Two children walk up St. Francis Street in the Old City of Jerusalem, and they enter through the large door of Saint Savior’s Monastery in order to get to Sunday school. In Israel and Palestine, the Custody of the Holy Land is responsible for several parishes in the Latin Diocese of Jerusalem. Those include the parishes that preceded the re-opening of the Latin Patriarchate in 1847, in other words the parishes of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, as far as major cities go, but also those of Jaffa, Saint John of Acre, Cana, Ramleh or Jericho.
Br. Ayman Bathish is already in the courtyard of the Terra Sancta College and he welcomes the children, one by one. The friar adds to the atmosphere by singing an energizing song of praise. “For us, at Sunday school, the Gospel is what took place here,” said Br. Ayman. “When I ask the children questions about Jesus, they are not related to passages of the Gospels but rather to the places with which we are so familiar. Here we visit these places, and we see and touch them.”
The children are between five and 10 years old and there are 45 in total. Sundays, during ordinary time, they arrive in the morning at 8:30 and they begin by playing sports together. A short prayer lets them know that it is time for Sunday school, when the children are divided by age group, and then all go attend mass, even those who may be less enthusiastic about it. During extraordinary time, the last Sunday of Lent, the friar and his team of ten people composed of young lay people but also religious, opted for an alternative educational approach: going to the Holy Sepulcher to discuss the resurrection, among other things.
Tourists from the Old City, much to their surprise, saw the young local pilgrims arrive at the Basilica of the Resurrection. “Once they were in front of the Basilica, sitting on the stairs of the chapel of the Crusaders, the history of the church was shared with them and the Gospel of the Resurrection was read. “At Golgotha, the children remained well behaved in front of the cross. We prayed for the families, the victims of persecution and peace,” said the friar.
As soon as they left, the children resumed more playful activities. “I must say that we did have some escape attempts in the alleys of the Old City, their neighborhoods, but it is quite ‘normal’. Furthermore, some of them also wanted to visit the Holy Sepulcher. At this age, there is no such thing as a lack creativity.”
The preparation for Holy Week and Easter took place in several stages, with one or two topics every Sunday: fasting and prayer, the sacrament of confession, acts of mercy and the Resurrection. “Before the stone of anointing, we talked about Joseph of Arimathea and how we must welcome Jesus [into our hearts]. And we did this not only by emphasizing prayer but also the daily gestures of love by following the example of Joseph of Arimathea.”
The next visit was to Jesus’ tomb, where a simple explanation was given about the Resurrection and its significance followed by a time of prayer.” After the group photo in front of some Shrine, some children chose to stay longer in order to pray; others lit candles, that is to say, they got to play with fire.”
“We can see that these children often come to church alone without their parents,” confided the friar, “even when there is no Sunday school and when there are no games. The message to be around Jesus, to listen to the words of the Gospel and to those of Jesus, and to try to live like the early Christians appears to gently speak to the children. I do not want them to learn things by heart, but I desire that in them the love of Jesus and the personal knowledge of God may come to be.”