7 November 2016
Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, the new custos of the Holy Land Franciscans, was interviewed in Washington last week. He says “We help everybody. We don’t ask what is your religion when we help someone because we recognize in every person a living image of God and of Jesus who’s asking to be welcomed.” (photo: CNS/Tyler Orsburn)
The responsibilities entrusted to him are great: caring for about 50 shrines, more than two dozen parishes, various schools and other services provided by more than 250 Franciscan friars stationed at some of the most embattled places in the Middle East.
But Franciscan Rev. Francesco Patton seems almost serene about the mission and his new post as the custos of the Franciscans of the Holy Land. In almost any other religious order, he’d be called a provincial or a superior, but because the founder of the Franciscans didn’t like terms that would denote superiority of one brother over another, he is called the custos, Latin for custodian, of the Holy Land Franciscans.
“This is Franciscan vocabulary,” he explained. “(St.) Francis said we are all equal in the Gospel. We are all brothers ... the custos is the (custodian) of the sheep and it is an important vocabulary because the sheep, they are not the property of the custos. We all are sheep of Jesus, but we have to take care of one another. It's pastoral vocabulary.”
Pastoral vocabulary is familiar and dear to Father Patton, whose father tended the fields of northern Italy. He said he feels comfortable and grounded in his farming community roots.
As custos, he said, his duty is to take care of the friars, and particularly to assume primary trust of places important to Christians in the Holy Land, including shrines in Galilee, Bethlehem, Emmaus and Jericho, as well holy places in Jordan and Syria.
It is a challenging post to be in, to be sure, especially because some of those places find themselves in political conflict, violence or outright war.
“In this moment, the land of conflict is Syria,” said Father Patton. “So, our shrines (in Syria) now are not visited by pilgrims. It’s impossible to organize a pilgrimage in Syria.”
Before the recent conflict broke out in 2001, Christian pilgrims would visit locales such as the Memorial of St. Paul, the place where he converted to Christianity, and the house were Ananias baptized him. Both places are in or near Damascus, Syria, and are under the care of the Holy Land Franciscans there.
“Now these are places in which local Christians are praying and asking for the end of this war,” Father Patton said.
Since the pilgrims are gone, they are places the friars use to provide shelter for those running from the daily conflict in other parts of the country. The guest house close to the memorial of St. Paul, where pilgrims used to stay, is now hosting refugees, he said. And the friars, even under danger, are providing food and any necessities to anyone who might need help.
Recently, the friars launched a campaign at myfranciscan.org/syria, which includes a video and social media component, using the hashtag #Syriafriars, asking for prayers as well as material help for the Franciscans trying to assist the local populations.
“We help everybody,” said Father Patton in an interview with Catholic News Service 3 November in Washington, where he was visiting in early November trying to call attention to the dire situation in Syria.
“We don’t ask what is your religion when we help someone because we recognize in every person a living image of God and of Jesus who’s asking to be welcomed,” he said.
Friars and nuns find themselves in desperate situations trying to help burgeoning populations such as Lattakiah, near the Mediterranean, where parish populations have doubled, as people run from conflict zones to areas of relative safety. The conflict has drained once Christian strongholds such as Aleppo.
Aleppo was once a very important city and known as the “second cradle” of Christianity, said Father Patton, who recalls it had a Christian population anywhere from 250,000 to 300,000. These days, estimates say it could be down to 40,000 or 30,000 Christians, he said. Most have fled in the past five years, but many also have died there.
“Now there are unfortunately many funerals, also of children,” he said.
For the Christians who remain there, he said, it’s important that other Christians know of their suffering.
“They feel often abandoned by the other Christians,” he said. “They feel that many Christians are not interested in their suffering or what they are doing to remain Christian there. Many of them have lost everything. The only thing they haven't lost is the faith.”
It’s important to know what’s happening to them, to pray for them but also to act, Father Patton said.
“Our Christian faith is that the word of God became flesh,” he said. “We are not part of an intellectualistic religion in which we think it is enough to think and to pray. We have to support concretely.”
