I had the great privilege of spending three and a half days with the pastor and the people of St. Joseph Parish in Jifna, a Palestinian Roman Catholic Parish. It is about 10 miles from Jerusalem in the occupied territory of the West Bank. It was through Fr. Alex Kratz, a Franciscan priest in Detroit and friend of St. Joseph’s pastor, Fr. Firas Aridah, that I received the invitation to visit Jifna. It was an experience that I will never forget.
Jifna is a small town nestled in a valley on the outskirts of the city of Ramallah, the temporary capital of Palestine. Its history is long, dating to pre-biblical times, and the place is mentioned in Joshua 18:24 as “Ophni,” one of the towns given to the tribe of Benjamin. Local tradition holds that the Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus stayed there on their return to Nazareth from exile in Egypt. In fact, the spring that provides water for the town is still called “Mary’s Spring.” On one side of the parish church there are some families living in the remains of a Roman fortress that dates from the time of Jesus. On the south side of the church are the partially excavated ruins of the 6th century Church of St. George. Overlooking and encroaching upon the town for the past 60 years is the Palestinian refugee camp, Al Jalazun, which is home to Muslim families that were displaced as a result of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. History oozes out of every stone, yet the town is very much alive in the present.
I arrived in Jifna on Friday afternoon through the kindness of William, the chauffeur of Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem. As we drove through the rain on the winding roads between the Judean hills, we talked about the checkpoints and the Israeli built security wall that divides the land. He also talked about his family and his two beautiful little granddaughters whose pictures he was happy to show me while he kept one hand on the wheel! We arrived to lunch and a warm welcome from Fr. Firas who made me feel right at home. He is an energetic 37-year-old pastor from Jordan who takes seriously his title and role as “Abouna,” “Father” and protector of his flock. In his previous pastorate in the village of Aboud, he stood up to Israeli tanks and soldiers’ guns to prevent the encroachment of the wall into the neighborhoods, fields and olive orchards of his parish. In 2005, he went to Washington and testified in Congress about the realities of life in Palestine, and his parish in particular.
St. Joseph Parish is made up of 140 families and I had a chance to meet a good number of the parishioners that first evening. Because it was a Friday in Lent, Stations of the Cross were prayed followed by evening Mass, all in Arabic. A gaggle of altar servers, boys and girls, assisted at the service. They dress in the same style of robes as our servers in Lake Orion except the girls also wear head coverings of laced white mantillas. Throughout the worship, the faithful sang the hymns full-throated and loudly recited the responses. I was impressed by their deep devotion and evident faith and began to be homesick for my own St. Joseph Parish in Lake Orion. I thought about the Lenten fish fry and the Stations of the Cross being prayed back home that very night and how fortunate that I am to be a member of a strong faith community.
Following Mass, almost the entire congregation went to the parish hall for a light Lenten supper. The food was wonderful and consisted of traditional breads, olives, humus, falafel, various pickles, salads and pastries. It was a feast and hardly represented a penance for me at all! Then we played Bingo. Fortunately for me, I sat next to Jifna’s two nuns who helped me mark my cards, since of course the numbers were being called out in Arabic. Although I never had the chance to call out “Bingo,” I enjoyed a perfectly Catholic experience my first day in Jifna.