Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land, asked Catholics around the world to make a virtual pilgrimage to the Holy Land and make a real donation to support the church in the region.

"Here in Jerusalem, we haven't seen a pilgrim in six months," he told the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.

Pilgrimages are a major source of support for the Catholic Church in the region, "but most of all they are the exclusive source of income for thousands of families, especially Christians," who work in the tourist industry, Father Patton said.

Because of the COVID-19 lockdown, Pope Francis transferred the date of the Good Friday collection for the Holy Land to Sept. 13, the eve of the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.

Speaking to L'Osservatore Romano Sept. 8, Father Patton said he knows Catholics around the world are struggling financially because of the pandemic, but all Christians have a connection to the land where Jesus was born, lived, died and rose from the dead.

"For the life of the Christians of the Holy Land," he said, "it is essential that the collection this year is at least as generous as in the past."

Ten percent of the collection, he said, goes to support the Franciscan friars who staff the churches at the sites associated with Jesus' life and death, as well as parishes in Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus and Rhodes, and to pay for the upkeep of the buildings, a task that continued even in the lockdown.

The other 90%, Father Patton said, goes to pastoral and social activities, including in Syria where the civil unrest has continued for 10 years and in Lebanon where the economic situation is "disastrous," and some 300,000 people were left homeless after the August explosion at the port in Beirut.

In addition, he said, the Catholic Church is trying to assist hundreds of thousands of refugees and thousands of foreign workers throughout the region who lost their jobs during the pandemic but are unable to return home because of travel restrictions.

Particularly by running schools that accept both Christian and Muslim students and by offering assistance to everyone in need, the Franciscan said, helping the church in the Holy Land "means helping a peacemaking operation; it means adding a small, but not insignificant piece, to the process of dialogue and mutual understanding."