The friars are helping the local communities with food, electricity, water, gas, diesel, restoring houses after bombardments.
“We need support,” he said.
Yet for all the abundance of misery, there also is abundance of hope, not just in Syria but also in the Holy Land, said Father Patton.
“I find hope in our schools, when I see children from different religions living together, becoming friends,” he said. “I find hope when I go to the shrine of Emmaus, in a small village in which there is only one Christian family and the others all are Muslims and when there is the feast of St. Cleophas, and a Muslim family pays the dinner for all the people present.”
There are countless stories in the region of collaborations among Jewish, Christians and Muslim teachers and students and their families, he said.
“I find hope when I have meetings with the religious leaders of Greek Orthodox and Armenians and we are able to find agreements, to do work together,” he said. “There are many, many signs of hope, but we need eyes to see the signs of hope. If we are blind, we cannot see signs of hope.”
And the Franciscans are involved in trying to build the bridges necessary to one day have lasting peace in the region, he said, and it starts with children.
“The first field is the first field of education,” he said, adding that Franciscan schools have a mix of Christians, Muslims and other religions. “It’s an important experience of living together and we notice that in these schools the prejudice is reduced.”
When children learn to live together and become friends with people who hold
different beliefs, their families, too, learn to hold different views, he said.
“If we do something to connect with the other people, if we do something to reduce the prejudice against Christians, we are working for peace,” Father Patton said. “When they have an experience of Christian charity, they can change their mind on Christians.”
Father Patton sees this type of peacebuilding as some of the most important type of work in the world. He talks about the recent visit of Pope Francis to Sweden and the example in peacebuilding that he is setting. The Franciscans, following his lead, also have been involved in interreligious dialogue and cooperation.
“In this moment, in every part of the world, it is important to have dialogue with people of other faiths,” he said. “It may be the most important field for the future.”
And it started with the Second Vatican Council, which said that “it is important that everyone can express his religious identity and it is important that everyone respects the religious identity of the others,” said Father Patton, adding that “in the Holy Land, this is a good season for ecumenical dialogue.”
Franciscan friars are involved in interreligious dialogue with Jews and Muslims and other similar initiatives involving youth in the area, he said.
“And so these are good news,” he said. “We know there are also fanatics, but the only possibility to reduce the number of fanatics, I think, is to work to increase the number of open-minded people.”
7 November 2016
Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, greets children after celebrating Mass on 6 November at Holy Family Church in Gaza City. The cardinal said his pastoral visit reinforced the importance of Christian hope, especially for those living in very insecure circumstances.
(photo: CNS/Mohammed Saber, EPA)
Battle for Mosul becomes urban combat (NBC News) As Iraqi forces struggle to secure the gains they made over the past week on Mosul’s eastern edge, the fight against ISIS has quickly morphed into close-quarters urban combat. With it, casualties among Iraq’s troops and civilians are spiking...
Displaced Syrians fear returning to their homeland (AP) Syria’s government says people who fled rebel zones that have since been retaken by the military are now welcome to return. But that’s not how it worked out for one refugee family that came to check out the state of their home: They found another family had moved in. That’s just one of many hurdles keeping away those displaced in Syria’s war...
Cardinal: faith reassures Christians in Gaza (CNS) English Cardinal Vincent Nichols said his pastoral visit to Holy Family Parish in Gaza reinforced the importance of Christian hope, especially for those living in very insecure circumstances. “It is very encouraging to witness the faith of the community of Christians living in that enclosed space and also in the midst of a huge Muslim community majority,” said Cardinal Nichols, Westminster archbishop and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. “They live day by day, and their faith is a reassurance for them”...
Pope Francis raises awareness about scourge of human trafficking (Vatican Radio) On Monday, Pope Francis spoke out against human trafficking, in an address to members of RENATE: Religious in Europe Networking against trafficking and exploitation). The group is in Rome for their 2nd European Assembly, which took place on Sunday. The theme of this year’s assembly was “Ending Trafficking Begins with Us”...
