Posted by Register Holy Land correspondent Michele Chabin:
Life can be rough in Bethlehem at times, but you couldn’t tell on Wednesday, the day Pope Benedict XVI arrived in the town where Jesus was born.
An estimated 10,000 pilgrims joyfully greeted the Holy Father in Manger Square, near the Church of the Nativity.
In contrast to the Mass the Pope celebrated the day before near Gethsemane, in Jerusalem, where pilgrims from overseas outnumbered local Catholics (many local Christians said they could not navigate the closed roads to reach the Mass), Bethlehem was full of Christians from the Bethlehem area and from Ramallah, another enclave of rich Palestinian Christian life and culture.
And unlike the dignified but somewhat somber Mass at Gethsemane, the papal Mass in Bethlehem was positively festive. The place was packed to overflowing. Organizers handed out free baseball caps to prevent sunstroke and white scarves with the Vatican insignia.
Although the Mass was a religious event first and foremost, the crowd cheered when Benedict acknowledged the difficulties faced by the Palestinian people, and even more so when he advocated for the creation of a sovereign Palestinian homeland.
Sometimes you could tell the tourists from the locals by looking at their T-shirts. Palestinian youths wore T-shirts with a photo of the Holy Father receiving a Kefiyah head scarf from a delegation of Palestinian high school students, while some of the pilgrims donned “Israel Pilgrimage” T-shirts. Both were welcome.
Happily for the local shopkeepers, and in spite of what they had been told previously, Palestinian police allowed the stores and restaurants to remain open throughout the Mass. It was a goodwill gesture that hopefully resulted in some good business.
Palestinians often complain that pilgrims come to see the churches in Bethlehem and then go back to Jerusalem without spending a penny. This pilgrimage was a welcome change. The hotels were booked solid, and, certainly, the local restaurants and stores benefited from this influx.
The question now: what will happen now that Benedict has completed his day-long visit?
After the Mass, once the Pope had departed, hundreds of youths from many countries walked down the steep hills leading out of Manger Square. Playing the instruments they had brought with them — drums, guitars, flutes and tambourines — they broke into spontaneous song. A block away from Manger Square the groups converged and sang louder and louder as others, some Palestinian, some not, formed a circle and danced the dabke, an Arab folk dance.
It was a day to remember.