The birth of the greatest prophet in history was celebrated on June 24. On this day, the Church celebrates the nativity of St. John the Baptist, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, who preached and baptized, acting as a precursor to the Messiah. As always, the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land had the privilege of celebrating the solemnity in the very places connected with the saint’s life. They then went to the two sanctuaries dedicated to St. John the Baptist, which are in the village of Ain Karem, eight kilometers from the old city of Jerusalem. At St. John of the Desert and St. John in the Mountains respectively, the place of his childhood, where he found shelter escaping the massacre of the Innocents, and the place of his birth by his elderly parents Zacharias and Elizabeth, are remembered.
First Vespers for the solemnity took place at the sanctuary of St. John of the Desert, a true oasis of prayer perched up on the hills.
“At the request of the scribes and the Pharisees who asked him who he was, he replied, ‘I am not who you think I am. I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.’” Fr. Dobromir Jazstal, Vicar of Custody, said in the homily, and then he focused on John’s vision of life, which was always to point to another. After the prayers of the psalms were sung in the small church, the procession started on toward the grotto where the saint used to go to pray. “I hope that today’s pilgrimage will make you more aware of Christ’s precursor and help you to be a witness to him,” concluded Fr. Franciszek Wiater, the guardian of the monastery.
In the splendid sanctuary garden, the faithful present and the friars then shared dinner in a moment of fraternal communion. The sun gradually set on the ancient hermitage of St. John, whose most ancient witness [account] is that of an anonymous twelfth-century [writer]. In addition to the chapel of the Desert, one can also find the grotto, the spring and Elizabeth’s Tomb.
As per tradition, the pontifical mass for the solemnity took place the following morning at the Church of St. John in the Mountain. After the crowded Arabic-language mass that was attended by many pilgrims from Egypt, the friars and the faithful celebrated mass in Latin and in Italian. “May St. John the Baptist give us the gift of the joy of life and of our vocation,” said Fr. Francesco Patton, the Father Custos, in the homily. In the Crypt where the birth of the precursor of the Lord is commemorated, many stopped to pray or to observe a moment of silence.
The friars then gathered for lunch offered by the fraternity, set up with the help of younger friars. “Our sanctuary is a formation house and we have five friars and five students,” said Fr. José Clemente Muller, the monastery’s guardian.
Even the inhabitants of Ain Karem were involved in the feast of St. John the Baptist. Although most of them were Jews, many were curious to understand the solemnity, and Fr. Seweryn, of the Monastery of St. John in the Mountains, organized a formation day for locals on June 23. “The purpose of this initiative was to allow the inhabitants of Ain Karem to know about our sanctuary,” said Fr. Seweryn. Beyond these scientific conferences, we wanted to attract people with a concert by two singers of medieval music. The day ended with a guided tour of the church. The very municipality of Ain Karem had suggested that this formation day take place: this is a first step and we hope we can continue in this direction.”