A little bit of history
To understand the story of one of the early Salesian Oratories outside of Italy itself, one has to return to the days of Fr Antonio Belloni, 'Father of orphans' and founder of the Catholic Orphanage at Bethlehem. We are talking 1864, when he was able to rent a house for the purpose in Bethlehem. 'I planned to put my institution in the protecting shadow of the infant Jesus to enjoy his particular protection', Fr Belloni said in one of his letters. He dearly wanted Don Bosco to take up this project and in due course himself became a Salesian to make it somehow possible! By 1891 some Salesian Coadjutor Brothers were ready to give the help for the new arts and trade school year. In 1911 the Oratory of Don Bosco was founded.
The Oratory today
While the Infant Jesus Oratory at Bethlehem has always been an important presence for the young and adults as well in Bethlehem, recent years with all the attendant difficulties for Palestinian people, the physical division of Bethlehem from Jerusalem by a wall, and the downturn in the economy, the difficulties for the Christian faithful and the exodus of Christians from the Holy Land - all this has been a social call to the Oratory to develop its offering in the way Don Bosco himself had envisaged the Oratory as a centre for human and faith development, and a true service to the people in whose territory it is found.
The Oratory is orgnaised into three groups these days - a central formation group which includes three subsections: the animators-leaders, the Don Bosco Youth group and the Dominic Savio Youth group; a cultural group which includes drama and the Al Dabka Band; a sporting group that contains four football teams and two basketball teams.
A typical period from Christmas to Easter
Bethlehem, of all cities in the world, is a city to celebrate Christmas and Easter in. No wall can separate the unity of faith and celebration that is felt to link the twin centres of Bethlehem-Jerusalem.
Christmas is celebrated as a special event for the Oratory. This year, with the special help of a leader at the Oratory, called Rania, a huge Crib was built inside one of the Oratory halls. The entire Oratory area (and it covers quite some area) was festooned with Christmas decorations, the work of children from one of the groups, the Dominic Savio Youth group, under Rania's direction. The Salesian and priestly direction of the Oratory is capably led by Fr Andre Haddad, himself an Israeli-Palestinian Salesian who was born and grew up in Nazareth.
The crib and decorations had a true Oratory significance however - the children involved learned more of their faith, celebrated the Christmas event with joy in their hearts, a much needed commodity in Bethlehem these days, and learned some skills into the bargain.
Feast of Don Bosco
On 31st January they celebrated the Feast of St. John Bosco. They invited all the youth from in and around Bethlehem to the Oratory for the occasion, setting the theme in line with the Rector Major's Strenna for 2007: Let us be guided by God's love for life. It was a major event, imaginatively prepared as a dramatic appearance and lowering of the Word of God into the Congregation (from the roof!). Mass was celebrated and the hundreds of young participants then went off to various recreation 'stations' around the Oratory. The day concluded with a theatrical representation, 'Country of the Sun', on a theme of youth seeking happiness and this desire interpreted by Don Bosco for them. The event was repeated on three different occasions to cater for the number of theatre-goers wanting to see it.
In early March, the Oratory offered a retreat experience at Jericho in preparation for the holy events of Easter. A journey these days of just half an hour by vehicle, with checkpoints and a segregation wall to negotiate, the journey takes at least one and a half hours via the 'Valley of the Fire', a physically perilous route today as it was centuries ago when 'a man went down from Jerusalem'.. It was a true desert experience for some 40 participants. Fr Andre was able to explain the spiritual meaning of the desert in both first and new testaments, and the significance of the Spring awakening visible in the Judaean desert in March.
On Good Friday some members of the Don Bosco Youth group were able to attend the Crosswalk in Jerusalem. Unfortunately many others were unable to gain the required permissions. But as Rania put it: 'This is our cross and we bear it. Neither checkpoint nor segregation wall can prevent us from praying'