The hot Middle Eastern sun shone down on Manger Square, even at 9am, but Marilou Quinoneza didn’t seem to mind.
Seated on stone steps leading down from the many Christian souvenir shops lining the square, Quinoneza, a Filipina caregiver who works in central Israel, said nothing could dampen the experience of attending a Holy Land Mass led by Pope Francis May 25.
Quinoneza said she made her way to her local church — Our Lady, Woman of Valor Church in the northern city of Haifa — at 2:30am, and three buses full of congregants, the vast majority of them foreign workers, left for Bethlehem two hours later.
"I’m a Catholic. My first 10 years of education were spent in a Catholic school," the petite caregiver said. "I feel this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience: to see the Pope in the Holy Land."
Quinoneza and her fellow congregants were among the estimated 10,000 local Catholics who gained access to the Mass. Manger Square isn’t very large and could not accommodate all those who wanted to attend. Tourists who did not have tickets were nonetheless able to pray from the sidelines.
Many of the faithful had to pass through a checkpoint to attend the Mass. Every Catholic church in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel received an allotment of tickets.
The Pope received an overwhelming warm welcome, despite the relatively small numbers. People waiting in the square waved Vatican and Palestinian flags and released yellow and white balloons.
The stage, which was covered to keep away the sun, stood before an enormous mural depicting the Holy Family, flanked on one side by past popes and the other by local saints. In the hours before Pope Francis arrived, people sang to the accompaniment of the guitars they had brought or swayed to the songs performed by young seminary students in black robes with red sashes around their waists. One man, who lives in Jerusalem, walked through the square barefoot, dressed in the types of robes Jesus may have worn, his hair to his shoulders.
The crowd shouted "Viva al-Baba!" (Long live the Pope!) when Pope Francis entered the square in the type of open-walled vehicle he uses at the Vatican.
Posters of the Holy Father, known as "Baba" in Arabic, hung in store windows.
On the way to the Mass, the Pope even surprised Church officials by requesting to stop and pray at a section of Israel’s security wall, which Israel built to keep Palestinian terrorists out of Israel. Although the wall, which surrounds Bethlehem, has curbed terrorism, it also prevents Palestinians from entering Israel. Because of it, Palestinians say they feel like prisoners.
Earlier Sunday morning, rather than entering Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem via Israel, Francis flew from Amman, Jordan, by helicopter, something many Palestinians felt was a small but important acknowledgement of their aspirations for sovereignty.
Unlike Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, who entered Bethlehem via Israel in 2000 and 2009 respectively, Pope Francis flew to Bethlehem directly from Jordan. The Palestinian leadership interpreted the decision to visit Bethlehem before Tel Aviv as a tacit recognition of Palestinian sovereignty.
At a morning press conference, the Pope referred to Mahmoud Abbas as "the president of the state of Palestine," another apparent recognition of Palestinian aspirations for a homeland.
Palestinians hope the United Nations will recognize Palestine as a state in the near future, something Israel adamantly opposes without a Palestinian commitment to stop all violence, in recognition of Israel’s right to exist as the home of the Jewish people.
In his remarks at the press conference, Pope Francis recognized the many difficulties facing Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians.
"The climate of instability and a lack of mutual understanding have produced insecurity, the violation of rights, isolation and the flight of entire communities, conflicts, shortages and sufferings of every sort," he said.
Emigration has devastated the community of Palestinian Christians, who now comprise about 2% of the population in both Israel and the Palestinian-ruled territories.
‘The Courage to Be Generous’
The Pope urged both Palestinians and Israelis to make sacrifices to achieve peace.
"The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good," he said.
In Manger Square before the Mass, Christine El Khoury, a Palestinian Christian citizen of Israel, said she traveled to Bethlehem "to get the Pope’s blessing."
Like Quinoneza, she traveled with members of her church.
"The Pope is the personification of peace, and I wanted to see him," El Khoury said. "But I don’t think he can solve our problems. The way things stand now, I don’t think there will be peace in my lifetime."
Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.