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 CNS Story:

NATIVITY-KRAJ Dec-7-2009 (930 words) With photos. xxxi

Paint to pilgrims: All part of job for Franciscan at Nativity church

Franciscan Father Jerry Kraj oversees renovations inside the Church of St. Catherine in Bethlehem, West Bank. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) -- Supervising painters, welcoming pilgrims and helping to solve territorial disputes -- it's all part of a day's work for the priest at the church marking where Jesus was born.

Franciscan Father Jerzy Kraj -- a 49-year-old self-described optimist -- calls his job as guardian of the Church of the Nativity "an honor and a big responsibility."

In early November, when the Polish priest got the go-ahead for renovations on the Church of St. Catherine in the Nativity complex, many told him it would be impossible to have the work done in time for the first Sunday of Advent. Father Kraj brought in Polish volunteers and by Nov. 29 had a freshly painted sanctuary with energy-saving lighting.

The Church of St. Catherine had not been painted in 10 years and the lighting was at least 50 years old, said Father Kraj, who is in his third year of overseeing Christmas preparations at the Church of the Nativity complex.

Many of the preparations are traditional: Every year a statue of the baby Jesus is placed underneath the altar in the Church of St. Catherine and is revealed by the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem as the Gloria is sung on Christmas, he said.

"We try to think of some symbolic decorations, to make some actualization from historical events. Last year it was a big Bible. This year we are trying to so something with mother-of-pearl and the star of Bethlehem, but we have time still; nothing is definite," the priest said in late November.

The Franciscans built the Church of St. Catherine in 1882, about 125 years after the ruling sultan of Constantinople declared they could not use the adjacent Church of the Nativity. The Franciscans regained their rights to worship in the Church of the Nativity in 1852, when the Status Quo agreement -- regulating the jurisdiction of and access to key Christian sites in the Holy Land -- was formulated.

The traditional Christmas midnight Mass takes place in the Church of St. Catherine, and prayers later in the day are said in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity.

Father Kraj said that often the Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks, with whom they now share rights to the Church of the Nativity, call on the Franciscans to help resolve disputes.

"When they have problems they come to the Franciscan salon, and we drink coffee and we talk and try to (help solve the problem)," said Father Kraj, who also teaches moral theology at the Franciscan International Seminary in Jerusalem.

"There is good cooperation," he said about the current relationship among the three churches, although even recently there have been disputes about such things as who has the right to wash certain parts of the church.

This year marks the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Franciscan order and the 700th anniversary of official confirmation from the sultan of Cairo allowing the Franciscans to have a presence in the Holy Land.

Father Kraj, the oldest of nine siblings, began to feel his vocation as a teenager while studying in a private Franciscan high school near Krakow, Poland. At the age of 19 he joined the Franciscans and finished his studies in the Holy Land.

When he was ordained in 1986, Father Kraj sought permission to remain in Jerusalem in the service of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, which coordinates the reception of pilgrims and sustains the Christian presence in the Holy Land.

He has remained close to his family in Poland, and his parents, who celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this year, came on their fourth pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

"I know I will go visit them (family) for vacations but I know my life, my vocation, is in the Holy Land," he said.

The main role of the Franciscan presence in the Church of the Nativity is to care for the spiritual life at the shrine, so the church does not become a museum but rather continues to be a place where God's presence is truly felt, he said.

The friars maintain an organized schedule of worship, with two morning Masses at the Franciscan altar at the manger in the Church of the Nativity grotto and a daily procession at noon, around which the friars arrange their daily schedules.

As the Franciscan guardian in Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity, Father Kraj said he has the opportunity to "enter into deep reflection with the mystery of the Incarnation."

"It is very important to me that we are celebrating in this holy place the Eucharist" because the same mystery of the Nativity is also in the Eucharist, he said.

"The Virgin Mary, Joseph and the shepherds didn't know (the baby) was Jesus; they had to believe it was Jesus, son of God. The same way we have the wine and bread on the altar and we have to believe it is the (body and) blood of Christ; to believe in the same mystery of the sacraments."

The Franciscans also take very seriously their service to the pilgrims who come visit the church, said Father Kraj, and it is a joy to see the pilgrims coming with open hearts.

"Pilgrims come (to the Holy Land) once in a lifetime, and we must ... give them the opportunity to feel as if they are in their home," he said. "In Bethlehem we celebrate the Nativity all year; we have pilgrims celebrating every day."

These pilgrims, who have continued to come to the Holy Land for centuries despite ongoing violence and tensions, are "a sign of hope of the Christian presence," he said.


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