Patriarch: do not delay in forming government in Lebanon (Fides) The economic and social emergencies that mark the present situation of Lebanon do not allow any delays or postponement in the formation of a government that would help the country. This is what was strongly emphasized by Maronite Patriarch Bechara Peter Cardinal Rai, during his homily yesterday, Sunday, 6 November, six days after the election of former general Michel Aoun for the office of President of the Lebanese Republic, vacant for almost two years and a half...
Nobel laureates to meet in Delhi to discuss children’s issues (Vatican Radio) Nobel laureates and eminent leaders around the globe will meet in the Indian capital New Delhi next month to discuss why children suffer the most in conflicts though they don’t cause them, Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi said on Thursday. “Children are never responsible for any wars, conflicts or violence, yet they are the worst sufferers in any such hideous situation. This is completely unacceptable,” he said while announcing a global initiative for children...
4 November 2016
Holy Angels Byzantine Catholic Church in San Diego hosted a visit from CNEWA last weekend.
(photo: Greg Kandra)
Having reached my six-month mark working at CNEWA, these past months have been a whirlwind of learning, emotions and blessings. As I delve deeper into CNEWA’s work across the globe, I am grateful for this God-given opportunity to, in some small way, help aid the poor and persecuted.
This past weekend culminated my six months of experiences beyond expectations. Deacon Greg Kandra and I were graciously invited and hosted by Father Brian Escobedo of Holy Angels Byzantine Catholic Church in San Diego to reach out to his parishioners. The kindness in Father Brian’s heart and soul is evident the first time you meet him. So it is no wonder he offered his Church to CNEWA after learning about our Parish Outreach program — a series of talks to raise awareness here in North America for our suffering brothers and sisters in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Northeast Africa and India.
A large group gathered to hear our presentation in the parish social hall.
(photo: Debora Stonitsch)
Father Brian and his parish family, joined by Melkite Greek Catholic Father James Babcock and his parish community, made us feel at home as we shared stories of the challenges impacting the church and the selfless work of CNEWA’s partners, especially the sisters and priests who do so much to bring physical and spiritual healing to all who need them. The concern and engagement of those in attendance was evident from the onset.
The church’s interior is adorned by icons depicting scenes from scripture.
(photo: Greg Kandra)
My weekend was further enlightened by Father Brian’s celebration of the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning. Having never before attended a Byzantine liturgy, I did not know what to expect. But parishioners were so welcoming, such as Michael, who provided me with a prayer book and helped guide me through the liturgy. I found myself immersed in friendship, beauty and deep-rooted tradition.
The icons on the walls and ceiling painstakingly created by Mila Mina, intricately and brilliantly told the stories of the Christian faith.
The cantor, Rebecca, chanted in acapella harmony that brought tears to my eyes and captivated the attention of the adorable young children in attendance — even though they were anxiously waiting to tell Father Brian which saints they were dressed as in celebration of All Saints Day.
Father Brian Escobedo greeted children from the parish dressed as saints. (photo: Greg Kandra)
The sounds, scents and sights together invoked feelings of gratitude and peace.
I am thankful to Father Brian, all his parishioners, especially Bob and Janet who so kindly helped with the preparations and weekend events. It was a collaborative and meaningful gathering of Byzantines, Melkites, Ukrainians and Latins, Catholics all, standing in solidarity for those so less fortunate. These experiences, along with our new friends, prove that when Christians are united, we are not just strong but in our unity, beautiful.
CNEWA’s multimedia editor, Deacon Greg Kandra, left, preached the homily at the Divine Liturgy celebrated by Father Brian. (photo: Debora Stonitsch)
If you’re interested in having CNEWA come to your parish, please contact me, Debora Stonitsch: email@example.com or contact our Development Director Norma Intriago: firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to visit and together further our mission for Christian unity and peace.
