The final stretch before the Pope’s arrival
BETHLEHEM – May 24, 2014. Interview with Father George Ayoub, Chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, on the final preparations a few hours before the arrival of the long-awaited visit of Francis Pope to Bethlehem.
While Bethlehem prepares for the big day, the arrival of Pope Francis, the eyes of the world turn to this more humble town of Palestine. People already have boundless images of Pope Francis’ tender, loving and humble ways. At the same time, all can imagine his arrival in Bethlehem, seeing him walk through the streets surrounding the area where he will celebrate Mass in the Manger Square of the Basilica of the Nativity, and listen to him preach to the Christian people who are hungry just for an authentic word that could relieve their pain and heal their still gaping wounds from the past.
What is the atmosphere in Bethlehem on the eve of the arrival of the Pope? How are the preparations unfolding? An interview with Father George Ayoub sheds some light. His is the Chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate and a member of the Committee on protocol and organization for the Pope’s visit.
1. Father George, what is the role you play in preparations for this visit?
In addition to my responsibilities as Chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate, I am also a member and secretary of the Committee on protocol and organization for the Pope’s visit. The commission is composed of His Excellency Moussa Al Hage, Father Humam Khzouz and Father Athanasius Macora of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Our role is to ensure that everything is ready prior to the Pope’s arrival.
2. Are there preparations today?
A few days separate us from meeting the Pastor of the Universal Church, His Holiness Pope Francis, with his beloved faithful of the Holy Land. Preparations are very intense. All bishops, priests, and lay volunteers, working day and night so that the Mass which will be held next Sunday is a most beautiful and most prayerful experience possible.
In Bethlehem, especially on Manger Square, preparations have been a marathon. Everything is almost ready to welcome the one who is none less than the Vicar of Christ on earth, and the successor of Peter. The platform and the altar are ready, and the place itself is now ready to welcome the multitude of the faithful. The number of volunteers has exceeded 200. They are scouts and youth of goodwill from all over Palestine, rendering a service and welcome to all who come to Bethlehem on that blessed day.
3. What was it like working with the Palestinian authorities?
The Palestinian Authority has opened its doors to us. They explained everything simply and clearly. From the logistical point of view, they provided us with everything we needed, which made Manger Square easily accessible.
As for the Mayor, she did everything to make the place clean and adequate to accommodate the Papal Mass. The Police Commission President and the Palestinian protocols have also worked successfully. All worked according to the advice given by President Mahmoud Abbas in person.
4. How many people do you expect to attend the Papal Mass?
We expect the participation of 9,603 people at Mass (including the Pope himself). Only 800 people have seating. We also believe that about 8,000 people will come to Bethlehem that day to welcome the Pope though they are unable to attend Mass. They may, however, greet him during his passage through the streets of Bethlehem, when he moves to and from the Presidential Palace.
We also know that 244 priests and 48 bishops will concelebrate Mass. In addition, the seminarians of the Latin Patriarchate in Beit Jala will assist in the liturgical celebration.
Naturally, the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, will also be present at Mass, along with the Consuls General of four European nations: France, Italy, Spain and Belgium.
5. What Choir will provide the sacred chants during Mass?
The choir is composed of the faithful of our diocese, mainly from the region of Bethlehem (Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour) and the parish of Taybeh. Father Ibrahim Shomali, a priest of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and Pastor of the parish in Beit Jala, directed the rehearsals. The choir is composed of 120 singers of all ages – between 10 and 80 years. Each member will wear a shoulder scarf that bears the image of the Nativity Basilica and the colors of the Palestinian flag.
The songs will be very joyful, because it is the Christmas Mass that the Pope will celebrate. In fact, in Bethlehem, there is a tradition that the pilgrims can, and are even encouraged to celebrate the Mass of the Nativity in the place where Christ was born. The hymns will also be accompanied, by a few musical instruments, in addition to the organ.
Most sacred lyrics are in Arabic. But the Lord’s Prayer will be sung in Syrian. However, Latin will not entirely be absent from the Pontifical Mass.
6. Pope Francis is known to be the Pope of surprises. He can readily abandon protocol. Are you ready to handle the situation if this happens?
Hopefully he will not do it (laughs)! In any case, the Holy Father is free. As for us, we have to show some flexibility in the application of protocol because they are the means and not the end …
Interview by Firas Abedrabbo