is exiled in Gaza.
Sharing lunch with these poor people, even as he refused to banquet with the authorities, demonstrated once again how much Francis wants to be a pope of the poor. It also made vivid the concern he has for families well beyond the churchy questions like divorce and remarriage to be treated at the Synod on the Family over the next year. Francis understands well, as sociologist Andrew Weigert once wrote, that the family is “a matrix of tragedy.”
The pope also made clear there is no one excluded from the Church’s embrace: victims of injustice, those without recourse from unjust laws, parents of the imprisoned and exiled, recovering addicts. He is a pastor who will love, care and defend them all.
A diplomat as well as a pastor he pointed up the injustices suffered by the Palestinian people without wagging his finger or raising his voice. Raising up the injustice with undisguised love makes clear what must be made right without indicting anyone. The prayer service to which he has invited the Palestinian and Israeli presidents will continue this work of peace.
Drew Christiansen, S. J., is the former editor of America and the Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Development at Georgetown University. He is also a canon of the Holy Sepulchre (Jerusalem).