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This year, 'we can recognize Gethsemane in the whole world,' says priest

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JERUSALEM -- The uncharacteristic silence at the hermitage of the Garden of Gethsemane was, in a way, fitting to the current world situation, said Franciscan Father Diego Dalla Gassa, who is responsible for the hermitage garden.

"We are in a hermitage and I am a hermit; our mission is to be more one for prayers and intercession ... so it is good this quiet, but also strange," said Father Dalla Gassa, originally from Italy. "We live near the people, to welcome them and to explain; we pray with the people. This year, here in this place where Jesus suffered, we can recognize Gethsemane in the whole world."

Normally at this time of the year, he said, the small olive orchard of the hermitage is host to members of the diplomatic corps and their families and members of religious orders, who come to help the friars harvest olives from the 225 trees in the hermitage garden. Next door, another harvest takes place with volunteers in the holy garden of Gethsemane, at the entrance to the Church of all Nations, with its 23 ancient olive trees. That oil is then used for Holy Thursday, baptisms, confirmations and consecration of priests.

In the valley outside the hermitage, the friars have about 500 more olive trees.

Oil from the hermitage olives are generally pressed for the friars' daily cooking needs and are bottled in small containers to be given out as gifts to pilgrims visiting Gethsemane, the place of Jesus' agony and where he was arrested the night before his crucifixion. This year, there have been no pilgrims to the site since early March.

"It has been a very strange year. Usually at this time on Saturday mornings, this time of the year, we can hear all the sounds of the pilgrims. This isn't the Jerusalem we know. We haven't had tourists or pilgrims," Father Dalla Gassa said Oct. 17.

That day, the priest opened the door of the hermitage garden to one family from the Czech Republic and a colleague of theirs. Until then, because of pandemic restrictions, Father Dalla Gassa had been doing the harvest with the help of only one worker.

"Coming to the hermitage of Gethsemane to pick olives is not like coming to another place," said Zuzana Bobekova, who has come to the olive harvest with her family since 2018. "We have been in a lockdown for a whole month, so it is something special to be out here now. We have the opportunity to help these people, help the priest. We come closer to Jesus where he was suffering. ... I come so close to this, I am a part of it."

In Gethsemane, Jesus asked his apostles to stay with him as he prayed, said Father Dalla Gassa, and now in the time of the international pandemic he has found new significance to these words.

"In this dramatic situation, we must stay with Jesus, we have to discover God in this situation and not panic," he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020