On November 30, 2019, a crowd of the faithful rushed to welcome the precious relic that Pope Francis decided to give to the Custodia Terræ Sanctæ, Custody of the Holy Land, in Bethlehem. The fragment of the cradle of the Child Jesus is now on display in the Church of St. Catherine, adjacent to the Basilica of the Nativity.
An early Christmas: Bishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, did not hide his joy at this “great and pleasant surprise.” Indeed, no one had been warned of the arrival of the relic for the beginning of Advent, the liturgical time preparatory for the feast of Christmas.
In his eyes, this gesture of the Vatican constitutes “an additional sign of the great courtesy and the deep attention that Pope Francis has for the Church of the Holy Land. The return of the relic is like a circle that closes,” a return to the sources.
Donated in the 7th century by St. Sophrone, Patriarch of Jerusalem, to Pope Theodore I (642-649), at the very time when nascent Islam threatened the Holy Land, the relic rested in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome. It is a piece of the wooden structure of the original manger in Bethlehem, said Fr. Francesco Patton, Custodian of the Holy Land, adding that Pope Theodore had Palestinian roots.
Entrusted to the care of the Custody of the Holy Land, the relic which measures one centimeter wide by 2.5 centimeters long, now rests in the Church of St. Catherine.
The mayor of Bethlehem, Anton Salman, recalled that the event had its origin in the visit of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, to the Vatican in December 2018. The latter asked the sovereign pontiff for the relic’s return to Bethlehem. While this request may be political first, there is the hope that its realization will be the occasion for a witness to faith in the mystery of the Incarnation and for many conversions to Catholicism.