Bishop Boulos Marcuzzo reflects on life of Fr. Johnny Sansour

By: Bishop Boulos Marcuzzo - Published: April 23 Fri, 2021

Bishop Boulos Marcuzzo reflects on life of Fr. Johnny Sansour Available in the following languages:

Canon Fr. Johnny Judeh SANSOUR

of the Latin patriarchate of Jerusalem

Beit Jala 1946 - Jerusalem 2021

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd offers his life for the sheep.”

(Jn 10:11)

On February 14, 2021, our brother, Canon FR. Johnny Sansour, having been hospitalized in the Saint Joseph hospital in Jerusalem, returned to the House of the Heanvenly Father. For more than ten years, he suffered from semi-paralysis, which reduced his walking and speech. For about five years, he lived in retirement in the “Ephraim House” for the elderly in Taybeh (Ramallah). Many elderly of the House were affected by the coronavirus Covid-19. That led to seven of them dying, among them our Father Johnny.

Coronavirus restrictions did not allow many people to attend funeral services. But at least we, bishops, priests, nuns, and faithful of Jerusalem, on the traditional fortieth day of his death, must pay an appropriate last farewell to this priest of the Mother Church of Jerusalem and make a touching reflection on the figure of this pastor who has worked so hard for the Christian community of the Holy Land. We accomplish this holy and brotherly duty on the occasion of the traditional fortieth day of his death[1].

1 - Biblical Beit Jala, and the seat of the Latin Patriarchal Seminary

Johnny Sansour was born in Beit Jala (on the west hill adjacent to Bethlehem) on November 12, 1946, from a Latin-rite family of ten children (five brothers and four sisters), in a town rooted in biblical history: Gilo (Beit Jala), the homeland of Ahithophel, David’s advisor (2 Samuel, 15.12; 15.20-23; 16, 15; 16.23; 17.23), of whom it is written: “A piece of advice given by Ahithophel was as if he had consulted the word of God ”(2 Sam. 16:23). In modern times, Beit Jala became famous for the events of the first Patriarch of the restoration of the Latin Patriarch, Giuseppe Valerga; and for the installation, on the east side of the hill, of the Latin Patriarchal Seminary, which is still active and thriving.

Little Johnny was baptized by Father Giacomo Beltritti, an assistant pastor to Father Bonaventura Habash, on January 19, 1947. Later, Fr. Beltritti became the Patriarch from 1970 to 1987. He was the Patriarch during several years of Father Johnny’s priestly ministry. Father Johnny attended the parish elementary school, and at the age of eleven, he felt the desire to enter the Latin seminary of which he often saw seminarians coming and going in front of his house through the valleys and hills of the picturesque Beit Jala (altitude 750 - 923 m).[2]

In 1963, Johnny entered the major seminary (philosophy and theology) and immediately distinguished himself with a lively intelligence for specific study preferences and had an extraordinary language gift. In addition to the languages ​​currently taught in the seminary (Arabic, French, English, Italian, and Latin), he also learned Hebrew, Greek, German, Spanish on his own and elementary Armenian and Aramaic. Above all, Johnny was a refined lover of the Arabic language and its poetry. I had the joy of having him as a teacher of the Arabic language and, I remember that he had at heart to make people love the language. He highlighted those aspects that could make the language attractive, and he repeated regularly: “The Arabic language is learned more with the heart than with the mind”!

For typically theological and philosophical subjects, he preferred themes related to tradition, history, archeology, popular culture (knowledge, uses, and customs of the biblical area). Although it seems at odds with his ease with languages, he favored methods of depth, thinking, and free reflection. For exams, for example, he preferred to develop the so-called ‘dissertation topics’ rather than to answer to a list of dry questions and answers. I remember that in an exam of biblical exegesis, for example, he aroused the professor’s admiration by making a critical, historical, biblical, psychological, and popular analysis of Judas Iscariot’s character![3]

It goes without saying that on academic occasions in the seminary, he was the point of reference for official speeches, poems, and even for the translations of songs. Abuna Johnny always kept an excellent memory of the seminary, of the Betharramite Fathers, in charge of the direction and teaching of this Theological Studium. He recognized that he was fortunate to have had excellent teachers of philosophical and theological sciences in the 1960s. He had the same gratitude for the Dorothean Sisters of Vicenza, who had the practical management of the seminary. In his retreat in Taybeh, he always asked us for news of the Betharramite fathers or the Dorothean nuns. He still remembered, with gratitude and pleasure, some episode or anecdote from the life of the seminary in those years.

