Father Gabriel Romanelli (center), the Latin parish priest of Gaza, is among the celebrants at a Mass to celebrate the feast day of Our Lady, Queen of Palestine and the Holy Land at the shrine dedicated to her at Deir Rafat on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023. / Credit: Marinella Bandini
Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 6, 2023 / 15:40 pm (CNA).
Father Gabriel Romanelli, the pastor of Holy Family Parish, the only Roman Catholic church in Gaza, gave an update Dec. 1 on the plight of the Christians in northern Gaza as the Israeli-Hamas war continues and spoke about the significance of Gaza to Christianity in the Holy Land.
Since the conflict began, hundreds of Christians and other Gazan civilians have taken refuge in the parish, which is on the northern end of the Gaza Strip.
Romanelli, who is an Argentine priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word and has served at the Gaza parish for over six years, shared his message during a Dec. 1 interview with Father Ibrahim Nino, director of the media office at the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
The full interview, which is in Arabic, is available on the patriarchate’s YouTube channel here.
Romanelli said that though there is “great shock and sadness” among the Christians of Gaza, “they have great trust in God’s divine protection.”
As the war broke out in Gaza after the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, Romanelli said that many people did not know where to go and the Christian community decided to stay, seeking refuge in the parish.
“It was dangerous as bombings were taking place both north and south. They chose to remain where they were, trusting in Jesus, so they truly felt the presence of God.”
Though a small minority in Gaza, the Christian community has been greatly impacted by the war.
On Oct. 23 an Orthodox church neighboring Holy Family Parish was struck by Israeli missiles, resulting in the deaths of 18 people. After the bombing, many more sought refuge in Holy Family Parish. The church is currently sheltering more than 600 people, according to Romanelli.
He said that many in the local community have lost homes and loved ones. Though he was outside Gaza when the war began and has been unable to return, he has kept in constant contact with his flock.
“These are very hard times,” Romanelli said. “Even if they have strong faith, they remain humans and sadness is normal to be experienced; even Our Lord Jesus Christ, God incarnate, wept.”
He thanked both Pope Francis and the head of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, for their prayers and spiritual closeness to the Church in Gaza. Romanelli shared that during the early days of the conflict, Francis would call him each day.
“The pope called us daily to check on us, despite his also big responsibilities and duties for the Church. And through a simple phone call, he gave us his blessing.”
Despite the suffering, Romanelli said that the faith of the Roman Catholic community in Gaza, which numbers about 135 and includes several priests and religious, has only strengthened.
“The big yearly activities that we are used to holding in our parish and schools will not take place this year,” he said. “But we started to think spiritually … the birth of Jesus is at the center of our celebrations … To hold different spiritual activities for the parishioners to help prepare spiritually for Jesus to be born in our hearts and lives by cleansing the grotto of our hearts and experience the simplicity of a grotto.”
Though the Catholic community in Gaza is small, Romanelli says it is very active and devout. The parish holds two Masses daily, a daily rosary, regular Eucharistic adoration, and hosts multiple ministries for men, women, and children to grow in faith.
According to Romanelli, the Catholic church there also runs three of the five Christian schools in Gaza, which serve both Christian and Muslim students, as well as ministries for the sick and injured.
Even though the war has heavily impacted the community, Romanelli said that many of the parish’s ministries have gone on and the sacraments continue to be offered.
“In regard to the spiritual life, despite all the things we lack, it is still a beautiful, rich, and important life in the parish,” he said. “We try to be one, not only assisting the Christians but also the Muslims [and] to anyone who comes to Gaza, allow them to experience the special presence of the Lord.”
Preserving the presence of Christ in Gaza
Romanelli said that tradition holds that the Holy Family passed through Gaza as they were fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath and that they passed through again on their way to Nazareth.
Thus, Romanelli said that Holy Family Parish in Gaza has three missions: first, to foster and preserve the presence of Jesus Christ in the area; second, to care for the spiritual life of the people; and third, to testify to the love of Jesus to all.
Now, as hundreds gather at the parish seeking shelter and spiritual solace and the Advent and Christmas seasons commence, Romanelli said that the parish’s mission is especially important.
Romanelli shared an Advent message, addressing Christians not only in Gaza but also throughout the world. He said “we need to return to the pillars of our faith, to read and meditate on the word of God, attend adoration and go to confession.”
He encouraged Christians worldwide to seek out the sacraments and spend time with Christ in the Eucharist this Advent and Christmas season. He also encouraged Christians to make spiritual acts of mercy by visiting and caring for the lonely, sick, and poor.
Romanelli especially encouraged Christians to turn to confession this Advent season. As missiles continue to strike around them, Romanelli said the Christians in Gaza remain focused not on those who can kill the body but instead on what can kill the soul.
“We tend to forget that we need a spiritual healing, we forget that we can die spiritually, but there is a solution for everything, and it’s through confession and repentance,” he said. “In sum, we should renew our spiritual life through confession, penance, and repentance.”