Father Francesco Patton, the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land, made his first visit as Custos to the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, DC, at the beginning of November 2016.
He arrived on Wednesday, November 2, in time to take part in the Monastery’s annual commemoration of All Souls’ Day. Each year the friars gather in the Monastery cemetery to pray for their deceased confreres. Father Francesco led the friars in procession, blessing the graves of men who served both in the Holy Land and at the Monastery. The U.S. bishops’ Catholic News Service covered the event in a story which was widely viewed in social media and the Catholic press.
As the friars gathered for a midday meal in the dining room of the Monastery, Guardian and Commissary Father Larry Dunham welcomed Father Custos, who briefly addressed the community. He was available during his visit for any of the friars who wished to speak with him. He also met for interviews with various representatives of the media.
That evening, Father Francesco met with an invited group of supporters of the Monastery. An informal reception, where the guests could meet the Custos, preceded a formal program. Participants viewed a video report produced for the Washington Commissariat—featuring interviews with Franciscan Brother Haroutiun Samouian, Father Larry Dunham, and the retired Archbishop of Washington, DC, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, on the situation in Syria. Father Custos provided an up-to-date, personal report on the friars there, and on the overall mission of the Custody throughout the Holy Land.
On Saturday, November 5, the Monastery hosted its annual Benefit Mass and Dinner. Father Francesco participated in the Mass presided over by the Most Reverend Dennis Madden, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Maryland. A gala dinner followed in the Monastery’s St. Francis Hall, where Father Custos met friends and supporters of the Holy Land mission of the Franciscans.
Musicians and a vocalist from Jerusalem’s “Magnificat Institute” offered music for the liturgy, and performed as a part of the evening’s program. They delighted the audience with classical and modern selections, ending with a popular ballad in Arabic. (The Magnificat musicians also offered a public concert the following afternoon in the Monastery church.)
The guests then viewed a first-person video witness about Aleppo, Syria, featuring the words of Franciscan Father Ibrahim Sabbagh, pastor of St. Francis Parish in Aleppo.
Immediately following the video, Father Custos spoke. He began by echoing his own words—displayed in the concluding frames of the video: “The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep. The mercenary, faced with danger, abandons them. With the help of the Lord, we want to remain in Syria as good shepherds.”
Underscoring the importance of Syria for the history of Christianity, Father Francesco recalled, “It was on the road to Damascus that Saint Paul has had his experience of compassion. It was in Damascus that he received baptism and delivered his first sermons. Syria is the second cradle of Christianity, and it is also a land in which our Franciscan presence is very ancient. And along the sanctuaries, it has paid its contribution with the blood of many of its sons who died as martyrs.”
He reviewed for the audience the places where the friars continue to remain and to help the Syrian people—in Damascus, Latakia, Aleppo, Knayeh, and Jacoubieh. He pointed out: “Our brothers are committed in their parish ministry, and during this difficult moment, they are trying to revive and to sustain the local Christian community, keeping alive the flame of hope and contributing to help those who have remained even by providing for their material needs.
“In Damascus, we Franciscans of the Holy Land continue to keep alive the two shrines linked with the conversion and baptism of Saint Paul. We also take care of two parishes in which the local Christians live together with a community of immigrants from Asia and Africa. We have transformed the pilgrim hospice to a welcome home for refugees who are compelled to leave on a journey to a new home.
“In Latakia, we take care of a parish which in these days, in these last years, has practically doubled in size since many Christians who have fled from the war zones have found refuge in this city, which at the moment is the most secure city in Syria.”
Father Custos referred back to the brief video the audience had just seen, focusing on Aleppo. It is, he pointed out, “currently the most dangerous city on Earth. Here, our brothers take care of the parish of Saint Francis, where they help approximately 40,000 families coming from every faith and religious confession. We have opened the doors of Terra Sancta College in order to welcome a group of elderly ladies, whose entire home has been destroyed by bombardments. We are also trying to keep functioning a school for children with special needs. The most important service that our brothers in Aleppo are carrying out is that of keeping alive the hope of the people and to help all to keep their hearts away from hatred and to be open to forgiveness and reconciliation.
“We are also present in Knayeh and Jacoubieh to Christian villages in the Valley of the Orontes River, where two brothers have volunteered to remain close to the people, even though they suffer daily from all kinds of humiliation and psychological pressure. The friars and the people have lost nearly all their belongings, but they are still clinging to their faith.”
In closing, Father Francesco thanked all those present for their support and generosity, inviting them to continue that relationship “in a special way in your prayers, all of past Franciscan brothers who tried to live our vocation in the Holy Land and the entire region of the Middle East....I ask you to pray for us and especially for the populations and for the friars undergoing suffering and trials because of the war.”
On Sunday, November 6, Father Francesco concelebrated at Sunday Mass in the Monastery church, and greeted members of the congregation afterward. He departed later that day, to continue his visit to the Americas with the friars of the Custody stationed in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Br. Greg Friedman, OFM