In the Holy Land, for the first time in fifty years, the Franciscans were able to celebrate Mass at the very place where Christ was baptized. The site of Qasr al-Yahud, transformed into a minefield after the Six-Day War, has once again become a place of prayer entrusted to the Church.
“We are happy, on this very special day, that the Custody of the Holy Land, after more than half a century, with the help of God, was able to return to the Church of Saint John the Baptist,” rejoiced Fr. Mario Hadchity, Franciscan religious in charge of the parish of Jericho.
January 10, 2021 will indeed be a red-letter day, because for more than half a century, Mass had not been celebrated in the church of Qasr Al-Yahud, on the banks of the Jordan, in the very place where Christ was baptized by John the Baptist.
For the occasion, Msgr. Leopoldo Girelli, Apostolic Nuncio to Israel and Cyprus, and Apostolic Delegate for Jerusalem and Palestine, attended the Mass celebrated by the Custodian of the Holy Land, Fr. Francisco Patton.
“The last priests to celebrate Mass here were an Englishman, Fr. Robert Carson, and a Nigerian, Fr. Silao Umah. Fifty-four years later, we are writing a new page in history to testify that this place, once transformed into a battle ground, a minefield, has once again become a field of peace, a field of prayer,” the custodian of the Holy Land recalled with emotion in his homily.
The current site, venerated as that of the baptism of the Lord, was acquired by the Custody in 1932, but it was not until 1956 that a modest church dedicated to St. John the Baptist was built, and entrusted to the Franciscan religious from the convent in Jericho.
In 1967, when the Six-Day War broke out, the place was transformed into a fifty-five hectare minefield, and the Franciscans were forced to flee the convent in a hurry.
Thirty-three years later, in the year 2000, an exceptional access was granted to Pope John Paul II during his apostolic journey to the Holy Land.
In 2011, the Israeli authorities made the site accessible to pilgrims, but it was not until January 2018 that an association—the Halo Trust—decided to tackle the necessary work of removing the mines, which was completed at end of October 2018.
Two years later, in October 2020, the keys of the church were handed over to the Custody, which envisages “an imminent reopening to pilgrims, who will be able to find in this church located in the heart of a palm grove, a place conducive to meditation and to prayer,” in the words of Fr. Patton.