2 - Priestly ordination under the sign of the Good Shepherd

He was ordained a priest on June 26, 1970, in the Basilica of the Dormition on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, along with Fr. Elias Odeh and Fr. Pietro Felet, by the imposition of hands by Patriarch Alberto Gori, for whom it would be his last ordination. For that occasion, he chose as his motto: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd offers his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11), a verse that genuinely summed up his entire pastoral life.

As a new priest, for one year, he was the personal secretary of Patriarchs A. Gori and then G. Beltritti, who succeeded the former in 1970. Fr. Johnny was, at the same time, an aide to the patriarchal Chancellor, Fr. Kamal Bathish. In 1971, he was sent as parish vicar to Misdar (Amman) with Fr. Michel Sabbah; in 1972 in Madaba with Fr. George Saba, and Administrator of the Main branch; and in 1973 in Taybeh with Fr. Silvio Bresolin. He, therefore, had the good fortune to do his priestly apprenticeship with three excellent parish priests and in three parishes considered among the best of the Patriarchate in those years.

During these years as parish vicar and priest of Taybeh, he asked to be able also to take courses in biblical history, geography, and archeology at the famous “Biblical and Archaeological Institutes” in Jerusalem. These were subjects that he appropriately used in the places where he later served his ministry. Among his fellow priests, there was an amicable saying, “Where there is an archaeological column in a rectory or school (as a support for an altar, or at the entrances…), Father Johnny passed there”!

In 1975, on the departure of Fr. Silvio Bresolin for the mission of Malakal (South-Sudan), leaving behind memories of an excellent pastor, Fr. Johnny was appointed parish priest of Taybeh. The assignment was not easy because Fr. Johnny himself remembers, with a good dose of humor, that Fr. Silvio gave him a recommendation before leaving for Sudan: “Remember, Father Johnny, that to be parish priest of Taybeh, you have to be either saint or mad”! That recommendation entered the proverbial collective memory of the patriarchal clergy, as did the prompt response of Fr. Johnny: “Perhaps, Abuna Silvio, there is a third alternative: to be a saintly madman or a crazy saint”!

He served this parish for 14 years, always helped by the Sisters of the Rosary. During that time, he gave the best of himself in various fields, treasuring his almost natural preferences in biblical and ecclesial history, archeology, and oriental folklore – encouraged by the favorable attractions of Ephraim – Taybeh.

3 - Enterprising pastor of Taybeh

In Taybeh, Fr. Johnny was able to carry out many initiatives, among which, besides his regular and ordinary pastoral care of the community, we remember:

-  Completed the parish school by adding secondary classes (1976);

-  Finished the decoration of the new church (painter Gaetano Fabbris 1979, and painter Ferdinando Michelini 1982).

- Renovated the crypt “Saint Charles de Foucauld” under the rectory (1982).

-  Built a “Charles de Foucauld guest house” (17.4.1986) next to the church to welcome pilgrims and other guests.

- In the same year and the same complex, he bought an old house from the Elias Thalgi family, later called “House of the evangelical parables.”

-  A small museum, the House of Ephraim, of ancient objects, mainly agricultural.

-  A medical dispensary next to the rectory, which later passed to Caritas Jerusalem.

-  The establishment of an agricultural and workers’ cooperative (1982).

- The creation of “Sons of the Holy Land,” a solidarity association with Taybeh families who emigrated to the Americas or elsewhere.

- A research campaign for the museum of all things found in antiquity, the discovery of Canaanite instruments.

- Opening of a women’s ouvroir (workshop) for cutting and sewing.

- Started a small periodical publication in French: “L'écho de Taybeh-Ephrem” (1987)

- And promoted another magazine in Arabic, “Sawut al-Taybeh,” for the people of Taybeh in the diaspora (heir to an older publication).

- New electronic Domus 8 organ for the parish church (19.7.83). And many other initiatives.

All these works were possible thanks to the generous cooperation of some benefactors whose interest he could arouse. They were the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem (OESSJ) in general, the lieutenancy of France in particular, and specifically the lieutenants, generals Henry de Chizelle and Louis D’Harcourt; the “Pontifical Mission of Jerusalem”; and the “Sons of the Holy Land” association.

The best advocate of the Holy Land is the Mother Church of Jerusalem and the Holy Sites

The places are significant, but it is the personal aspect that Abuna Johnny was able to promote. He encouraged pilgrims to visit the Taybeh area or to do spiritual retreats and study days there. He made the most of some historical and religious attractions of the village and its surroundings:

- The magnificent geographical position of Taybeh (near the desert and on the Jericho road).

- The fact that Taybeh is the only thoroughly Christian village in Palestine.

- The biblical Tel Asour (1016 m.) on the road to Ramallah.

- The retreat to Evangelical Ephraim (Taybeh) and the hospitality given to Jesus before the passion (Jn 11, 54).

