Father Gabriel Romanelli: Tending to his troubled flock

By Simon Hart

It was in a recent interview with the Friends of the Holy Land website that Father Gabriel Romanelli offered a flavour of his extraordinary existence as a parish priest in the Gaza Strip. The Argentinian was explaining how, on outings to the pharmacy to collect medicine for members of his Holy Family parish, it was important to not travel with Fr Yousef Assad, his Egyptian associate from the Congregation of the Incarnate Word. ‘We try to not be together in one car because the situation is very dangerous,’ he said.

For Fr Gabriel, who has spent 25 years in the Middle East, the situation has arguably never been as demanding as during last month’s conflict between Israel and Hamas. The Israeli bombardment of Gaza left some Holy Family parishioners with no electricity and the windows of their homes shattered. Together with Fr Yousef and the parish’s Palestinian novice, he had the task of offering assistance to those most in need of help, taking food and medicine, as well as Holy Communion, to the sick and elderly. There were visits too to the Rosary Sisters who run the largest school in Gaza, and phone calls to Muslim families in the community.

As the bombing continued, the parish compound became a place of refuge, with six families taking shelter by the eighth day. One family included Nisreen Anton, projects manager at the parish, along with her husband and three daughters, their home having suffered major damage after an airstrike demolished a nearby apartment building.

Even outside of an emergency like this, Fr Gabriel and his flock face rare challenges, as a tiny minority in one of the most densely populated places in the world. ‘We are a very small community – 133 people,’ he told the Bishops Conference website. ‘There are 1,077 Christians in Gaza altogether among two million Muslim citizens, Palestinians. So our Catholic Palestinian Arabic community is very small but very active.’

At Holy Family there is a group for spiritual formation, another for children and young people (with 170 members), a ladies group and a scout movement. There is also a school for altar boys, with 23 members. As well as Catholics, Christians from the Greek Orthodox community are well represented. Now, with the ceasefire, he will look to address parishioners’ ‘spiritual health and mental health’, and cites group activities such as singing and playing football. 

Standing back, Fr Gabriel points to the broader impact of the Christian community in Gaza, citing how Caritas – a Catholic charity – ‘helped about 66% of the Coronavirus cases’. That crisis had not yet passed, of course, when another erupted. ‘Our Patriarch [Pierbattista Pizzaballa] has made a very clear declaration about the situation,’ said Fr Gabriel. ‘Before the situation in Gaza, the events of Jerusalem with the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood are what gave rise to this crisis.’

As for how Catholics elsewhere can help, he has asked for ‘prayer’ and also ‘moral support’, highlighting the need to ‘let the people know about the situation, the reality. It’s necessary that people in the world understand the situation. It is necessary sometimes to show your closeness to the people so they feel that they’re not abandoned.’ He added: ‘It is necessary to be clear and until now many societies, many countries, many diplomats, they are silent.’

A final request, for those able to do so, is for financial support. ‘If there are people that can help, it is necessary to help because the need is real. It is not imagined. There was a very real need before these days. So after this destruction, we will need – the people will need – material help.’