19 October 2017
U.S. Franciscan Rev. Michael Perry, minister general of the order, center, leads the ceremony for the opening of the celebrations of the anniversary of 800 years of Franciscan presence in the Holy Land on 16 October at the Church of St. Saviour in Jerusalem's Old City. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Franciscans serving in the Holy Land have had an impact on Christian pilgrims, said Franciscan Rev. Michael Perry, minister general of the order.
“The Franciscans’ care for pilgrims, their attention to detail, their efforts to demonstrate the love of God, the mercy of God through different religious services and ... how they welcome people in hospitality houses, these become elements that people themselves, Christians and others, take back to (their) countries,” said Father Perry.
Father Perry spoke to Catholic News Service in Jerusalem during official celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the presence of the Franciscans in the Holy Land. The celebration included three days of prayer, reflections, music and conference meetings, which discussed the history and archaeology of the Franciscans in the Holy Land. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, head of the Vatican Congregation for Eastern Churches, was among those who attended.
The service of the Franciscans “should be a call to go beyond division, a call to recognize each other truly as brothers and sisters belonging to the one same family, whether you call it family of God or the one human family,” Father Perry told CNS following the celebrations’ opening ceremony on 16 October. “I think their service is absolutely essential; that is why in the 14th century, the Holy Father at the time asked the Franciscans to dedicate energy and personnel to care for the holy sites.”
In his missionary service, Father Perry said, he has seen pilgrims from many countries talk of the gratitude they felt for the way the Franciscans welcomed them and guided them, offering them an opportunity to meet Jesus, to meet the living God, giving real witness to their Christian faith.
He said he witnessed one of the strongest examples of the Franciscan dedication both to the local Christians and to the holy sites in Syria, which he visited in April. There, two Franciscan friars remained with 300 Christian families in two villages under the rule of the Islamic State group in order to “guarantee Christ’s presence ... and the presence of Eucharist and a presence of church” for the families, he said.
He added that although these friars were not able to cross over into Aleppo to see him, he did see how other Franciscans there were active in organizing the laity to help themselves.
“The Franciscans really serve as a cornerstone for coordinating and implementation and getting the funding in ... and also empowering laity to become partners in caring for their own people in Syria, so the laity in Syria, the young people in particular, were involved in this dire service to their own people, and not just to Christians, but to Muslims as well. This was an amazing witness to me,” he said.
Reflecting on the significance of the 800th anniversary, Father Perry said two words came to mind: “inter gentes,” Latin for “among the people.”
“This going among the people, becoming a brother to other people: I think the significance of this event is not simply to look back at 800 years of ‘oh what a wonderful job we have done,’ although in many ways I think the brothers have given up a tremendous witness of faith, hope and love, but I also think the significance of this event is to propel us toward the future,” said Father Perry. “This new perspective ... means we have to be open and sensitive to where other people are, because we recognize God’s presence, the Spirit’s presence, already there. We are not there to convert people, we’re there to recognize with them what God is doing.”
The 800th year anniversary is one of celebrating the work that God continues to do in the Holy Land, he said.
“All of us have to reach out, not only to all human beings, but ‘Laudato Si,’ to reach out to all of creation to safeguard the future of our planet for all of humanity,” Father Perry said, using the title of Pope Francis’ 2015 environmental encyclical. “This is what the holy sites tell me, this is what the place of the burial of Jesus tells me, the cross and the event of the resurrection. I think this is what it tells us as Franciscans. He calls us forward.”
18 October 2017
People displaced by fighting eat lunch inside a heated tent at a train station during evacuations in 2015 in the Ukrainian city of Slaviansk. The Catholic bishop responsible for eastern Ukraine has backed calls for the deployment of international peacekeepers and praised “pressure from below” to end the four-year war. (photo: CNS/Anastasia Vlasova, EPA)
The Catholic bishop responsible for eastern Ukraine has backed calls for the deployment of international peacekeepers and praised “pressure from below” to end the nearly four-year war.
With the Ukrainian government ready to establish conditions for a peacekeeping force, “there are now good signs this could happen,” said Bishop Stanislav Szyrokoradiuk of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia, whose diocese includes rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk.
“Although some politicians still hope to use this conflict for their own power interests, pressure for reconciliation is spreading up from below among the people who’ve had enough of it. This is a positive change, and it brings a real chance of peace,” he told Catholic News Service 18 October.
