December 15, 2017

800 years later, Franciscans still make a difference in the Holy Land

Marina Abdullah, 18, is seen in a screen shot from a video in which she speaks about her desire to continue to live in the Holy Land. The video, shown during a fundraising dinner for the foundation held on Oct. 21 in Indianapolis, featured people who have benefited from scholarships provided by the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land that help young adults get an education and stay in their ancestral home. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Marina Abdullah, 18, is seen in a screen shot from a video in which she speaks about her desire to continue to live in the Holy Land. The video, shown during a fundraising dinner for the foundation held on Oct. 21 in Indianapolis, featured people who have benefited from scholarships provided by the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land that help young adults get an education and stay in their ancestral home. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

In 1217, St. Francis of Assisi commissioned a group of his friars to start a mission in the Holy Land to protect the sanctity of the region where the Son of God dwelled.

Now, 800 years later, that mission continues—with the additional intent of maintaining a Christian presence in a land where hardships and persecution of followers of Christ have caused their population to dwindle.

“Our Church [there] is dying,” said Franciscan Father Peter Vasko, president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land (FFHL), at a fundraising event in Indianapolis on Oct. 21. “It needs to be rebuilt. At present there are only 150,000 Christians out of 8 million people. If that continues to go down, most Church officials are saying that within 60 years, Christianity could disappear from the very place that Christ founded his Church.”

Event guest speaker Msgr. Frank P. Lane of the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio—whose 50 years as a priest include service as a chaplain, teacher, writer, radio host and more—spoke to the crowd of more than 150 about why keeping a Christian presence in the Holy Land is “such a critical, crucial undertaking on the part of our Church … [and] for the sake of civilization itself. … Too often, you get into the idea that … religion is a problem without ever realizing what it contributes to a society.”

In a talk outlining reasons why maintaining a Christian presence in the Holy Land is imperative, he began with the Christian concept of justice as healing, an idea introduced by Christ as a juxtaposition to the Middle East’s form of revenge as justice—“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

According to chapter 5 of the Gospel of Matthew and chapter 6 of the Gospel of Luke, Msgr. Lane said, “Justice basically is a form of medicine for an illness within a society. … That sense of curing the ill through penance or punishment has always been within the Christian mindset—‘Love your enemies.’ … The presence of Christianity in all parts of the world has to be there to bring into the society this particular element of civilization.”

The Church must also continue in the Holy Land to serve as a physical presence of Christ in the form of the sacraments, he said, “... a healing presence in the midst of a broken world. … It is Jesus who remains present and incarnate in the world [through] sacrament and Church.”

And the Church teaching that each person is sacred because they are created in the image and likeness of God is also of imperative value, he said. This belief “is something Christianity must share with the world. In a world twisted by hate and violence as it is, it isn’t religion that’s the problem—it’s not knowing who we are. Without this sense of self identity, we don’t know who our neighbor is.

“The proclamation of the love of God for us in the incarnation of Jesus and in the creation of ourselves is that seed which needs to be planted in the midst of every society. … It is an emergency situation in the Holy Land.”

Ultimately, Msgr. Lane said, “God has placed [Christians] in the Middle East to be the root and the spring and the life of a new kind of understanding, a new era of possibility, a new exchange of the nature of the human person and the nature of our God.”

One way in which the FFHL helps to maintain such concepts in the Holy Land is “to extend that Christianity through higher education for these young people there who, once they get a scholarship, have great academic standing,” said Father Peter. “But unfortunately, they’re very poor. So we’re looking for those young people to be the future leaders of the Holy Land.”

As an example, Father Peter shared the story of a girl in the Palestinian-controlled town of Bethlehem who lost both parents in the span of three years. She was left to care for her younger sister.

“She wanted to become a nurse, and she applied to our foundation grant for college,” the Franciscan priest said. “Here’s a girl with no parents. She’s working, trying to take care of her sister and going to college. She became a nurse, and she has never forgotten what the Franciscans did for her. … That’s a real success story.

“Another one was a girl who decided she wanted to take business courses. Later on, she then became a nun. There’s all sorts of stories where there’s one parent missing, there’s three kids. That’s who the friars are here for—to help those Christians exist in an honorable way.”

According to Father Peter, 425 Christian students in the Holy Land have received a free college education through the FFHL, 260 of whom are currently studying. Of those who have graduated, 85 percent are working in law, accounting, medicine, education, banking and other professions. The remaining 15 percent are women who have gotten married and are continuing to raise Christian families. All of the scholarship recipients have stayed in the Holy Land.

The plight of Christians in the Holy Land is something noted by Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, who was present at the event.

“Arab Christians have been under a great deal of oppression and persecution, especially in the last few years,” he said. “Fewer and fewer are there. The foundation is trying to maintain that Christian presence in the Holy Land by supporting those who are trying to live there, trying to maintain the sacred places there, those who are continuing to try to live out the Gospel there. This [event] is a great sign of support, prayer and concern for those people.”

Father Peter expressed his gratitude to the crowd for such support.

“We’ve been doing this for the last 25 years, and we see it paying off,” he said. “It’s a confirmation from the vicar of Christ to us saying, ‘keep trudging along.’

“It only takes one candle to light the darkness. I hope you can be a candle to light the darkness for those young people who are desperately seeking your help.”
 

(For more information on the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land or to contribute, go to www.ffhl.org or call 317-574-4194.)

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