POPE JOHN PAUL II CELEBRATES MASS IN BETHLEHEM

March 22 ( EWTNews) "Bethlehem is the heart of my Jubilee Pilgrimage," Pope John Paul II exclaimed to a crowd of 20,000 during Mass today in Manger Square, located in the heart of Bethlehem. The Holy Father then reiterated his great desire to come to Bethlehem since the beginning of his pontificate, never dreaming that Divine Providence would answer his prayer to bring him to the place of the Savior’s birth during the Great Jubilee. "The paths that I have taken lead me to this place and to the mystery that it proclaims."

The Patriarch welcomed the Pope in the name of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land and in the name of all the Christian communities on this particular day of the Great Jubilee when God showed himself in Jesus to the world.

After these words the Pope opened the celebration by introducing the liturgy. It was at this point in the liturgy that the Holy Father confirmed his earnest wishes to be in Bethlehem because, "here, Christ was born of Mary; here, He was proclaimed Lord; here, He was adored by the shepherds and the Wise Man; and here, we feel the presence of the Immanu-el (God with us) and who will remain with us forever." With these words the Holy Father introduced the penitential rite and invited the assembly to ask forgiveness in order to be able to live the Mystery of the Word made Flesh.

Then the Glory was intoned and the Choir made up of a combined choir from the Franciscan parishes of Bethlehem and Jerusalem led the singing. The Pope proclaimed the introductory prayer that is used for the Christmas Mass. The first reading too was taken from the Christmas Mass and was sung according to the Maronite rite. The Gospel of Luke was read according to the Greek Melchite Rite. It is the same Gospel proclaimed during the liturgy of Christmas (Luke, Chapter 2).

The Holy Father, being ever mindful of tracing the steps of salvation history during his visit to the Holy Land, began his homily with the words of Isaiah, "To us a Child is born, to us a Son is given." For it was in Bethlehem that this great promise was fulfilled and "for two thousand years, generation after generations of Christians have pronounced the name of Bethlehem with deep emotion and joyful gratitude. Like the shepherds and the wise men, we too have come to find the Child." The Child in whom "we find rest for our souls and the true bread that never fails. Beth-lehem, the house of Bread, God lies hidden in the Child, divinity lies hidden in the Bread of Life."

The Holy Father then reminded us that "every day is Christmas in the hearts of Christians…and everyday we are called to proclaim the message of Bethlehem to the world. " "Today we look back to one moment two thousand years ago, but in spirit we embrace all time. We gather in one place, but we encompass the whole earth. We celebrate one newborn Child, but we embrace all men and women everywhere."

The Pope ended his homily encouraging all with the words Jesus spoke after he rose from the dead: "Do not be afraid" (Matthew 28:10). He then asked the Child of Bethlehem "to heal our wounds, strengthen our steps, and open our hearts and minds."

As soon as the Pope finished his homily, the Mu'ezzin of the Mosque started the daily noon prayer. All silently waited while the prayer went on from speakers of the Minaret. This was a very moving moment with all in complete silence, a curious mixture of the Eucharist with the Moselm prayer in the Manger Square at Bethlehem and an example of the many religious groups who live and worship in Bethlehem. As soon as the prayer ended the Patriarch introduced the Profession of Faith and referred to the Moslem prayer which had invited all to pray to the One God.

Mass ended with a young girl singing Ave Maria and the Holy Father imparting his papal blessing. Then the crowd broke out with the familiar chant "Viva il Papa."

Later today, the Pope will have a private visit to the grotto of the Nativity, and then proceed to the Deheisha Refugee Camp, where he is to meet with Yasar Arafat. He will end the day by greeting those present at the Departure Ceremony as he departs from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.

On Thursday, the Holy Father will celebrate a Private Mass in the Last Supper Chapel followed by visits with two chief rabbis and the President of Israel. Pope John Paul II will then proceed to Yah Vashem (Holocaust Museum) to visit the Hall of Remembrance and the day will end with the Pope meeting with representatives from various inter-religious groups.