Peacekeeping proposals were being debated by European Union and U.N. officials in mid-October to end the conflict between the Ukrainian government and Russia-back separatists.
Bishop Szyrokoradiuk said he has been in continual contact with people on both sides who believe pressure from the U.S. and Western governments would induce Russian President Vladimir Putin to “talk and reach agreements.”
“Those whose decisions led to this war, and who saw it as a way of making dirty money, will naturally stand by policies they’ve staked their reputations on,” Bishop Szyrokoradiuk said. “But people at large are demanding their leaders do something to end this terrible bloodshed. Peace will come sooner or later, from below if not from above.”
Ukrainian church leaders have accused Western governments of ignoring continued suffering in their country, where war has left more than 10,000 dead.
Ukraine’s armed forces have been substantially rebuilt with $857 million in “non-lethal” Western military aid. Gen. Viktor Muzhenko, chief of the military’s general staff, predicted in mid-October he could recapture Donetsk and Luhansk from the separatists with defensive weaponry requested from the U.S., but only at a heavy cost in lives.
Bishop Szyrokoradiuk said his church’s Caritas-Spes charity was helping needy Ukrainians on both sides of the conflict.
However, he added, more than 100,000 displaced people, a fifth of them children, were living in industrial containers, abandoned barracks and railway sheds in Kharkiv alone as winter approached. Effective humanitarian aid would be essential to any peace process, he said.
“Ukraine cannot stand alone. It needs support, and we’re grateful to people of goodwill in Europe and the U.S. who are engaging and showing solidarity with us,” the bishop said.
“The feeling we’re not abandoned has been very important for unifying Ukraine during this war. Although opinion was once divided between pro-Russian and pro-Western groups, no one now doubts our salvation lies in moving closer to the European Union,” he said.
17 October 2017
A patient chats with staff at Our Lady’s Hospital for the Chronically Ill in Lebanon. Read more about this hospital and other institutions working to assist Lebanon’s most vulnerable in Reaching the Margins, from the September 2017 edition of ONE. (photo: Don Duncan)
16 October 2017
Tags: Lebanon Health Care Caring for the Elderly
The Rev. Nidal Abdel Massih Thomas is a priest of the Chaldean Church. For the past 16 years he has been patriarchal vicar for northeastern Syria. Read his account of what it is like to lead his flock in A Letter from Syria in the current edition of ONE. (photo: Nidal Abdel Massih Thomas)
13 October 2017
The Rev. Wladyslaw Brzezinski blesses tourists outside the Church of the Visitation on 5 October in Jerusalem. Franciscan Father Brzezinski has been superior at the church for the past 10 years.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
On his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land just at the outbreak of the intifada, the Rev. Wladyslaw Brzezinski was awed by the quiet contemplation with which a fellow friar was able to pray under a sprawling sabra cactus in the courtyard of the Church of the Visitation.
Little did he know that his life’s path would eventually lead him back to this Franciscan shrine which, according to Christian tradition, marks the home of Elizabeth and Zachariah and commemorates the meeting between Mary her cousin, Elizabeth, when Mary recited the Magnificat as Elizabeth announced she was pregnant.
Franciscan Father Brzezinski, who wanted to be sent as a missionary to Africa, followed his vow of obedience and remained in Poland. In 2003, his superiors sent him to the Holy Land, where the Franciscan custos and his staff serve as guardians of the Catholic holy places and welcome pilgrims.
Upon his arrival, Father Brzezinski, now 53, spent seven months serving at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and four years at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, three of them as the superior. But for the past 10 years, he has been superior at the Church of the Visitation.
Nestled at the top of a steep stairway in the sleepy Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Karem, on the outskirt of the southern part of the city, the shrine where he and one other Franciscan live is far from the local Christian community.
“The Church of the Nativity and the Holy Sepulchre are very important for Christians,” said Father Brzezinski. “In the Holy Sepulcher, (religious) life is 24 hours a day ... it is very special for this, but it is also a very difficult life.”
Working as superior at the Holy Sepulchre, with its rigorous prayer schedule and hundreds of daily visitors, can be very trying, he said, noting that while other friars have a week off every five weeks, the superior does not.
Coming to serve at this smaller shrine was like coming to a “sanatorium,” he said, where he now has time for his own prayers and to pray for others who have asked for his prayers. He also has time to spend a few moments with some of the pilgrims who visit the shrine.
“When I am looking at people, 70 years old, going up those stairs slowly — those are holy people, they want to touch these stones, the story of the New Testament,” he said.
