The phone rings.
“Hello, my friend. How are you?”
“So-so.” We are 500 metres from each other and can’t see each other.
“Imagine, here we are in Lent and there is no one in the Old City. Isn’t that incredible?”
“What’s worse is that this is the first time since 1852 that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been closed on Sundays. It will still be closed on Easter. I can hardly believe it.”
The Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in Christianity, will remain closed for Easter. In Jerusalem, as elsewhere, these are unprecedented, never seen before, incredible times.
The Old City, which is normally bustling with pilgrims in the spring, is deserted. Everyone is confined to their apartment or their little house. The Franciscan convents, which are much bigger, seem abandoned. Like the streets. The large refectories have been reorganized into small tables. Having hand sanitizer at the entrance to the chapels and dining rooms has become normal. Everyone is at home all the time.
Everything has changed, and yet life goes on, in a different way. The Italian brothers who were expecting dozens of groups of pilgrims are now as free as the birds. Their country, one of the first to be affected, quickly cut off access (at the same time as China and Korea). These Franciscans come mainly from the south of Italy. They have all lost an aunt, the father of a friend, a parishioner; they are all affected in one way or another.
Here, all the measures have been put in place to quarantine Israeli travellers who are returning home; tourists and pilgrims have sometimes had to turn back. If, at the beginning, these decisions seemed extreme, today, no one is challenging them. Especially as the disease has struck nearby. Four families in Bethlehem… Terra Sancta College, where I lived during my studies, is a few kilometres from Bethlehem. Employees of the Franciscans live there… Here, as elsewhere, we are rolling up our sleeves. Brothers and students have to do the cleaning of the public spaces, washrooms, hallways, kitchen, etc. We take turns washing the dishes ourselves — there are 25 of us living here.
I admire my Italian brothers. With them, you get a clear sense of anxiety and sadness. At the same time, they are gentle and in good spirits. Despite the heaviness and the atmosphere of panic that — according to the media — are overtaking the world, I am noticing that the pandemic is for us an opportunity for interiority, for calm. All of us, from the youngest to the eldest, are rediscovering a certain focus and a certain quality of life.
It is worth noting that the Franciscan University (Studium Biblicum Franciscanum) was the first in Jerusalem to move to virtual classes (by internet), which was so smooth that the students experienced no interruption to their studies. Everything is happening in the usual way, but at home. We no longer have to go to the classrooms. Because of this, the community, during a meeting, decided to add midday prayer and times of silence and adoration. For us, too, the pandemic has become an opportunity for reflection, for interiority, for focusing. What would happen if our lives unfolded differently? Would we be happier? At this point in time, I think the answer is yes.