The Custody’s Pastoral Apostolate: “giving the gift of Communion”

For the last several years, this news section of the Custody’s official site has centered on the liturgical activities of the Franciscans of the Holy Land.
From now on we also hope to share pastoral activities, both in the shadow of the sanctuaries and in their daily lives in the heart of the Custody.

On the corner of Saint Francis Street in Old Jerusalem, four Franciscans are obviously waiting for someone. They brighten up at the arrival of two small forms draped in blue and white saris. After brief but warm greetings, the two sisters of the Missionaries of Charity congregation take the lead of the curious procession.

Fra Michel Shawki, whom passersby greet with a cordial “Marhaba, Abouna”—hello, father—follows close behind. Vicar of the Latin parish of Saint Saviour since February 2012, he shares the Missionaries of Charity’s service to the sick. They are going to bring Communion to about twenty elderly or handicapped people. They discreetly do this four times a month.

At the parish seat, a quick look at the list of people to visit is enough to make your head spin. “Many people are left alone. Their children have left for other countries and lost the right to return to their own country. Recently, a Christian family was reunited after twenty years of separation,” explains Abouna Michel. He hears such stories often. In addition, he continues, “Jerusalem’s architecture does not favor encounters, without even mentioning the fact that taking the occasional walk is impractical for older people or people in wheelchairs. People are prisoners in their own homes,” he adds. Speaking about what motivates him, he returns to the meaning of the Eucharist. “For a believer, it is important to feel that you are part of a community. The people we visit watch Mass on television, but do not participate in it. The Communion that we bring them represents the precious connection between the community where they were baptized, grew up, and got married and what they are today… More than a service, Communion is a gift offered to all Christians, no matter what their physical or emotional condition.”

In order to share this gift with those who cannot go to Mass, the friars made arrangements with the help of the Missionaries of Charity. The sisters know every niche in the town, every family; as they walk, children come to walk at their sides and hold their hands. They plan the route and notify the faithful of their arrival. The friars admire their devotion. Abouna Michel says that he would like to do more and visit isolated people more often, but he doesn’t have the time and needs help.

He has help today – three seminarians from the Custody. Fra David, Fra Agostinho and Fra Matipanha—all three final-year students at the seminary—have come to lend a hand. They are joining in this act of faith and fraternal love for the first time. Some of them asked to participate and others were invited by their Master of Studies.

One of the three, Fra Agostinho, is from Mozambique. Ordained deacon on his arrival in June 2013, he reviews the sense of the diaconate’s mission: “Being a deacon is to stand at the doorstep of the Church; it is accepting to be sent on mission within the life of society, in the greater sense. I like the saying of St. Francis that our cloister should be the world,” he says with conviction. The Custody of the Holy Land allows him this openness in all the variety of its pastoral and parish life. Agreeing to give some of his time to visiting the sick is also in order to help him discover the realities of Palestinian Christian society and to learn to form relationships with the believers. In the seminary, “as Franciscan friars we have a lot to do and I have to admit that sometimes we don’t see all the need that surrounds us,” confides Agostinho. Fortunately, the Arabic-speaking priests of the parish take daily care of the most fragile. They are precious support to our three “novices” who only speak a few words of Arabic.

Everything has been foreseen and thought through, like the two-sided sheet with the words and prayers said aloud and in common transcribed in Western letters. A little hesitant during their first visits, after a few weeks our seminarians are more confident. “The language barrier is an excuse,” comments Agostinho. The young friar’s face shines when he describes the time that Abouna Michel asked that he replace him. “I said ‘yes’, just ‘yes’, and I hung up. As soon as I put the receiver down I realized what I had just said and then I asked myself what language I would speak. At first I thought of English. Then, after thinking some more, I made a decision. I would need to express myself in Arabic. I am speaking with Palestinians: the important thing isn’t to speak well—they know I’m not from here—but to offer them a time of prayer in their own language.” So Fra Agostinho set about practicing Arabic phonetically with the help of one of his Arabic-speaking brothers. “In this life some has to push you because we create our own barriers. Often other people have faith in you when you don’t believe in yourself,” he said. In fact, Fra Agostinho has not disappointed since his first words in Arabic. And even if his African accent sometimes makes the faithful smile, he attentively follows the same ritual as Father Michel.

At the half-open apartments, the sisters knock at the door and call the faithful by their first names. Greetings are exchanged; a white cloth, crucifix and small candle are placed on part of the table. Everything here breathes dignity: dignity of appearance, dignity in the exchanged greetings, and also in the liturgy. In each apartment, transformed in minutes into a House of the Lord, the friars and sisters kneel and the celebration begins. The priest prepares the faithful to receive the Eucharist, their hope in their solitude and struggle with illness.

Seeing the welcoming smiles traced on the faces of those assembled in the half-light of this apartment, you understand how much the Eucharist is sharing and communion. On the steps of one of the houses, Fra Agostinho shares his intention to continue bringing Communion to the sick. “Before I return to Mozambique, I must transform what until was exceptional into something instinctive so that I make this need of others grow in me.”

Taking part in one bread, we become one. This unity goes far beyond the church doors. Being one with the population is what the Franciscans do in Jerusalem, but also in Bethlehem, Beit Hanina, Jaffa, Nazareth, Jericho, and in every place where they have been present from day to day for centuries.

Emilie Rey

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