A mere half mile from the spot where Our Lord was born, nine children are born each day at Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem. Though it offers a full range of health care services, the hospital specializes in prenatal care and delivery. At the invitation of Pope John Paul II, the medical facility has been supported and administered since 1990 by the Knights of Malta and houses a maternity ward with 63 beds and the latest in Western medical technology. Thanks to the generosity of its benefactors, it’s hard to discern any difference between Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem and Children’s Hospital in Boston. Since its opening, the dedicated team at Holy Family has delivered more than 55,000 babies, without regard for their parents’ ability to pay or for their religious or national affiliations. The church’s commitment to a consistent ethic of human life is clearly and daily evident in their work.
I visited the hospital this month during America’s eight-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Bethlehem, as you likely know, is located in the Palestinian Territory, on one side of a gargantuan wall that separates the Israelis from Palestinians and, in a very real way, the first world from the third world. Life in Bethlehem is dramatically different from life in downtown Jerusalem, just a 15-minute car ride away. Unemployment rates are stuck in the upper 20s, and daily wages for Palestinians are less than half of those of their Israeli counterparts. These two economic realities have converged to produce a myriad of social problems for Bethlehem’s residents, including a lack of access to good, affordable health care. So Holy Family Hospital, which has the only available medical care for high risk pregnancies in the area, is saving lives daily.
It makes sense that this Christian work should shine in the midst of such poverty and struggle. After all, Jesus was born in this place during a disturbingly similar period of occupation and destitution. It also made good sense for us to visit the hospital. For the previous six days, led by America’s editor at large, James Martin, S.J., we had toured the major sites associated with Jesus of Nazareth, from the shores of Galilee to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. But when the risen Lord appeared to Mary Magdalene and his disciples, he did not simply announce his triumph: he also commissioned them to make disciples and to serve the least among us. In that sense, the visit to Holy Family Hospital gave our pilgrims a glimpse of one of the ways that Christians are meeting the Lord’s mandate in our own time.
It is almost impossible to put into words what one feels during such a pilgrimage. “Awe-inspiring” is one word. “Humbling” is another. But after some initial reflection, I’ve settled on “hopeful.” I am hopeful, not because I think we have solved our problems or because there appears to be less injustice in the world. Far from it, I fear. I am hopeful because this pilgrimage allowed me to meet Jesus once again, this time in the land of his birth and ministry, the land that biblical scholars like to call the fifth Gospel. I encountered anew the one we call in Mass our “blessed hope.” Whatever happens, he has already won the ultimate battle between good and evil.
That gives me the hope I need to redouble my efforts on behalf of the kingdom of God. It’s the same hope the good men and women of Holy Family Hospital show in their work, the same hope that allows us to believe in faith that we will one day sing with joy and with new meaning the words of one of our favorite hymns: In that little town of Bethlehem, “God imparts to human hearts/ The blessings of His heaven./ No ear may hear His coming,/ But in this world of sin,/ Where meek souls will receive him still,/ The dear Christ enters in.”