Abouna Rami is a Franciscan who is also the parish priest of St Catherine Church in Bethlehem. St Catherine Church is the beautiful 19th century church which is adjacent to the Greek Orthodox controlled Church of the Nativity. It is, if you like, the Catholic Church of the Nativity. Abouna Rami was introduced to me by Fr Chris Landfried and Abouna Rama picked me up in Jerusalem and drove me back to Bethlehem.
He is a busy man, so on the way back we ran a few errands in modern Jerusalem–stopped at St Savior’s–the Franciscan HQ in Jerusalem, dropped a nun at the Italian embassy to pick up a visa, filled up with gas then drove the four or five miles to Bethlehem. There I switched cars and met Loai–(Prounounced Loo-eye) who was my guide for the day. Loai has a wife and four kids and makes a living (or tries to) as a tour guide. He explained how hard hit the economy in Bethlehem was by the pandemic. Businesses closed, tour guides were out of work–people were desperate.
We began with a history lesson in the newly restored Church of the Nativity. What a complicated story of the clash of empires, egos, religions and rivalries! I’ll leave you to do your own reading about it here rather than go into too much detail. One of the details that fascinated me was why the Franciscans have custody of so many Christian holy sites. It goes back to St Francis’ trip to preach to the Sultan. In 1219 he went to Egypt to meet with the Sultan al-Kamil in an attempt to put an end to the Fifth Crusade. The Sultan did not convert to Christianity, but impressed with Francis, (as the story goes) he allowed Francis to visit the holy sites and in 1333 the Sultan of the time gave the Franciscans control of the Holy Sites in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Holy Land. The lesson? One act of courageous obedience that may seem foolhardy and dangerous could reap great and untold benefits in the future. Small lesson? No act of obedience will be left fruitless.
I learned all about the Church of the Nativity and the next door Church of St Catherine. It was built on the site of a Byzantine convent which was destroyed in the Crusader period. Before the Byzantine period St Jerome lived in a cave which is now a small chapel in the lower level. In the lower level is an altar built against the wall that separates the cave system below St Catherine’s to the cave of the nativity next door. (T&I) From there I went to venerate the site of Our Lord’s birth (T&I) before Loai took me to the Shepherd’s Fields. I learned a lot from Loai, but did not discover the specific information I was looking for. However, I am going to pay another visit before I leave.
At the Shepherd’s Fields we explored the ancient caves in the hillside which archaeologists affirm have been occupied from before the time of Christ. From the entranceway to the Shepherd’s Fields there is a clear view across the valley to Bethlehem so you can visualize the short distance the shepherds would have had to trek to visit the newborn child. Co-incidentally, the Shepherd’s Fields are located not in Bethlehem, but in the neighboring town of Beit-Sahur (which means “House of Those Who Stay Awake”. Presumably this is a nod to the shepherds who were “keeping watch over their flocks by night.”.
There are two alternative Shepherd’s Fields sites: one Greek Orthodox and one Protestant. The Greek Orthodox was closed we did not have the time (or inclination) to visit the Protestant location.
At the Shepherd’s Fields we visited the cave–now turned into a chapel where the shepherds may have lived and Loai took me to another more primitive cave lower down the hillside where we explored a secret tunnel that connected back to another cavern higher up the hillside. (T&I)
While I did not find the information I am digging for, I did get a refresher course on much of the history and loved visiting Bethlehem once again. I also enjoyed hearing about the present day politics. Palestinian Christians like Loai are under pressure from both their Palestinian Muslim neighbors and their Israeli overlords. They will tell you first hand of the injustices the Christians in Israel have suffered at the hands of the Israelis, and it makes for uncomfortable listening.
After a meal in the Franciscan’s refectory Abouna Rami arranged a lift back to Jerusalem with a young Franciscan from Croatia. On the way back he filled me in on some more of the history of the Franciscans out here while he fought the traffic of modern Jerusalem to deliver me back to St Stephen’s monastery.