We, Franciscan friars of Saint Saviours Monastery, left Jerusalem by coach on their way to Bethlehem at 11 a.m. The weather was rather cold and it was raining, but when we passed by the Orthodox Monastery of Saint Elias the skies were clearing over Bethlehem. When we arrived at the Israeli check-point, near Tantur hill, we were allowed to pass without any difficulty. There were even greetings of Happy Holidays on streamers issued by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. We arrived at Bethlehem with the sun shining through the clouds. The square in front of the Nativity Basilica was filled with people waiting to welcome the Patriarch Michel Sabbah. The arrival of the Patriarch was fixed at 1.30 p.m., but he arrived nearly an hour later. The weather sometimes turned cloudy and menacing, but the cold was not intense, and the sun was peeping through the clouds every now and then, providing welcome warmth to those present. One could notice a good presence of pilgrims, who joined the local population of Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas.
We succeeded in interviewing a French pilgrim, called Louis Mongin from Troyes, France. He is a student of mechanical engineering and is 23 years old. He arrived in Bethlehem on 23rd December. He said it was magnifique to be able to take part in the vespers of the Nativity. It was like having dreamt for a long time about reaching a goal and not assimilating its complete significance when one arrives at it. He permitted us to note down his reflections after a one day experience at the Holy Places. Bethlehem was the place he longed to arrive at. Louis told us that he had joined other pilgrims on a bike ride; he had also met with other French people who had come on foot and organized a march for peace. Louis travelled across Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Syria, Jordan, and finally he arrived in Jerusalem. He received hospitality in parishes, monasteries, hostels, and also slept outside in the woods. He was welcomed in various houses, not only belonging to Catholics, but also to Orthodox Christians, and even, in some cases, to Muslims. He remained impressed by what he saw in Turkey, Syria and Jordan. He said that the people in the Middle East are truly hospitable.
The Patriarch finally arrived at the door of the Basilica after a long delay at 2.45 p.m. Waiting to receive him there was the Guardian of the Franciscan Fraternity of Bethlehem, Father Justo Artaraz. After the ritual welcoming he went in through the low door, and entered the Basilica of the Nativity, and from there he passed into the cloister of the Franciscan friary and entered the parish church of Saint Catherine. After the solemn entry he immediately celebrated vespers with the participation of a good number of faithful. The celebration ended at approximately 3.45 p.m. After a short break the Patriarch returned to the church of Saint Catherine. From here, together with the Franciscan friars, he took part in the daily procession to the Grotto of the Nativity, during which the friars sang hymns to Christ in the Holy Places of the Nativity of our Redeemer: in front of the Star of the Nativity, at the Manger where Jesus was laid in swaddling clothes, at the altar commemorating the Adoration of the Magi. Going back up into the church from the grottos the procession ended. Everybody was satisfied at being able to follow and participate actively.
After the procession the sacristans and the Franciscan students started preparing the church of Saint Catherine in order to welcome the faithful for the Midnight Mass. We were hoping for the participation of the Palestinian Authorities during Mass, particularly that of the successors of Arafat, who died recently.