Inside view of Bethlehem from university vice president

| December 22, 2011 | 0 Comments

Christian Brother Robert Smith was born in St. Paul and attended Holy Spirit grade school and Cretin High School in St. Paul and St. Mary’s University in Winona, where he taught for many years and served with St. Mary’s Press. He served four years in Kenya before moving  five years ago to Bethlehem University in the West Bank, where he is vice president for academic affairs. He responded by email to the following questions from The Catholic Spirit.

What preparations are being made in Bethlehem as Christmas approaches?

Brother Smith

Like other major cities around the world, city workers have put up lights of angels, trees, stars! The Star of Bethlehem, which the shepherds saw in a nearby field, is one of the most well known and famous Christmas symbols and art. The number of pilgrims coming to Bethlehem to celebrate this major feast is 10 times the number of pigrims during other times of the year. Hotels and guest houses and religious communities that have pilgrim houses are full to overflowing.

The spirit is wonderful. Church choirs practice extra long to prepare for the many liturgies of the season. Bethlehem University prepares for its Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, which is filled to overflowing, and is presided over by the papal nuncio, who serves as the university’s chancellor.

What is the overall atmosphere this year given the longstanding political tensions between Palestinians and Israelis?

I think there is a sense of hopefulness among Palestinians, not least with the vision of the potential birth of an independent state. Christmas also, in and of itself, inspires hope and promise in what is to come, in the goodness of humankind, and in prospects for the future. On the other hand, the “situation” has gone on for so long, I think many people do not find anything different because of or in light of a particular season or feast — Christian, Muslim or Jewish.

How do you celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem? Is there something particular you look forward to?

What is special is to be in the city of the Savior’s birth . . . where it all began, so to speak. It is extraordinarily special and a grace to be able to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the city where it happened, where there was “no room in the inn.” The best part of it for me is the university’s Midnight Mass and the reception we put on afterward, which is attended by hundreds of people.

Does being in Bethlehem make you think differently about the Christmas story or the feast day?

For sure, it makes it more “real” to me and helps me to reflect on the reality of the Incarnation in human time and space and place, and to be able to do this in the city of his birth — well, as you might say, “It does not get any better than that!”

What can people in the U.S. do to help you and the people you serve in Bethlehem?

There are many ways to be helpful and supportive of the Holy Land in general and Bethlehem University in particular: pray for peace and justice in the region; pray in a special way for the dwindling Christian minority; pray for those who suffer on all sides of the conflict.

It is also important that people become aware of the reality of what has been going on for the past 60 years in terms of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the extraordinarily difficult circumstan­ces and life situation of Palestinians because of it. Work hard to get all sides of the story of the conflict. If someone is so inclined and able, contributions to the work of the university can be very helpful in practical ways: scholarships to poor students, helping to develop new programs that will keep Christians in the Holy Land and begin businesses so they do not immigrate to the West.

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Category: Christmas