As the Franciscans celebrate the 800th year anniversary of their presence in the Holy Land, the sacred role the 300 friars from 34 countries continue to play is a blessing, he said.
“We are continuing our mission until now. We have never followed the politics (of the time) but we have always been here for the holy sites and the pilgrims and (local Christians) who need us. It is a very important mission,” he said.
The Church of the Visitation is one of 29 shrines in the care of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. On a busy day, the church receives up to 20 pilgrimage groups, he said, though some days there are none. Father Brzezinski and the other friar have begun to work on the garden to make it more inviting for pilgrims and visitors, so they will stay for a bit longer than the average half-hour visit and contemplate the miracle of the place, he said. Many of the Jewish neighbors also come to visit and, often on Saturdays, Jewish Israelis from around the country are among the visitors.
“They are very kind people, very gentle people,” he said. “We have the occasion to have a meeting here, like Mary and Elizabeth. It is a very good occasion to be together.”
In this way, he said, the shrine seems to still reflect the meeting between Mary, representing the New Testament, and Elizabeth, representing the Old Testament.
In a crypt below the modern day church, the “rock of concealment” marks the spot where tradition holds St. John and Elizabeth were hidden from Herod’s soldiers. The compound also consists of Byzantine-era ruins and a well-preserved Crusader hall.
Following the Muslim defeat of the Crusaders, the church fell into disrepair, though it was under the care of Armenian monks for a time. The Franciscans, who returned to the Holy Land in 1217, purchased the property from an Arab family in the mid-16th century.
Recently, a group of Polish-American pilgrims admired the mosaic verses from the Magnificat on a wall of the courtyard. One woman from the group spied Father Brzezinski and asked him for his blessing, and others in her group quickly formed a line behind her.
The priest said it is these moments that are most precious to him.
“I want to understand their life, why they are asking for a blessing. Sometimes they tell me, sometimes it is between them and God,” he said.
12 October 2017
Ethiopian young people celebrate the conclusion of a summer religious festival in Adigrat, supported in part by CNEWA. (photo: CNEWA)
Several days ago, we received an inspiring report from our regional office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, describing the success of a summer feeding project, which included a large festival bringing together hundreds of young people.
Tarekegn Umoro, the programs officer in Addis Ababa, writes:
Pointing his finger towards all the youth, who were singing outside the hall in the evening, holding lit candles and waving their hands on the air, [youth minister] Eyob Hailesilassie said, “Look how they are praising the Lord! Do you think that they forget this moments in their lives? They never forget! We are very much satisfied, thanks to CNEWA and to all who supported this summer program.”
You can read the full account here.
11 October 2017
A priest presides at the liturgy at the Church of the Blessed Nicholas Charnetskoho in Liviv, Ukraine. To learn about some of the millions of Ukrainians who are working to rebuild their lives after a three-year war, read The Displaced in the March 2017 edition of ONE. (photo: Ivan Chernichkin)
10 October 2017
Churches work to meet the needs of displaced families in Ain Kawa, near Erbil.
(photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
In the current edition of ONE, CNEWA’s president Msgr. John E. Kozar reflects on the challenges facing Christians in the Middle East right now, and the extraordinary work CNEWA is able to do, thanks to the generosity of our donors. He writes:
What a humbling experience for me during my many pastoral visits in the Middle East, when I see firsthand the courageous acts of love and mercy carried out by a dwindling family of Christians — those who are victimized, those who are hungry, those who suffer — for all, Christian or not. Their faith in our Lord is overpowering. Whatever we can do to assist them pales in comparison to their sacrifices. We are honored to accompany them.
Do the good works of the church make a difference and bring us closer to peace in the Middle East? Absolutely and positively. It does not matter how many Christians remain, because Christ is present in each one of them. They share Christ with all, including those of different faith traditions and even with the oppressor and the persecutor.
Read more and see more of his images here. And watch the video below, where he talks at length about the faith and fervor of the people we are privileged to serve.
6 October 2017
A Franciscan sister of the Cross guides a patient through Our Lady’s Hospital for the Chronically Ill in Lebanon. Read more about how the church is Reaching the Margins in the September 2017 edition of ONE. (photo: Don Duncan)
5 October 2017
For residents of Smakieh, Jordan — both young and old — their parish lies at the center of social life. Read how CNEWA is trying to preserve an ancient way of life among Jordan’s Christian Shepherds in the September 2017 edition of ONE. (photo: Nader Daoud)