Image: Jerusalem around 1900.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus asks, “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?” If Jesus were on earth today, he may have also asked, “When the Son of Man returns, will he find any faithful in the Holy Land?”
Since the middle of the 14th century, the Franciscan Order’s Custody of the Holy Land has been charged with preserving the sacred places in the region. Under the auspices of the Custody, the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land (FFHL) has been ministering to the Christians, “the living stones” of the Church there.
The FFHL, headquartered in the United States, works to stem the exodus of the faithful from the Holy Land, much of it spurred on by social unrest. “In spite of all of the political turmoil around us, the Custody’s FFHL is still providing hope as well as a future for our Christians,” says Father Peter F. Vasko, OFM, president of the FFHL.
In addition to its child sponsorship program, which pays the school tuition of conomically marginalized students, the FFHL ministers a host of other humanitarian projects such as housing and job assistance.
While the Christians in the Holy Land face economic hardships, they also face discrimination.
“The Christians are a minority in the land and don’t have any real political power,” says Father Peter. “A good number of Jews look upon them first as Arabs, then [as] Palestinians, and, hence, possible enemies of Israel, while militant Muslims look upon them as pro-West and traitors to the Islamic cause.”
It is estimated that there are only 150,000 Christians live in the Holy Land now. “With this crisis of Christians leaving the Holy Land, some Church officials are saying that if we don’t take action now to stem this exodus, within 60 years, Christianity could diminish drastically, and all we will have will be empty religious monuments and museums and no living, worshiping community. This isn’t acceptable!” Father Peter says.
As followers of St. Francis, members of the FFHL see their role in much broader terms. “In our situation in the Holy Land, we, too, as sons of St. Francis, try to be free from ‘enemy making.’ Where others created enemies, we try to create brothers and sisters,” says Father Peter.
While the FFHL is an example of a “light in the darkness” in the Holy Land, he points to those Christians living there as exemplars of faithful discipleship. “The Christians in the Holy Land are truly living the Beatitudes. They hunger and thirst for justice,” Father Peter says.
To support the FFHL and our fellow Christians, Father Peter requests three things. “The best way to support our ministry is first by prayer; secondly, by coming on pilgrimage so as to strengthen one’s own spiritual faith, while at the same time learning more about the plight of your brothers and sisters in Christ; and lastly, by your financial assistance to help us fund the many programs which have given hope to our young Christians so as to motivate them to remain in their homeland,” he says.
“Let us always remember that we stand on the shoulders of those who went before us,” says Father Peter. “The Holy Land, our Christian heritage, our living Church in Jerusalem, our sacred holy sites—these are the shoulders on which we stand when it comes to our faith.”