The Franciscan Friars of Bethlehem
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The Franciscan friars have been in the Holy Land for over seven centuries proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ through the vision of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis was a peaceful man who preached peace and gentleness through the example of his life. The Franciscans attempt to imitate his example. The Franciscans are not involved in anything controversial. They are simply there. They do not take the side of the Palestinians, nor do they take the side of the Israelis. They just stay in the Holy Land and do what they do.
So, what do they do?
The Franciscans engage in many ministry opportunities. Their main charge in the Holy Land is to guard Christian shrines. For example, the Franciscans in Bethlehem (who I stayed with) were there guarding the shrine that the Catholic church has validated as the birthplace of Christ. Other friars guard similar places of spiritual significance. When I say 'guard,' I don't truly use the word accurately. They neither carry nor own weapons, nor would they be capable of repelling an invading force. Therefore, they essentially 'guard' the shrines with their very lives, and many friars over the centuries have been martyred for just that reason.
The Franciscans also work with the poor in their respective region. In Bethlehem, for example, they operate a school for the Palestinian children. Thousands of poor Palestinian children, who would otherwise have no education, are taught to read and write, along with the basics of Christian and other ideological concepts.
One of the other things the Franciscans do is to provide inexpensive (and often free) accommodations to Christian pilgrims. The holy sites of the world evoke a significant spiritual power to those who visit. Those who visit these places and carefully meditate on the Biblical events that have taken place there often leave with greater belief, trust, and spiritual fervency. The friars support that by allowing pilgrims to stay in places operated by them to help facilitate their journey. The friars allowed me to stay with them for free and were most generous throughout my stay.
My observations of their vows
All of the Franciscans (except 3rd Order Franciscans who are rare) take vows of Poverty, Obedience, and Celibacy. My instant question upon talking to most of them was, "How in the world can you take a vow of celibacy? Isn't it difficult? How do you do it?" Almost universally, they said the same thing. They all agree that of the three vows, it is celibacy that is the easiest to fulfill. They all agree that the most difficult vow is obedience.
Yet, back to celibacy for a moment. All of the friars agree that celibacy is the easiest vow. But, my question is, "why keep it in the first place?" The friars claim that remaining celibate and not focusing on having a wife and family, leaves them free and able to live an undistracted life of service. Well, that seemed a little fishy to me.
However, the way they served me, and the way they served each other seemed to bare out their case. I've simply never seen anything like it before; not in America; not anywhere. They took service to a new level. No one ever had to be asked to do anything . . . they simply did it. At meal times, they would take food around to each other, clean up after the meal was over, and set the table for the next meal. No one failed to do their share; each person served their fellow brother.
I do have to say that I found their vow of poverty to be a joke. Mealtimes were filled with huge portions, and even a beer or glass of wine during special meals. The monastery has several nice automobiles and a couple computers. Each friar has access to his own room, has nice casual clothes, and is given a small stipend of spending money. The friars are far from poor.
I asked some of them what the deal was and they said that they PERSONALLY have very few possessions. Everything is owned by the monastery. In other words, if they were to walk away from the Order, they would walk away with nothing. Yet it seems to me that their personal vow is in danger of being nullified by their corporate prosperity.
One particular observation
There was one thing that especially gripped me during my time with the Friars and it happened every night at dinner. As I had said before, the Friar's mission in the Holy Land is to guard the shrines that they have there . . . and many have lost their lives doing it. Each night at dinner, the Friars bless the food and then everyone sits. One Friar will then read off a list of the Friars through the centuries that have given their lives as martyrs. Every night they solemnly read off the names of their brothers, every night they remember and renew their commitment, and every night they realize that they may be asked by God at any moment to pay the ultimate price for their faith.
Severino Lubecki (Severyn)
Of all of the friars that I met during my stay at the monastery, I had the most fun with "Father" Severino. Severino is an incredibly intelligent and funny man. He is 34 years old, speaks excellent English and we had a super time together. Severino knows the Bible like the back of his hand (he has a doctorate in Philosophy) and loves to joke around. He is a short and balding priest from Poland, but don't let that fool you, he was anything but boring. Severino listened to R&B and rap music, loud Islamic dance tunes, and a host of eclectic tapes and CDs. As we drove, he continually played one particular tape by a woman named Gina T. By the end of our time together, I knew most of the words to all of the songs. Two songs stood out during the week, "Summertime" and "Tokyo by Night." Severino's favorite movies are Forest Gump and The Bodyguard.
In a community of servants, no servant stood out more than Severino. He single-handedly saved the tourism portion of my pilgrimage. He spent many hours of his time driving me around and was patient, generous, and humble. Without Severino, I would have likely missed Caesarea Phillip, Acre, the Galilee region, Masada, the Dead Sea, and would have had to expend hundreds of dollars on various tours. God often brings people into our lives at certain times for specific reasons. God brought Severino to help make my Israeli trip a success. Without Severino's kindness and servanthood, I would have missed out on much.
I don't know why I liked Severino so much. He was very likable. He had an incredibly enjoyable sense of humor and an infectious laugh. I think under the surface we may have been very much alike in many respects. I knew that I would miss him greatly and we pledged to stay in touch after I left. He was a real Godsend . . . and will always be a good friend.
Gabi was a Palestinian Christian who I spent a lot of time with while I was in Bethlehem. Gabi also spoke very good English and had a very funny sense of humor. Gabi was nice enough to drive me into Jerusalem one morning so that I could go on a scheduled tour. We never ended up finding the tour company, but we did end up having lots of fun.
To the others
Each of the friars held a special place in my heart by the end of the week. Yousef (Joubbi) accompanied Gil and I during my birthday and he was very friendly and kind. I also was able to eat with him one night when we were down by the Shepherd's Fields. I wish I could have spoken to him, but he spoke little English and I don't speak anything but! Zaher (Abboud) and Andres picked me up at the airport and he was very nice for my entire stay. I could tell that he had a very good sense of humor. Most of the time I sat next to Bernardo (Lawand) at dinner. It was funny, he seemed so nice and friendly, but we couldn't speak to each other unless Gil translated. Still, all of the Friars were like that. I really miss them and wish I could go back.
The Franciscan friars were men of great faith and service to me. They were warm, they were friendly, they were extremely generous, and they were a remarkable example of Christian love. I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the role that the Franciscans Friars of the Holy Land played in making my pilgrimage a complete success. I respect them, and I miss them all.