Priests of the Holy Land reflect on second Easter of pandemic

by Judith Sudilovsky

Catholic News Service

3/26/2021

Franciscan Father Augustin PelayoFranciscan Father Augustin Pelayo
Franciscan Father Augustin Pelayo, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Jaffa, Israel, stands with Michel Nasser from the Greek Orthodox Church as they prepare to work in the parish cemetery Oct. 30, 2020. Parish priests have accompanied their parishioners during this difficult time when many people lost their jobs, struggled through lockdowns, became sick with the virus and lost loved ones. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill, Reuters)


The first cases of COVID-19 in the Holy Land emerged in late February last year and were quickly followed by an outbreak of cases among a group of pilgrims in Bethlehem in early March.

Parish priests have accompanied their parishioners during this difficult time when many people lost their jobs, struggled through lockdowns, became sick with the virus and lost loved ones.

Here are some of their reflections at this Easter season in their own words. The interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity:

 

Father Agustin Pelayo, St. Anthony Parish, Jaffa, Israel:
  • "During the pandemic everything was different for me, but also good. I was always involved in preparing something new for my people and being creative doing something I had not done before. For me to be with people is to be in the glory of the Resurrection; people bring me life.
  • "I discovered other ways to be with people in different situations. A week ago I was asked by a family of a man who was very sick with COVID-19 in hospital to give him his last sacrament.
  • "They preferred me to go in instead of themselves. Three days later he passed away. He was very young, 56. This made me think and increase my love for what I am. I was able to give him some comfort in this special moment of his life.
  • "I asked people to pray for my family in Mexico, who are in a different situation than we are. It makes my people here realize what it means to be Catholic. They have a priest from Mexico, and it is nice for me not to feel alone when I have people here worry about me, bringing me food and things, asking me how I am.
  • "It is a challenge for us to celebrate this Easter; of course we have the hope that things will be much better than last Easter. … Now it is looking better, and people feel freer after this long lockdown, now they have the vaccines. Israel is doing a very good job even vaccinating people without documents and without permission to work. In having this help from the state of vaccines for everybody, we are starting to see the light.
  • "There is often someone wanting to come pray in the church. This has made me find the true sense of my people. I am not taking care of stones. I am taking care of the ‘living stones' who are the Christians of the Holy Land. I am here for the people."

 

Father Amjad Sabbara, St. Savior Parish, Jerusalem:
  • "During this year I have learned how to be lonely with the lonely, with Jesus Christ. When Jesus was on the cross, God lifted him and by giving himself to God, living in his hands, a new story came up.
  • "Many times when you feel lonely and you don't know how to handle a situation you understand with the help of God you can handle it. 
  • "This year we are not giving give up; we have to go toward Jesus and speak with him and open ourselves to his presence like the prodigal son returns home after his suffering and with the hug of the father comes back to dignity.
  • "There is new hope with the vaccine, new expectation; we are waiting for our way of life to return back. Most of the people are getting vaccines. The Israel government is open; they want people to get vaccinated.
  • "With our sorrow and all the problems we are facing, we must resist the temptation to feel desperate and empty and not to feel the presence of others. … The vaccine is helping us to maintain our ‘taste and smell.'
  • "The lesson of our Easter this year is not to let ourselves to be tempted into a life without taste, but to renew ourselves in life with Jesus in our lives … and this gives us a new taste to our lives to understand more and more the presence of God in our lives.
  • The real message of Easter this year is to get out of the virus of indifference and overcome it with charity and love and forgiveness."

 

Father Yussef Yakoub, Maronite St. Louis Parish, Haifa, Israel:
  • "This year I am taking the theme the … verse of Genesis where there is chaos and darkness and the spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.
  • "This really symbolizes that God never forsakes his creation, it symbolizes that in our lives we will always experience moments of chaos and darkness, but God is always with us. This is also the story of the Israelites as they go out from Egypt.
  • "We are going through a desert, and sometimes we feel hungry and thirsty, and we complain; we are thirsty to go back to our life, hungry to see each other. And the same way God did not react to our complaints in anger, he embraces us like he did the Israelites in the desert by giving them food and water.  
  • "We hope that, at the end of everything we are living, God will bring back life. We need to trust the Lord. We need to make this journey the same way the Israelites made their journey and did not give up and did not despair.
  • "During COVID we are learning to appreciate things that we took for granted: being able to go outside and walk and breathe without restrictions; that deep sense of freedom.
  • "COVID-19 brings us to this point: maybe we need to change, to make a spiritual change with more prayer with more spiritual depth in their meaning of life, friends, of hope to be able to visit together.
  • "Also, while we were living in some sort of chaos, we saw that suddenly COVID brought back life to nature. We saw that for us it was bad, but for nature it was very good."

 

Franciscan Father Rami Asakrieh, St. Catherine Parish, Bethlehem:
  • "The preparations this year are deeper, because usually people have everything. They make normal sacrifices. But today they feel the weakness of humanity, and they feel the need for God more strongly, the need for a savior. They are all seeing the suffering of the many around them and become sensitive to their needs. They can't ignore it.
  • "Lent is a good opportunity for a more spiritual connection to God to save them from this bad situation, to be more sensitive and sacrifice and give to others.
  • "As a priest I see the suffering, but I always look with faith and hope because I believe the God who was resurrected from death, who won over death, will always transform what we are living into something for our good, for the good of the people who love God.
  • "There will be good after the bad. The situation can't decide if God is with us or not. If we are faithful it will help us realize that we can only depend on God."

Franciscan friar Augustin Pelayo

The first cases of COVID-19 in the Holy Land emerged in late February last year and were quickly followed by an outbreak of cases among a group of pilgrims in Bethlehem in early March.

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