Holy Land Franciscans speak at East Boston parish on plight of Christians

BOSTON -- Franciscan Father David Grenier, commissary of the Holy Land for the U.S. and resident of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C., is used to answering questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is one of the Franciscans who, for over 800 years, have had a presence in the Holy Land, protecting and preserving its most sacred places and welcoming pilgrims. He is often asked whether he is "pro-Israel" or "pro-Palestine." His response: "Why can't we be both?"

"It's not a football game in which you need to pick a side and there will be a winner and a loser," he said. "Why can't we wish that there will be the best outcome for both peoples? Why can't you denounce the atrocities that are being made by both sides and feel compassion for both sides?"

Father Grenier and Vincenzo Bellomo, director of the nonprofit Pro Terra Sancta, spoke about the grave situation of Christians in the Holy Land at Sacred Heart Parish in East Boston on March 4. The two men encouraged parishioners to pray and donate, and called for a diplomatic resolution to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.

"The Holy Land right now, we need a miracle," Father Grenier said, "and this can come only from God. You need to trust that God can still do miracles. He already did many miracles in that land, when he lived there and even afterwards."

Amid the media blitz surrounding the war, he advised parishioners to "remember ourselves that we are Christians."

"What do I mean by that?" He said. "I mean to give more importance to what we read in the Gospel than what we hear on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News. To give more importance to what Jesus is inviting us to as to our behavior, than the emotions that the TV channels are trying to put into us."

He said it is normal for people to feel anger at what they see or read about the war, but that their thoughts, words, and actions must always be guided by love. If they are guided by hate, then they will be another casualty of war.

"As Christians, I know that's not easy," he said. "It's even harder for Christians over there. But still, Jesus told us to love our enemies."

Christians make up less than two percent of the population in the Holy Land and the majority live in the Palestinian territories. Father Grenier noted that Christians were among the victims of the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attack on Israel, and 20 Christians have been killed in the ongoing Israeli bombing of Gaza.

Father Grenier believes that Christians have a responsibility to "build bridges" between Israelis and Palestinians, and that the suffering of both sides is "authentic." He criticized the lack of news coverage of the plight of Christians caught in the war.

Bellomo said that Palestinian Christians face the dual struggle of occupation by the Israeli government and persecution by Hamas. The Israeli government has repeatedly warned parishioners of Holy Family Parish, the only Catholic church in Gaza, to evacuate for their safety. They refuse, Bellomo said, because the church is not only their house of worship. It is their home.

"It's very hard, living in a country where you don't have the freedom to move," he said. "Where everything is surrounded by a wall. Where your kids are endangered because they are hated."

Bellomo said that the churches of the Holy Land are not museums, but active parishes which celebrate Masses, weddings, and funerals daily. Every shrine has a Catholic school attached to it.

"School is the best place where we can talk about peace," he said. "What we do in our daily work is not only to take care of stones, to not only take care of the church, to keep the church to welcome pilgrims, but also to take care of the living stones. To take care of the people."

The Pro Terra Sancta nonprofit provides food, education, and social services to people in the Holy Land, and promotes its Christian history and culture.

"Our faith is beautiful," Bellomo said. "And the (Church of the) Nativity is the place with a beautiful story . . . Beauty is our way to fight against terrorism."

He said that Pro Terra Sancta has to "call and beg" for money to fund its cultural and educational pursuits.

"Then there is war," he said. "Everybody has money for war."

Franciscans in the Holy Land operate schools, orphanages, and homes, both temporary housing for pilgrims and residences for people in need. They operate the Magnificat Institute, a music school where Christian, Jewish, and Muslim students learn together. Father Grenier told the story of a Magnificat Institute concert in Venice, where he saw a young Palestinian student conversing in Hebrew with an elderly Jewish woman. The boy learned Hebrew so that he could talk to his beloved teacher.

"We believe that a lot of the tensions that are happening right now are because people don't know one another," Father Grenier said. "We believe that the other one is a monster, and when we get to know them in a normal context, we realize: 'They are people like me.'"

Regardless of religion, he said, people in the Holy Land "just want to live a normal life, just want to go to work and raise their kids, and they don't care about these political issues."

He said that Israelis and Palestinians are both unhappy with their leaders. People in Gaza are not thinking about how much they hate Israel, but where their children's next meal is coming from.

"Right now, people need hope," he said. "And hope, we find it in the story of Jesus."

People tell Father Grenier that his goals are idealistic, but, he said, he is a man of faith at heart. He tries his best to change people's minds and hearts, one at a time.

"What we do, might seem like a drop in the ocean," he said. "But in this ocean of hatred . . . This is a drop of hope, and for all the people that it touches, it changes the world, it makes all the difference."