4 November 2016
For the last several months, the Vatican has produced monthly videos tied to the themes of the pope’s monthly prayer intentions. They are produced by The Apostleship of Prayer, which describes itself as “the pope’s worldwide prayer network.”
For the month of November, Pope Francis has the following intention:
“That the countries which take in a great number of displaced persons and refugees may find support for their efforts which show solidarity.”
That intention is dramatized in the brief video below, with additional comments from the pope. Take a look.
4 November 2016
Pope Francis greets religious leaders during a 3 November audience at the Vatican.
(photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano)
Authentic religions help people understand that they are, in fact, loved and can be forgiven and are called to love and forgive others, Pope Francis said.
“We thirst for mercy, and no technology can quench that thirst,” the pope told Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh and other religious leaders.
“We seek a love that endures beyond momentary pleasures, a safe harbor where we can end our restless wanderings, an infinite embrace that forgives and reconciles,” the pope told the leaders on 3 November during an audience at the Vatican.
The leaders were in Rome for a conference on religions and mercy organized by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the International Dialogue Center, which was founded in 2012 by Saudi Arabia, Austria and Spain with the support of the Holy See.
“Sadly,” the pope said, “not a day passes that we do not hear of acts of violence, conflict, kidnapping, terrorist attacks, killings and destruction. It is horrible that at times, to justify such barbarism, the name of a religion or the name of God himself is invoked.
“May there be clear condemnations of these iniquitous attitudes that profane the name of God and sully the religious quest of mankind,” he said.
Religions are called to bear “the merciful love of God to a wounded and needy humanity,” he said, and to be “doors of hope helping to penetrate the walls erected by pride and fear.”
Mercy, Pope Francis told the group, is the foundation of every authentic religion. It is the truest revelation of who God is, but also “the key to understanding the mystery of man, of that humanity which, today too, is in great need of forgiveness and peace.”
While many people seem to prefer living as if God does not exist, the pope said he believes that underneath human bravado, there is a “widespread fear that it is impossible to be forgiven, rehabilitated and redeemed from our weaknesses.”
The Catholic Church’s Year of Mercy, which will close 20 November, was meant to help people understand that God’s mercy and forgiveness are accessible to all and that, experiencing God’s mercy, they are called in turn to forgive and show mercy to others, he said.
Professing faith in God’s mercy, he said, means very little unless one backs up that profession with actions of love, service and sharing.
Engaging in interreligious dialogue and encouraging one’s faithful to meet and get to know their neighbors of other religions are part of preaching mercy, he said. Dialogue helps eliminate “closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drives out every form of violence and discrimination.”
Dialogue “is pleasing to God and constitutes an urgent task,” he said, because it responds to the need to make peace in societies and, “above all to the summons to love which is the soul of all authentic religion.”
“To bow down with compassionate love before the weak and needy is part of the authentic spirit of religion, which rejects the temptation to resort to force, refuses to barter human lives and sees others as brothers and sisters, and never mere statistics,” the pope said.
Pope Francis also insisted that the mercy believers are called to share also must be extended to the Earth, “which we are called to protect and preserve from unbridled and rapacious consumption.”
Religious leaders, he said, must educate their members in the religious obligation of respect for the world God created and encourage “a simpler and more orderly way of life in which the resources of creation are used with wisdom and moderation, with concern for humanity as a whole and for coming generations, not simply the interests of our particular group and the benefits of the present moment.”
4 November 2016
In the video above, a priest from Aleppo says Christians are the targets of many attacks
in the city. (video: Rome Reports)
Humanitarian pause begins in Aleppo (The New York Times) A temporary halt in fighting announced by Russia to allow Syrian rebels and residents to leave the besieged eastern parts of Aleppo went into effect on Friday, with activists reporting a relative calm in the city. However, by early afternoon, state media said seven mortar shells from the rebel-held side of the city hit one of the corridors opened for those wanting to leave eastern Aleppo. The State TV said a correspondent for a pro-government station was wounded by shrapnel...
