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West Bank Priest Engages Young Catholics

Father Firas Aridah joins youths in the courtyard following Mass at St. Joseph Church in the West Bank town of Jifna 7 May. Bringing young Catholics back to church and engaged in parish life in the Palestinian areas has been a challenge for priests. (Photo: CNS/Debbie Hill) 

24 May 2011 – by Judith Sudilovsky

JIFNA, West Bank (CNS) — As dusk fell on this sleepy West Bank village, Father Firas Aridah looked down from the balcony of his office onto the church courtyard, where a group of young boys — and one girl — were in the midst of a heated soccer match.

Religious songs in Arabic flowed over the church’s loudspeakers and mingled with the shouts of the children as they played on the clear Saturday evening. As soon as the church bells began to ring, the boys disappeared while the girl slipped into the church, but the priest was not worried.

He knew that while the pews at St. Joseph Church filled mostly with women and girls, the boys would be back later, when the church youth group began its special activities for the younger children. Most importantly, what he saw was that among those parishioners who came to Mass, there were almost 25 young children — including four boys — and teenage girls.

After the first and second Palestinian uprisings, the church lost many of its youth to the political arena, and political rivalries infiltrated the lives of families and the church, Father Aridah said before the Mass. Now he and other priests in the diocese have been focusing on bringing Catholic youth back into the church.

“The youth need many things, like hope,” Father Aridah said. “We have to gather them inside the church and beside the church, to live their brotherhood and to live their Christianity as it should be.”

At the conclusion of the Mass, the courtyard filled with young people of all ages. Boys roughhoused and tried to shoot some hoops; young girls gathered in small groups, giggling; young men and women chatted with each other along the wall of the church. Youth leaders tested the microphone and lined up the younger children.

Suddenly the sounds of the “Hokey Pokey” blasted through the speakers and the children were shaking and wiggling, laughing and teasing.

On Saturday evenings Father Aridah normally leads the young adult group in Bible study, reading a selection from the Gospel and discussing its relevance to their lives, but this particular Saturday in May was dedicated to the younger children of the parish.

Fadi Makhlouf, 34, the choir director, organist and youth leader, smiled from the church entrance as the dancing was about to begin. He said parishioners need to “live our Christianity. Father Firas and, in general, other priests are trying to get the youth back to the churches. In some places they are succeeding, in some not.”

Father Aridah said he is not trying to remove Christian young people from political activities.

“From the church they can give their testimony of faith and be involved in the society as it should be, as Christians,” said Father Aridah. “I have to give them a Christian view how to live in the political parties, how I have to protect my dignity by peace, not just throwing stones.”

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