By Kevin T. DiCamillo
Fr. Peter Vasko, O.F.M. is president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land. Catholic Digest is pleased to offer this recent conversation about the Franciscans’ ministry and mission in the Holy Land.
Question 1: How did the Franciscans become the custodians of The Holy Land?
Fr. Peter Vasko, O.F.M.: It was through the intervention of Bishop Guido of Assisi in late 1209 that St. Francis had the opportunity to speak with Pope Innocent III about establishing a religious Order within the Church. A half a year later in 1210, the Order of Friars Minor was officially created by the Pope. Later on in that year he and his brothers travelled throughout the Middle East and a good number of the friars were sent to Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and the Holy Land. Some 132 years later in 1342, Pope Clement VI issued the Papal Bulls, Gratias Agimus and Nuper Carissime making the Franciscans the official custodians of the Holy Sites of Christendom.
Question 2: What are the most visited places in The Holy Land that the Franciscans look after?
Fr. Vasko: The most visited places in the Holy Land are the following:
Church of the Holy Sepulcher (housing the Tomb of Christ and Crucifixion), the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of Cana (where the first miracle took place), the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Chapel of the Ascension, Dominus Flevit (where the Lord wept over Jerusalem), and the Church of Gethsemane.
Question 3: Is Jerusalem a safe place to visit?
Fr. Vasko: Jerusalem is indeed a safe place to visit! I also feel the same about some of the Holy Sites in Palestine such as in Bethlehem and Jericho, places where biblical events took place. There have never been any instances of danger or feeling unsafe at either of these towns.
Question 4: How is the “trialogue” between Christians, Jews and Muslims at the present, given the fact that ALL are affected by this pandemic?
Fr. Vasko: It is interesting because the political divide between the Palestinian Muslims and the Jews, I am afraid, will always be there but with the present pandemic there seems to be much more cooperation between the two parties. When the coronavirus began in Bethlehem during the first week in March 2020, the Palestinian Health Ministry asked Israeli assistance in testing samples taken from those Palestinians suspected of having the virus. The Israeli Heath Ministry assisted them immediately. A few days later, Israel delivered hundreds of testing kits and protective medical gear to them. Now the Palestinians and the Israeli have set up a joint “operations room” to combat the virus and are holding training sessions for Palestinian and Israeli medical professionals to coordinate efforts to stem the spread of the virus. As regards the Christians: they receive medical assistance from both entities depending on their place of residence.
Question 5: What of the constant exodus of Christians from the Holy Land and what that means to the Church as a whole?
Fr. Vasko: Since the last century and a half, the Church has been experiencing a crisis and that is the on-going exodus of our young people departing the Holy Land i.e. Israel/Palestine for other countries. Most Church officials are saying that if nothing is done to stem this exodus, then within fifty years Christianity could easily disappear and all we will have will be empty religious monuments and museums and no living worshiping community.
At present, there are only 170,000 Christians out of a population of 11 million people in Israel/Palestine. Years before, Christians numbered much higher. A new Franciscan entity arose back in 1994 called the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land and is helping to stem the exodus by sponsoring a free college to any Christian student living in the Holy Land provided they meet the needed academic requirements. Some 600 Christian students from various denominations have been given this opportunity and upon graduation, 85% of them secure professional employment and are now remaining in the Holy Land.
Question 6: When we speak of “The Holy Land” what, exactly, are we talking about geographically?
Fr. Vasko: When we speak of the “Holy Land”, we are speaking about Israel/Palestine. Israel is 263 miles north to south and 71 miles east to west. In the north is Lebanon, in the north-east is Syria, in the east is Jordan and in the south is Egypt. There are four regions in Israel- Galilee, Samaria, Judea, and the Negev. Its highest point is Mt. Hermon (9,230 feet) in the north and the Dead Sea (1,412 feet below sea level) in the south.
Question 7: How hard has The Holy been hit by the Coronaviruse? Have any of your confreres contracted the disease there?
Fr. Vasko: As of this writing Israel has confirmed 3,500 cases of the coronavirus with ten deaths. Palestine is much less as it has confirmed 84 cases with only one death. By the grace of God, none of our friars have contacted the virus—yet. (Editor’s note: for current worldwide pandemic statistics, including Israel, see the World Health Organization website.)
Question 8: When we think of The “Roman Catholic Church” often we think of Rome. But as I believe St. Jerome said, “The Holy Land is the fifth gospel and one can’t understand the other four without understanding THE LAND. Do you find this to be true?
Fr. Vasko: To put it simply: where did Christianity first begin? It began in Bethlehem with the birth of our Savior here in the Holy Land. Its first disciples were from the northern part of the Sea of Galilee where the majority of Jesus’ ministry took place. It was here that the major events of Christ’s life took place: His birth, His death, His Resurrection, His Ascension and finally Pentecost. So yes, this land is paramount in understanding why it is called the Fifth Gospel. Without it, there would be no other gospels!
Question 10: Politically the movement of the capital of Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem got a lot of coverage here in the United States—especially among the Jewish population who always thought that the capital SHOULD be in The Holy City: has that had an effect on your work there as well?
Fr. Vasko: The Embassy move to Jerusalem has had little or no effect on our work and ministry over here. Our Christian faithful are a little more open to compromise when it comes to issues like this. Muslims, on the other hand, were indeed quite angry over this move. There were a good number of protests around the country but in a week it all settled down. I think the majority of the Palestinians are never really surprised about what other unilateral moves the Israeli government will do next. This mentality has been going on for the past seventy-three years ever the United Nations created in the State of Israel in 1947.
Question 11: How many Franciscans are stationed in the Holy Land? Are they of The Leonine Union or a combination of The Conventuals, The Capuchins, The Third Order Regular, and the Poor Clare’s and/or Sisters of Saint Francis?
Fr. Vasko: In Israel /Palestine, the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land number 245. The other forty-five friars are situated in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Cyprus and Rhodes.
As far as Franciscan nuns, there are 8 communities from different congregations living and working here. The most famous congregation are the Poor Clares. The total number of religious sisters residing in the Holy Land is 116.
Question 12: What is the biggest misconception people—the “average Catholic”—has concerning the Holy Land, in your opinion: one that you would like to set straight?
Fr. Vasko: The biggest misconception that the average Catholic has is that they are surprised to find Christians in the Holy Land! When they hear Palestinians they think that everyone is a Arab and hence a Muslim. On the contrary: the Middle East is a multi-layered kaleidoscope of diverse religions. It is the home of a host of other people, of other non-Muslims and, more specifically, Christians with roots predating the rise of Islam in the seventh century. For example: the Coptic Christian Arabs of Egypt; the Chaldean Christian Arabs of Iraq, the Maronite Christian Arabs of Lebanon, or the Palestinian Christian Arabs of Palestine/Israel. So when they do come to the Holy Land, they become enlightened about this land!