Marcello Rognieri’s visit to Holy Family Children’s Home in Bethlehem turned into a full-time commitment. He has spent the past year volunteering at the orphanage. At right, the Order of Malta flag flies over Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem. Photos by Michael Swan

Order of Malta hospital central to Bethlehem’s faith community

  • June 20, 2014

BETHLEHEM - Hospitals are mostly in the habit of receiving patients. In Bethlehem, Holy Family Hospital also receives pilgrims.

“There’s this global Christian community, and I think people (in Bethlehem) feel pride connected with that,” said Justin Simpson, a member of the international board of the hospital and head of the representative office of the Order of Malta in Ramallah.

Tour groups, some connected to the Order of Malta and others organized by dioceses, get a chance to see a different side of the Holy Land when they drop in on the hospital. Rather than trying to distinguish crusader architecture from the more ancient Byzantine buildings or more recent Mamluk construction, pilgrims who file through the front door of the hospital get to see a vital part of 21st-century life in Bethlehem.

“If the hospital in its entirety were to disappear a critical part of the West Bank medical infrastructure would be lost,” explains Simpson. “Not only are we a referral hospital, but we are a training hospital recognized and appreciated by the Palestinian Medical Council, and we have the only neonatal intensive care unit in the West Bank.”

The hospital is sponsored by the Order of Malta, which annually funds about half of its operating costs. The other half is derived from contracts with the Palestinian Authority, a separate contract with the United Nations agency that takes care of Palestinian refugee camps and patient fees.

Pilgrims who see the benefits of a cutting edge hospital that has delivered more than 60,000 babies since 1990 are naturally enough a source of donations to the hospital, but the importance of pilgrims goes far beyond their cash value. The pilgrims are also a source of pride for the employees of the hospital and the local Christian community.

“They (Bethlehemites) see this (hospital) as a central component of their faith community,” Simpson said. “They’re very proud to be there and proud of the service they give as a Christian witness — not Christian witness of a proselytizing kind. We certainly believe we best explain our faith by what we do for others.”

Holy Family Hospital isn’t the only Christian institution in Bethlehem that has attracted pilgrims. Almost next door, Holy Family Children’s Home hosts a steady stream of pilgrims. In the case of Marcello Rognieri a visit to the orphanage turned into a full-time commitment.

The 58-year-old father of five has spent the last year volunteering at the orphanage, sponsored by the Daughters of Charity. The Daughters of Charity also run St. Vincent’s Guesthouse for pilgrims on the site of the orphanage.

The work Rognieri does at the orphanage has become a joyful way for the Italian to live his faith during his retirement. He laughingly describes himself as a “free man in a crazy country.”

It’s important that pilgrims see more than the dead stones of monuments, archeological sites and ancient churches, said Palestinian community activist Nora Kort.

“Us living stones must protect the dead stones,” she said.

Kort heads up the small Wojoud Museum in East Jerusalem, which houses an idiosyncratic collection of artifacts that testify to the enduring presence of Christians in Jerusalem through the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate and Israeli occupation.

The collection also testifies to the ability of Christians, Jews and Muslims to live together over the centuries. One of Kort’s central artifacts is a handwritten Arabic Bible, a family treasure from the mid-19th century. Soon after putting it on display, visitors augmented the collection by donating a Quran and a Torah from the same era.

The living stones of Christians who live in the Holy Land need the support of Christians from the rest of the world. But not much support derives from sealed busloads of Western pilgrims who arrive en masse at Nativity Square, scurry into the church for half an hour and then perhaps buy a souvenir. Simpson understands how people can be frightened by images of violence in the West Bank they’ve been seeing for years. But the reality of life in Palestine is more nuanced and complex than any headline can convey.

“The Middle East makes the word complicated somehow mildly inadequate,” he said.

Connecting with the daily life of Palestinian Christians isn’t a matter of downgrading the history so much as seeing the history as still alive, Simpson said.

“With the Order of Malta it’s very easy to get distracted by this fantastic history of 900 years of service. But if you take that history to its core, it’s a history of helping people who need it, starting just a few miles down the road in Jerusalem,” he said.

When the Order of Malta responded to Pope John Paul II’s invitation to re-open Holy Family Hospital in 1990, it wasn’t just a matter of preserving history.

“More close to the bone in terms of an order that really cares about serving people who have need, it was very clear that there was a community that definitely had need and we could do good by providing what we’ve tried to do — which is cutting edge, world class standards of care and love — for patients.”

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