INTERVIEW – August 29, 2014. Pope Francis receives the parish priest from Gaza. They are a minority, but like all the other people of Gaza they have suffered because of the conflict. They have been sustained by the certainty of being part of the universal Church and of feeling the solicitude and care of the Pope and the solidarity and prayers of Christians throughout the world. Fr Jorge Hernández Zanni of the Institute of the Incarnate Word spoke about them in this interview with Osservatore Romano.
What are your first impressions after your meeting with the Pope?
The meeting with Francis was a grace. I would never expected it. During the days of war in Gaza, the Pontiff emailed a message to the parish. I immediately informed all the faithful about this gift. The relief they received is unimaginable, just for the fact that the Pope has all of us in his heart.
What was in the message?
First of all, Francis encouraged us to always go forward, to bear our witness, to be “salt of the earth”. I referred to the supernatural vision of the presence of Christians in that place. Let us not forget that out of almost two million people in Gaza, there are 1350 Christians, of whom 136 are Catholics and the rest Orthodox. An important minority. And the fact that the Pontiff cares about us is a meaningful gesture.
And what did today’s audience with the Pope symbolize?
Now, with this encounter I have had the same certainty: the pastor is present among his faithful, he offers encouragement and wise counsel. It is a tremendous grace for us.
What is the current situation in the Gaza Strip?
Thanks be to God, a durable ceasefire agreement has been reached, at least providing the chance for for the negotiators to return to Egypt. And this is also a great grace for us, because the people cannot take it any more. More than the damage and the fear, the situation has become unbearable for both sides in the conflict.
What work is being done at this time in your parish?
Holy Family is the only parish in Gaza. During the conflict we hosted more than 2,200 people who fled their homes. Ours was a witness of charity. We welcomed, sheltered and supported many refugees in their sorrow, also providing material aid, thanks to Caritas Internationalis, which was always close to us. I must say that we always had the unconditional support of the Patriarch Jerusalem for Latins. Patriarch Twal in person took care of the humanitarian aid for us and he himself telephoned our community many times. One who has lived through war knows the extraordinary value of these gestures. This is the presence of the Church: a steadfast charitable witness. Unfortunately, we also had three victims in our Christian community.
How many people work in the parish?
Besides me, as the parish priest, there is another priest from the Institute of the Incarnate Word, Fr Mario, who is from Brazil, and then the religious sisters from three congregations: the Sisters of Mother Teresa, the Dominicans of the Rosary and the Institute of the Virgin of Matará, from Argentina. All three congregations help in the parish, some assisting disabled children, others in the three Christian schools, which are the best in Gaza. They are also attended by Muslims and places which favour a dialogue for life among the religions.
What developments do you visualize for the future peace process?
It is not simple; in general it starts over from the beginning, both in the parish and in the civic community. People are returning to try to continue life. It is difficult to predict what will happen. However, I would like to openly thank all those who, during these weeks of conflict, wrote and called us, offered us their prayers and expressed their sorrow for us. This was very important to us. I again ask that everyone continue to pray for us. It is essential, we need it.