Christmas in Bethlehem was celebratory but not as festive as usual this year, given the outbreak of war in the Holy Land two-and-a-half months ago. Visiting for Christmas, the papal envoy, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, prefect of Vatican Dicastery for the Service of Charity, assisted the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem in the wartime celebration amid the "helplessness" of not being able to ease suffering Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Cardinal Krajewski is in the Holy Land as part of a "journey of closeness" with Christians in the region.
On Dec. 24, Latin Patriarch Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa arrived in Bethlehem on the West Bank with Cardinal Krajewski, where they were escorted by Israeli police to the border of the West Bank, and then by Palestinian police.
"We got out of the cars very quickly and went on foot to the Church of the Nativity. There were thousands of people there. On the way to the church everyone wanted to touch, kiss the hands of the patriarch," Cardinal Krajewski told OSV News in a recorded voice message.
At 4 p.m. on Dec. 24, both cardinals joined the solemn procession of the Franciscans to the Grotto of the Nativity, where hymns and Christmas songs were sung, followed by a festive dinner with authorities of Bethlehem.
"This year, the mayors of Assisi and Greccio, where St. Francis built his first Nativity scene, joined Bethlehem in a touching sign of solidarity," Cardinal Krajewski said.
At the solemn celebration of early Christmas Mass on Dec. 24, Cardinal Krajewski said that 2,000 people filled the Church of the Nativity. Despite hard times for the Holy Land, "people were all beautifully, festively dressed," he said.
"For too many days, we have all been caught up in the sad and painful feeling that there is no room this year for the joy and peace that the angels announced to the shepherds of Bethlehem in this Holy Night, not far from here," Cardinal Pizzaballa said during the homily.
"At this moment, our thoughts cannot be far from those who have lost everything in this war, including their closest loved ones, and who are now displaced, alone and paralyzed by their grief," he said.
"My thoughts go, without distinction, to all who are affected by this war, in Palestine and Israel and the whole region. I am especially close to those who are in mourning and weeping and waiting for a concrete gesture of closeness and care. Tonight, I remember the hostages kidnapped from their families, as I remember the people who languish in prisons without having had the right to a trial," Cardinal Pizzaballa said.
Instead of festive celebrations, Palestinian children in the streets of Bethlehem carried signs showing solidarity with suffering Palestinians from the Gaza Strip. White signs with black inscriptions read "Gaza in the heart" and "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."
After the solemn Mass, the patriarch, accompanied by Cardinal Krajewski, went to the Grotto of the Nativity, "where we spent 30 minutes praying, singing, visiting the place and leaving the statue of baby Jesus there," Cardinal Krajewski said.
Pope Francis said in his Christmas message Dec. 25 that children dying in wars, including in Gaza, are the "little Jesuses of today." He said that Israeli strikes there were reaping an "appalling harvest" of innocent civilians.
In the Christmas Day "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and world) address, the pontiff also called the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas militants "abominable" and appealed for the release of around 100 hostages still being held in Gaza.
Cardinal Krajewski said he was unable to reach Holy Family Parish in Gaza City by phone on Christmas Eve, but, along with the patriarch, he met 20 people who have loved ones trapped in the Gaza Strip. He assured Christians in Bethlehem that "the Holy Father is with them," in their suffering, and "expressed his closeness."
Cardinal Krajewski said the church feels "helpless" watching the situation in the Gaza Strip.
"We are able to organize a huge amount of aid in a few minutes and send everything to this place of great tragedy. But it is humanly impossible at the moment," he told OSV News. "That's why prayer is so necessary today. Jesus, you take over! We do not have such opportunities, we do not have access to Gaza. We are simply helpless."
Still, the cardinal added, "there is hope, and we do not lose hope."
On Dec. 23, Cardinal Krajewski visited poor Christian families. "I went with 'koleda,'" he said, referring to a traditional Christmas visit of priests in the homes of their parishioners in his native Poland.
"They live very modestly. So I was with them and passed greetings from Pope Francis. I also left very concrete help -- I thought they could pay a few months' rent for the sum," he said.
"But I learned then that the Latin Patriarchate rents apartments owned by the church for free to the poor Christians," he said. "The church has a great deal of wealth, and all over the world you can help the poor in a very concrete way, the way they do in the Holy Land. We can learn from them."