Good Friday Collection Supports Christians in the Holy Land

JERUSALEM — The living quarters of the Child Mary Girls Home look like something out of Madeline, the classic French children's book about a little girl in an orphanage.

Second Collections

A long, sunny room atop a narrow spiral staircase contains two rows of beds, 17 in all, covered with simple white bedspreads. Here and there a stuffed animal sits on a pillow. An adjoining room contains several more beds and a private sleeping alcove for Maria Bambina Sister Anastasia Stefan, one of the nuns who care for local girls, aged 7 to 14, who have no other place to go.

“All of this is supported by the Franciscans. Without this help we would not be able to function,” said Sister Anastasia, showing a visitor around the home's 120-year-old building, which also contains the nuns’ quarters, a large kitchen, classrooms, playrooms and a simple chapel.

Fourteen girls from problematic families live at Child Mary's full time. Another 10 come during the day. All attend local Catholic schools that, like Child Mary, receive financial support from the collection for the Holy Land that takes place in parishes throughout the world every year on Good Friday.

According to the Vatican and local Catholic clergy, this support is more vital than ever this year, as the security situation in Israel and the Palestinian-ruled West Bank and Gaza Strip continues to deteriorate.

The political situation, in turn, has fueled a deep recession that has left many Christian families without the means to pay tuition or even the electric bill.

“It's very hard for a Christian here to find a job,” said Franciscan Father Angelo Ison, vice secretary of the Custody of the Holy Land in Jerusalem. “People are frustrated. They want to get married but there is insufficient housing.”

Because so many Holy Land Christians once earned their livelihoods from pilgrimages, the lack of pilgrims has left them without a steady income.

“Stores and restaurants and hotels have closed,” Father Ison said. “The rate of emigration is very high. Once, Christians comprised 80% of the population in Bethlehem. Now 80% of the residents are Muslims.”

Encouraging Christians

The Holy See is clearly alarmed by the trend, which has intensified since the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000.

In a letter of appeal sent to dioceses around the world — and posted on the Vatican's Website — Cardinal Ignace Moussa I Daoud, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, said that “the Christians in the Holy Land are in a particular way prone to feel isolated and abandoned.”

For this reason, he said, Catholics around the world are required “to give even greater attention to this Church also in material terms.”

The letter echoes Pope John Paul II's concern for Holy Land Catholics, whom he encouraged in 2000 during his Jubilee pilgrimage.

On March 22, 1981, the Pope told those assembled at St. Peter's Square that “we support the Holy Land Christians not only for the holy places, the shrines, but above all to sustain and develop the pastoral, charitable and educational and social lives of people …”

The annual Holy Land Collection traces its roots to the time of the apostles, according to Father Ison.

“St. Paul wrote a letter to all the Christians in Greece asking them to help the people in Jerusalem,” he noted.

Since 1618, the Church has dedicated Good Friday as a day to assist Holy Land Catholics who reside in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Rhodes.

The Congregation for Eastern Churches coordinates the collection for the Vatican; with the funds raised, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land maintains major shrines and holy places such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as local congregations, churches, chapels, schools, universities, seminaries, summer camps, housing developments and charity projects for the needy and elderly.

One such recipient is the Terra Sancta High School for Boys, which is actually coeducational in the older grades. Here, in the school's airy stone building right next to the ancient walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, boys and girls in crisp school uniforms prepare for a university education. The school has a small auditorium, an arts room, two science laboratories and even a small natural history museum with fossils and other items found in the Holy Land.

Joseph Nasrawi, the school's administrator, said 150 of the school's 400 students are on scholarships.

“Their parents can't pay the $300 per annum tuition fee, so we rely on others’ generosity,” he said.

As with other local institutions, the custody pays for the school's maintenance as well as teachers’ salaries and helps provide scholarships, books and uniforms when needed.

“We depend on the Franciscan friars,” Nasrawi said. “They help us more than most states help their citizens. If it weren't for them, people here would be suffering much more than they already are.”

‘The First Church’

The Franciscan brothers and sisters stress that they could not perform such deeds without the help of Catholics around the world, especially at Easter time.

“The Good Friday Collection covers about half our needs during the year,” said Franciscan Father David Jaeger, official spokesman of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. “The rest has to be raised through special collections and onetime donations.”

While most contemporary churches have congregants who raise funds through a variety of local projects, when it comes to the very old, famed shrines and churches, “the collection is in many cases the only source of income,” Father Jaeger said.

He stressed that when the custody maintains such holy places as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, “it is on behalf of the worldwide Catholic Church, on behalf of 1 billion Catholics. It is natural that they be maintained. It is the will of the Pope.”

Catherine Toner, secretary of the Commissariat of the Holy Land in Ottawa, said the Good Friday Collection is her way of staying connected to what she calls “the First Church.”

“This is where Jesus was born, lived and announced the good news,” Toner said. “Most people feel very attached to the Holy Land because it is our Savior's country.”

Michele Chabin writes From Jerusalem.