These days the Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem, Israel is probably best known as the venue where the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem holds the midnight mass on Christmas Eve each year. The event is televised worldwide and the mass is attended by hundreds of Christians who come from near and far to celebrate the birth of Christ.
The Church of St. Catherine and it’s surroundings
The Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem is a Roman Catholic Church right next door to the Church of the Nativity. The inner courtyard or Franciscan cloisters leads to the entrance of Saint Catherine’s Church and is a small tranquil oasis surrounded on all sides by holy buildings: the Franciscan Monastery, the Church of Saint Catherine and the Church of the nativity. The Church of Saint Catherine shares a wall with the Church of the Nativity and there is even an adjoining door from the north aisle of the Church of the Nativity. In 1470 the Franciscans made a passage way connecting the Grotto of the Nativity in the Church of the Nativity with the Church of Saint Catherine which at that time was a more basic structure called the Chapel of the Canons of Saint Augustine. Tourists can now pass through the narrow stone passage ways from one church to the other.
The Church of Saint Catherine has earned it’s status as a holy site firstly because of it’s proximity to the birth place of Jesus and secondly because it marks the place where, in 310AD Jesus came to Catherine of Alexandria in a vision and predicted that she would die a martyr. The Church of Saint Catherine dates back to at least the 15th century and over the years has undergone several structural changes, today the Basilica is a spacious large modern looking church but beneath the church are ancient chambers each with Christian significance.
Structure of Church of Saint Catherine
The church was built on top of a 12th century Crusader Church and later the church took on the form we know today when in 1881 it was expanded to include three aisles and underwent other alterations by the Franciscan monks. The church also incorporates the remains of a 5th century monastery. Again in 1948 the church and primarily the cloisters were renovated this time using some of the columns from the 12th century monastery.
One of the most beautiful features of the church is the stained glass window which depicts the nativity scene and is a focal point of the church located high behind the alter. The window was made in Belgium in 1926.
On the right as you enter Saint Catherine’s Church you may descend underground to a number of caves: The Chapel of the Holy Innocents-in memory of the first born male babies put to death on the orders of Herod; Saint Joseph’s Chapel-in memory of Mary’s husband; Chapel of Saint Eusebius-the head of the monastery who followed Jerome; the Tomb of Saint Paula and her daughter Eustochium – pilgrims who traveled with St. Jerome; Tomb of Saint Jerome-burial place of Saint Jerome and another grotto thought to be the study where St. Jerome translated the Old and New Testaments of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgata )in 386AD.
The Church of Saint Catherine is one of the most important tourist attractions and Christian edifices in Bethlehem, it contains a deep historical and biblical significance and exploring the caves below rejuvenate the religious spirit in every visiting Christian.