Iraqi forces push deeper into Mosul (Reuters) Iraqi special forces recaptured six districts of eastern Mosul on Friday, a military statement said, expanding the army’s foothold in the Islamic State bastion a day after its leader told his jihadist followers there could be no retreat. An officer in the elite Counter Terrorism Service, which has spearheaded the Mosul offensive, said its troops had launched a major operation against the militants who are now almost surrounded in their last major urban redoubt in Iraq...
Why Christianity’s holiest shrine is guarded by two Muslim families (The Washington Post) Two Muslim families were entrusted by a presumably weary Arab potentate to be the gatekeepers of the church. The Joudeh family keeps the key, while the Nuseibeh family opens up the church door every morning and locks it in the evening. In an interview with CNN earlier this year, Adeeb Joudeh, the current keeper of the key — an old, cast-iron object that’s a foot long — considered his family’s hereditary task to be a metaphor for religious tolerance...
The human tragedy unfolding in Gaza (The National) Gaza has experienced three wars in the past decade, each more devastating than the last. I last visited Gaza in 2009, six months after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. I found an enclosed territory and population struggling to adapt to Hamas rulers and recovering from devastated homes and lives. The 2014 conflict, that killed more than 2,250 Palestinians — hundreds of them children — and left thousands permanently injured, along with the deaths of 67 Israeli soldiers and six Israeli civilians, still reverberates in Gaza; another war, just around the corner, is always feared...
3 November 2016
A 15-year-old Iraqi Christian youth taking classes at the Pontifical Mission Community Center shows off his artistry next to his mother. (photo: Peter Jesserer Smith)
Editor’s note: Journalist Peter Jesserer Smith of the National Catholic Register recently completed a visit to Jordan with other Christian writers and journalists, and saw first-hand some of the important work CNEWA’s donors are supporting.
At the Pontifical Mission Community Center in Amman, Jordan, a man known simply as “Mr. Sami” teaches the fundamentals of English to a class filled with young and old alike. Both the teacher, a respected man in his 60’s, and his class share a common tragedy: they are all Iraqi Christian refugees who fled ISIS.
Most, like Mr. Sami, are from Mosul or the surrounding villages on the Nineveh Plain. They aim to find a better life in Australia, the U.S. or Canada — but they feel they can never return to Iraq. Mr. Sami says they no longer want to be subject to persecution, and no longer felt safe there.
Rafid, a young man who studied medical device technology at the university, said the Iraqi government failed to protect them from ISIS or other extremists. He did not have any confidence that would change. But he also said their lives were in legal limbo until they were resettled.
“We can’t work and stay here in Jordan,” he said.
Since the Christians primarily speak Aramaic, not Arabic, Mr. Sami helps them learn English so they can manage the transition of resettlement in another country.
“I also teach the Catholic catechism, and spirituality of our religion,” he said.
The members of the Teresian Association, a lay apostolate, run the Pontifical Mission Community Center, which serves the local population, as well as the refugee Christians. The center hosts public lectures, prayer sessions, Christian formation classes, and lessons in basic English and music.
One refugee named Nichole said she was taking guitar lessons from one of the Teresians.
“I want to sing to the Lord in the Church,” she said.
Jordanian Christian and Muslim students do homework together at the Pontifical Mission Community Center in Amman. (photo: Peter Jesserer Smith)
The building’s basement rooms serve as a meeting place for the Christian refugees, both for socialization and prayer. Refugees support each other as they deal with the uncertainty of when their case will get processed through the United Nations refugee agency. Others try to call, but they say the answer is always the same: “Later, later, later.”
In the meantime, the Teresians sisters at the Pontifical Mission Community Center do what they can to help the Christian refugees, in addition to their mission of providing a library and community center for the local population. The center is a place where Christian and Muslim youth come to read or do homework together.
CNEWA funds the center’s work, and its mission to the community. But they need to increase their resources, so they can purchase more Arabic and English books, particularly for the Christian refugees.
“Our help is the only help for them,” Teresian Amabel Sibug said. “We’re trying to do all we can.”
