Celebrated on the 25ththOctober according to the liturgical calendar, the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Palestine, gathers thousands of believers every year in the sanctuary dedicated to her in Deir Rafat.
Founded in the 1920s by Patriarch Luigi Barlassina, this place of pilgrimage is of great importance to Palestinian Christians and the whole Diocese of the Holy Land.
Am 15thIn July 1920, the brand new Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Italian Luigi Barlassina, made his ceremonial entry into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. On this occasion he decided to place Palestine under the auspices of the Mother of God, the true ruler of this country, which the growing tensions between Arabs and Jews were slowly beginning to tear apart. These tensions later led to the riots of 1929 and then to the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939.“We ask you to cast a pitying gaze on Palestine, which is yours more than any other land, since you have adorned it with your birth, your virtues and your sorrows. (…) Rely on, therefore, to watch over your homeland with special protection, and scatter the shadows of error from it, for there shone the sun of eternal justice.”implores Monsignor Barlassina in a prayer he wrote himself and dedicated to the “Queen of Palestine”.
A shrine to the "Queen of Palestine"
The Patriarch decided to give a more concrete expression to this patronage by building a shrine where the faithful of the Holy Land Diocese could venerate the Virgin Mary under the title of Queen of Palestine. The choice of location was Deir Rafat, halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, a region where the Scriptures record some of the exploits of Samson, the last judge of ancient Israel (Judges 13-16). The construction of the church, designed by Maurizio Gisler (1855-1940), Benedictine of the Abbey of the Assumption, began in 1925; It was completed in 1927 and personally inaugurated by Bishop Barlassina the following year.
The building's ceiling, as well as parts of the walls, were decorated by a Palestinian artist, who, at the request of the Patriarch, included Archangel Gabriel's famous greeting to the Virgin of Nazareth - "Hail, Mary" - in 280 languages. On the left side of the nave is a painting of a Franciscan nun depicting the Mother of Christ blessing the Holy Land from Mount Carmel to Jerusalem, while two angels present her with the scepter and crown, symbols of her kingship.
From then on, the Queen of Palestine was celebrated on the last Sunday in October; this solemnity was then approved by Pope Pius XI in 1933. Mgr. Barlassina requested that the 1920 supplication be recited regularly in the parishes and religious communities of the Holy Land, with the aim of spreading the devotion as widely as possible.
Roses from the Knights
It gained international influence from the moment when, by the decree "It is indeed known” of Pope Saint John Paul II (January 21, 1994), the “Regina Palestinae” was proclaimed Patroness of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. In fact, the bond of knights and dames with their queen stretches back to the very origins of the worship - the order was instrumental in funding much of the sanctuary's construction. A particular story illustrates this well. The year is 1934. Two Italian knights, Giuseppe Folonari from Brescia and Roberto Malinverni from Turin, decide to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Leaving Milan on board a private plane, they land at Ramleh military airport after a journey of 5,000 km. After visiting the Holy Places, the two men get back on their plane but do not want to return to Italy without Deir Rafat. The small plane takes off from Ramleh and flies over the sanctuary until it only flies over the roof. And now Folonari opens the plane door and throws out the bouquet of roses that he and his companion have brought with them."An indescribable emotion flooded our hearts,"he told later. The tribute to the queen is paid: the knights can go home!
The image and the prayer, translated into several languages, gradually crossed the borders of the Holy Land diocese ... and came to Poland, to Praszka, to the Archdiocese of Czestochowa, where a small sanctuary, founded by a pious Polish knight of the Holy Sepulcher, dedicated to Our Lady of Palestine.
Deir Rafat and Palestinian Christians
Expect 2,000-year-old sites of salvation—Nazareth, Bethlehem, or Jerusalem—to draw many more pilgrims than a sanctuary built less than a century ago. However, the Christians of Israel and Palestine do"know Deir Rafat and love to go there to venerate their patron saint, ask her for their protection for their families and especially for the Holy Land."observed Mgr. William Shomali, Patriarchal Vicar for Jerusalem and Palestine. Many of them gather in the Shrine on the last Sunday in October. However, many of them require special permission to attend this solemn and unifying event;"The Latin Patriarchate manages to attract about a thousand every year",says Bishop Shomali.
In addition to this annual festival, the "national" shrine has also been the scene of several significant events in the history of the diocese. The Patriarchal Vicar recalls two of them in particular: the consecration of the whole Holy Land to the Virgin Mary who was“A moment of great ecclesial communion”(am 31stOctober 2010, i.e. one week after the end of the synod of bishops for the Middle East) and the opening of the synodal process requested by Pope Francis (30thOctober 2021) in the presence of 2,000 believers.
It was at Deir Rafat that Msgr. Giacomo Beltritti, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem from 1970 to 1987, asked to resign after resigning for reasons of age."As a man of faith, he wanted to devote the rest of his life to prayer and meditation in the shadow of the Shrine of Our Lady of Palestine,"Receiving pilgrims, teaching catechism to children and celebrating Mass for the nuns there, says Mgr. Schomali. It should not be forgotten that it is the sanctuary's sideline activities that have contributed to its popularity.
The nuns of Bethlehem, a presence of prayer in the sanctuary
In 1928 Deir Rafat was entrusted to the care of the Sisters of Saint Dorothea; until 1948 they also took over the orphanage and the vocational school, which were set up in the outbuildings of the church - where also the first printing works of the Latin Patriarchate stood. From 1975, the same municipality operated a primary school for children from families in need; After its closure in 2006, the Sisters of Saint Dorothea left the shrine.
In 2009, Patriarch Fouad Twal asked the nuns of the Bethlehem monastic family to provide prayer and worship there."We remain there in silence and prayer, bringing before God the pilgrims who come to this blessed place to pray,"testifies one of them. In this "universal" place, where silent retreats are also possible,"Everyone feels at home"She continues and particularly remembers a group of pilgrims who came to the church to pray. Each of them tried to find their native language among the 280 painted on the ceiling. It was then that"A little old man started crying because he had just found 'his' language, Armenian... His country was there, under the protection of the Queen".Stories like this are legion.
The Marian shrine welcomes Christians of all denominations, but also Jews and Muslims. What are you looking for there?“A place of peace; a place to pray; a place or time where one feels safe, where one is accepted for who one is, a person to love; They come there to seek a testimony of faith.”come the answers from the nuns of Bethlehem. Christians, Jews and Muslims rub shoulders at the feet of the Queen of Palestine to place there the same wishes and the same prayers: for peace in hearts, peace in families and peace for this beautiful land of Jesus.