JERUSALEM (CNS) — During this year of COVID-19 lockdowns and lack of international pilgrimages, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land has had to adjust its funding priorities and trim its budgeting, and difficult though that has been, Father Ramzi Sidawi fears the worst is still to come.
“It is now a difficult, strange, new situation,” said Father Sidawi, general administrator of the Custody, which does more than take care of holy places. “In the past, we have been in wars and the intifada, and no pilgrims came, but all over the world churches were open, and we could collect donations. Today, churches all over the world are closed and not able to hold collections.”
The Custody receives its main funding under the supervision of the Congregation for Eastern Churches through the Good Friday Collection for the Holy Land, held worldwide. The funds collected are used to pay salaries of Custody employees — including teachers; maintain Franciscan sanctuaries; support tuition subsidies at the Custody’s 15 schools; provide university scholarships; and subsidize rent for 530 units leased to Catholic families in housing projects in Jerusalem.
“Sometimes we are stressed, with our accountants asking, ‘Do we have enough money? How much money do we have?’” he said.
Last year’s collection, which came at the start of the pandemic, was postponed until September, and even then only 25% of what is usually collected came in, said Father Sidawi. At the time, parishes in the western United States and Canada were still able to offer Mass, so they provided significant sums, he said. But this year with complications in the vaccination rollouts in Europe and with North American vaccinations still incomplete, officials are unsure if people will be able to attend Mass to participate in the Good Friday collection.
“We know everyone is suffering during this pandemic around the world, but we have always found generous people to help us. We need economic help now in order to keep the shrines functioning for the people of this land and all over the world,” said Father Sidawi.
Pilgrim offerings at Franciscan shrines, purchases at souvenir shops and pilgrim stays in the Franciscan Casa Nova guesthouses are also an important source of funding, he noted, and for the past year that income generated by pilgrims has also been sorely absent.
“We have to make reductions in our expenses starting with the simplest things in our ordinary life as friars,” said Father Sidawi. “The last thing we will cut are the subsidies.”
After several boom years of increasing numbers of pilgrims, the Custody had planned necessary renovations at its sanctuaries; those have been postponed indefinitely. The Custody also was forced to lay off almost 90% of its guesthouse employees, 30% of office staff and 50% of staff at its sanctuaries, he added.
Rather than make direct donations of food and other essentials to families, the Franciscans have always regarded their employment of some 1,000 people as the best way to allow local Christians to support their families with dignity, so having to lay off so many has been especially difficult, he said.
While those employees living in Israel have the safety net of Israeli government unemployment benefits, Palestinian employees do not receive any unemployment assistance from the financially strapped Palestinian Authority, Father Sidawi said. Especially in Bethlehem, where almost 80% of the population depends economically on the tourism industry, he said, the situation is extremely dire, with people unable to pay for food or medicine.
The Franciscan said he hoped that even if parishes are not able to hold a collection on Good Friday, they will do so on another day.
“We are doing this with a question mark in the future,” he said. “We are people of faith, we are here doing work for the Lord, so we know he will not leave us by ourselves. We always find someone to help.”