Those who wish to support the Teresian Association can make a donation through CNEWA, and must specify they want their gift to support the Pontifical Mission Community Center in Amman.
3 November 2016
Rahel Zewde, 13, is sustained by CNEWA’s food program — and by her faith.
(photo: Petterik Wiggers.)
Heroism comes in many sizes and ages — and sometimes, it can be very young. Consider Rahel Zewde, for example, a 13-year-old girl from Ethiopia who every day battles hunger in a land blighted by drought.
Despite everything, though, she is nourished by her faith:
One student, 13-year-old Rahel Zewde, only rarely has the chance to eat meat — it is a luxury usually reserved for major religious celebrations, such as Christmas and Easter, she says, looking away shyly and biting the neckline of her thin green and black hoodie. She adds she “sometimes” eats breakfast.
Rahel lives close by with four younger brothers and her single mother — her father left them for another family — in a compound belonging to extended family. With the two main buildings bolted shut, Rahel’s family occupies a corner screened from the sun but open to the elements, and sleeps under sacking on the stone floor.
When Rahel returns from school, she collects water and firewood, and looks after her brothers when her mother is away.
Sustaining Rahel in this delicate balance is her faith. “I pray to Mary, and ask her to save me from bad things,” she says.
Rahel is one of many receiving help through CNEWA’s food programs — which to date have helped feed more than 8,000 children in 24 Catholic schools in the Horn of Africa.
Learn more — and learn how you can help children like Rahel here.
3 November 2016
Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena teach displaced children in Erbil, Iraq. Learn more about the deep roots and wide branches of the Church of Antioch in the Autumn 2016 edition of ONE, devoted to the various Catholic Eastern churches. (photo: Raed Rafei)
3 November 2016
Iraqis living in Gokceli neighborhood, east of Mosul city center, pile on the back of a truck as they flee the area for Hazir camp during the operation to retake Iraq’s Mosul from ISIS
on 3 November 2016. (photo: Idris Okuducu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Iraqi troops inside ISIS-held Mosul for first time since 2014 (CNN) Iraqi forces have entered ISIS-held Mosul for the first time in more than two years and are battling ISIS militants on the front line, defense officials told CNN...
Rebel groups clash in Aleppo (Reuters) Syrian rebel factions fought each other in besieged eastern Aleppo on Thursday, officials from two of the groups and a war monitor said, potentially undermining their efforts to fend off a major Russian-backed offensive. Rebel groups have been plagued by disunity and infighting throughout the 5 1/2-year-old conflict, for ideological reasons, over tactical differences or in disputes over territory...
Pope calls for peaceful encounter of religions (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis on Thursday urged representatives of different religions to foster a peaceful encounter of believers and genuine religious freedom. Speaking to some 200 people gathered in the Vatican for an interreligious audience, Pope Francis reflected on the soon- to-end Year of Mercy saying that mercy extends also to the world around us, “to our common home, which we are called to protect and preserve from unbridled and rapacious consumption”...
Clashes at Western Wall (Fides) Riots between ultra-Orthodox Jews and Jews belonging to the “conservative” and egalitarian Judaism, occurred on Wednesday, 2 November at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City...
Sisters run orphanages after Ethiopia cuts back adoptions (Global Sisters Report) Though Catholics make up less than 1 percent of the population in Ethiopia, Catholic sisters have always had a strong presence in the country, especially in the area of children’s orphanages. The Missionaries of Charity sisters alone had 19 orphanages, including hundreds of children in their central orphanage in the capital of Addis Ababa. Many other congregations, including the Daughters of Charity, the largest congregation in Ethiopia, also had dozens of orphanages...
Bells toll once again to proclaim Alaskan community’s faith (OCA.org) It was literally music to the ears of many residents of King Cove, a remote Aleut fishing community of about 950 year-round residents on the Pacific side of the Alaska Peninsula, when the bells of Saint Herman Church were installed and rang for the first time several weeks ago...