Braving the humid cold on January 1 in Nazareth, the Custos of the Holy Land, Friar Pierbattista Pizzaballa, and Msg. B. Marcuzzo inaugurated the new route for visiting the sanctuary of the Annunciation in Nazareth. A few of the local faithful and many Franciscans, as well as the architects and the engineer for the project were present. The Nazareth community’s Father Guardian, Friar Ricardo Boutros, who initiated the project, gave this explanation :
“People arriving at the sanctuary didn’t know where to go. There was no route and no indications. This year was a record year as to the number of tourists and pilgrims, while at the same time there was a certain confusion. Some came from the church of Saint Joseph and crossed through the upper basilica in order to go down to the grotto ; others only went to the grotto and didn’t know there was a museum, the church of Saint Joseph, etc.
For several years now, tourists and in particular Israelis have been asking for more information on the sanctuary. So 1½ years ago, we started this project together with Jaime Buhigas and Berta Grasset, both from Madrid. They were the architects for the project and are specialists in arranging sacred spaces.
Now, with the setting up of this route and of signs, everything is clearer. First of all, at the entrance is to be found the sanctuary’s timetable ; then the first signpost indicates the recommended route. Of course the guides will have to become disciplined and that will take time. We are in the process of preparing a document that is meant especially for them. It will also be in Hebrew, as most of the guides are Israeli. On the other hand, the Shalom community, which helps us with welcoming visitors to the sanctuary, will pay attention and point out to them that there is now a route that envisages the beginning of the visit in the gallery on the right. We have put up six identical panels with which the guides will be able to give explanations to their groups outside the basilica on what they are about to see ; thus the basilica can be a place of silence. This outside visit also gives an opportunity to discover the church’s bronze doors that are covered with gospel scenes and symbols.
Inside the basilica, there is now only one stairway which serves solely for going up from the lower basilical to the upper one. Until now, the groups met going in every direction, and that confusion did not foster recollection. After visiting the upper basilica, you come to the courtyard of the baptistry, whence you can go either to the museum or to the church of Saint Joseph.
You go to the latter by going through a garden with flowers. We wanted to create the family atmosphere of a house. For this church really invites us to meditate on the experience of daily life in Nazareth, and we also hope to renew it in such a way as to enter more into this spirit. To go out from the interior of the sanctuary, you use the stairway that was built outside the basilica and which for the first time gives a view of the ancient village of Nazareth. Until now, the guides explained from in front of the baptistry that the remains of the village of Nazareth were underneath and that the grotto is only one of its elements, but the pilgrims had to believe this, since there was nothing to see. From now one, it is really possible to see the ensemble to which the grotto belongs. And there again, explanatory panels have been set up.
We have put a stream of water on this downward path, a source that is meant to signify that God is the source of all grace, the source of life. And that life and that grace which come down upon humanity come to the feet of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who received them in abundance and who remains ready to pass them on. At the center of the wall of water, according to Jaime’s wish, Elena Ruiz put the Christ monogram to indicate that the Logos, the Word, the Living Word became incarnate. You also see the tree of Jesse, for Jesus became incarnate in a history, and on each side is written in Greek and Latin, “In him was life.”
The square, at the center of which is the statue of the Blessed Virgin, is paved with stones that were imported from Granada, and in each corner are symbolized the four elements of which according to ancient thinking the world is made : fire, earth, air and water. These are also shown on the front of the basilica. Next to this, we have set up the so-called shop of Saint Joseph that used to be higher up.
This little project is a beginning. We have other ideas and other difficulties that need to be resolved. For in practice, the majority of groups do not pass in front of the grotto because in the Crusaders’ Choir, one Mass follows upon the other all day long from 7 a.m. until noon and from 2 p.m. until 5 or 6 p.m. We invite people to come there to pray, but how can they, if they cannot get anywhere near. We are thinking of offering other places for the Eucharistic celebrations. Only the Masses before 8 a.m. would be celebrated in the Crusaders’ Choir ; the others would be in the upper basilica at various altars which we still have to set up, but at least all the groups could pass in front of the grotto and pray there.”
The architect Jaime Buhigas for his part explained : “The project was more difficult to realize than was originally foreseen. We had to work from a distance on a site that presented us with strict constraints. We could neither touch the excavations nor modify the already existing buildings. Father Eugenio Aliatta was a big help and gave us many suggestions.
When we came, we saw that the groups of pilgrims and tourists enter the lower basilica, see the grotto and leave again, and they don’t know about all the other things there are to see in the same ensemble. However, the experience of Nazareth could be much richer than what most of the groups experience there. Other places remain free, which could be used better for hospitality, the visit and processions.”
Friar Eugenio Aliatta, an archaeologist from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, returned to the topic of the constraints connected with the archeology of the site : “In Nazareth, we have a lot of antiquities. Some have been brought to light, part of them have been studied and have been the topic of publications, another part has remained as it was discovered, but many others are still underground. So it was necessary to work the project in such a way as to touch neither what is already visible nor what could still be discovered. The work was done with great respect for this demand.”
Work that already bears projects for development. In accordance with the wish of the Custody, the engineer Assad Hakim has planned the necessary infrastructures so that the soundproofing for the weekly Saturday procession will be better and might possibly be broadcast.
At the end of the celebration, the assembly, joined by many faithful from Nazareth, gathered for the Eucharist. At the end of Mass, the Custos spoke a few words : “We want to thank the Lord for His providence in realizing this project, and we also want to thank the Franciscans of the Nazareth community as well as Father Eugenio, the bursar, the architects and the engineer and all the collaborators. The Custody has other projects for the sanctuary and to support the Christians of Nazareth. But I don’t want to reveal everything here, so I shall end by wishing everyone an excellent year 2009.”
After these words, the parish priest, Friar Amjad Sabbara, invited the assembly to meet so as to share a moment of friendship in the auditorium.