Although not a friar, Father François had a close relationship with the Franciscans and was well known in this region to which he retired several years ago to live as a hermit. After completing his novitiate in Rome, he heard a more urgent call from the Lord to lead a contemplative life. He followed this call in Syria, of which he as a citizen. His relationship with the Custody remained strong and he came regularly to one of its monasteries or another to help by replacing an absent friar. “He was always a bit ‘one of us’,” in the words of the Father Custos.
Since the beginning of the war in Syria, he left his hermitage to be with a friar in fragile health and to serve a neighboring community of religious sisters, as well as to seek a bit more security. The tragic circumstances of his death are particularly painful for the Custody.
The Custody’s presence in Syria is multifaceted, having always followed its mission of service to the people and continuing to do so in these troubled times, without political or religious distinction.
A few weeks ago the Holy Land magazines of the Custody reported that in the Orontes region, the Custody had received “some one hundred people, Christians and both Sunni and Alawi Muslims. They were able to live together because the priest had categorically forbidden political discussions in the monastery. They were in need of everything: bread, water, electricity. The friars and Franciscan sisters did everything they could to obtain medicines and urgent supplies for them.”
The Custody tries to support its friars in Syria as much as possible by sending them what they need, but the risks of travel are enormous. The friars, emphasizing the religious nature of their activity, have made agreements with the various groups to guarantee their safety as they move about. However, the situation at present is unpredictable and the extremist groups are on the rampage. No movement, even for clergy, can be assumed to be safe, as evidenced by the kidnapping of two bishops of whom there has been no news for two months.
Nevertheless, the friars increase their efforts to come to the aid of the people. As well as the medical care offered in their dispensaries, in which Franciscan Sisters and Rosary Sisters work alongside the friars, some of the monasteries have become “dormitories”. The friars distribute food to the refugees and to everyone who comes to the monastery doors, participate financially with parishioners in the restoration of family homes that have been destroyed, help the most marginalized and sometimes serve as intermediaries when parishioners are kidnapped.
The policy of opening their doors to everyone, sometimes earns the friars reprisals from one camp or the other. One monastery was bombed last December; it is now deserted.
The death of Father François is a terrible blow for all the friars. Even so, they continue to be a great spiritual comfort to the people they serve. “War has a negative impact everywhere and on everyone, but it has also brought Christians of all rites closer together for mutual aid and prayer in common.” In some villages of the Orontes region, where the Franciscans are the only clergy who remain, they celebrate the sacraments for all the rites. In other places, they organize times of prayer that everyone attends.
“Our role,” says a friar living in the Orontes region “is to be God’s fools who continue to bring hope to everyone who thinks that there is no future, that there is no hope, no charity.”
The tragic situation in Syria impresses on us the need to pray for the fastest possible end to the war. However, it appears to be pulling neighboring Lebanon toward renewed violence, as well as weakening Jordan, which is dealing with the influx of refugees.
The Custody calls on the international community to find ways to enter into dialogue with the forces in play in order to enact a truce and open the way to reconciliation. None of the measures taken so far, which are liable to bring about more violence and increase the number of deaths, can give Syria what it needs: conditions that will favor the speediest return of peace.
On the feast day of St. John the Baptist who prepared the way of the Lord, may our prayer bring the support that our brethren in Syrian need and prepare this region to find the way to a just and lasting peace.
From the website of the Holy Land Custody