- The ancient Byzantine church of El-Khader (St George) from the 5th century where immolations of animals (goats, sheep, chickens) continue as a vow.

- The ancient crusader castle Saint-Elija of Montferrat (12th century) on the top of the village.

- The spiritual retreat of Saint Charles de Foucauld in the years 1898-1900.

- The ancient “House of the Gospel Parables” purchased by Fr. Johnny himself.

- The fact that Taybeh is naturally an authentic hermitage, an oasis of peace.

- “The Mansaf of Abraham,” a very traditional and popular single dish for a meal, proposed by Fr. Johnny, with whom he kept the pilgrims.

Thus, a great movement of local and international activities and initiatives was created, which involved all subsequent parish priests (6 in these thirty years), religious men and women, volunteers, local faithful, and pilgrims; a dynamic movement that continues to this day. Fr. Johnny also encouraged foreign, mostly French, volunteers to come to Taybeh  : DCC cooperators; young seminarian students, some of whom became priests, such as the Jesuit Fr. Nicolas Rousselot and Fr. Pierre Rendler (from Strasbourg, but ordained for the Patriarchate of Jerusalem) to come to Taybeh, to teach French in schools; to greet pilgrims; and to animate “Summer Camps” in mutual and precious cooperation with the Oeuvre d’Orient, the Réseau Barnabé of France, the Consulate French general of Jerusalem, and other institutions.

He welcomed in Taybeh in the year 1988 the monastic Family of the “Sisters of Bethlehem, of the Assumption of the Virgin and of St Bruno”, while they were waiting the building of their monastery in Beit Gemal. A small community of this same monastic family went later to Mesa Khorio (Chyprus) to try to found a monastery there; around the year 2017 some sister of that community came back to Taybeh.

From this quick presentation, we can glimpse the positions in which Abuna Johnny firmly believed and he continually repeated to everyone, especially to pilgrims: "Our sacred duty before God and history is to exploit in the best possible way the precious treasures that Holy Bible, history and geography have entrusted us. The best advocate in the Holy Land is the Mother Church of Jerusalem and the Holy Places”.

The delicate question of the “Lands of absentees”: “A space of geography is a space in history”

The parish priest’s work in Taybeh, like all the parishes in the area, takes place within a framework of the social and historical situation of Christian families, where the pastoral work becomes a pastoral-social work. Because of the Occupation, many families emigrated abroad, and their properties were considered “of absentees,” that is, open to expropriation or certain abuses by the Occupation. Fr. Johnny did a lot to help those families and, we can say, save the village of Taybeh. Sometimes, the owners from abroad delegated Fr. Johnny to act on their behalf. He planted trees there (usually olive trees), he exercised some agricultural activity there, and even, with the help of benefactors, he bought some small pieces of land in the name of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem so as not to expose them to alienation.

It was not always a simple operation. Fr. Johnny was praised, especially by the lay faithful, but also criticized for his initiatives which seemed rather social and not very pastoral. Fr. Johnny replied with courage that Taybeh is the only village still entirely Christian. He repeated the principle that later became traditional among the Christian population: “For the Christians of the Holy Land, history teaches us that saving a geographical space means ensuring a historical (a future in history).”

A fecund and inspiring pastoral vision

Later, even after Fr. Johnny’s departure for the Patriarchal Chancellery and Cyprus (1989 and 1992 respectively), many initiatives were born, always spurred by his resourcefulness and the effect of his vision responding to the population’s needs and exploiting all Taybeh’s possibilities. In 2005, Fr. Raed Abusahliah, parish priest of Taybeh for ten years, built the “Beit Afram Elderly Home,” the management of which was carried out by successive religious communities: the religious sisters “Daughters of Our Lady of Sorrows” (2005-10); the consecrated women of the “House of Divine Providence” (2010-11); the Brazilian consecrated “Sons of Mary” (2011-2020); and the sisters “Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará,” a branch of the Institute of the Incarnate Word (2020). Adjacent, he built a new “Beit Afram Guest House” for pilgrims and visitors to all those activities.

The Sisters of the Cross of Jerusalem (1998) also came to settle in Taybeh for parish collaboration and the pilgrim center. Also, some members of the new community “Domus Juventutis-Little Brothers of Hospitality” (2012) were also welcomed, for the animation of permanent Eucharistic adoration at the Charles de Foucauld center and a healthcare commitment in the village; and nuns of the “Family of Bethlehem, of the Assumption of the Virgin and of Saint Bruno (2018) who live a Carthusian cloistered lifestyle.

To sum up everything Fr. Johnny did to Taybeh, perhaps a letter from Patriarch G. Beltritti reveals the driving force. When the Patriarch appointed him pastor on 19.11.1975, he wrote him a letter where, after several ordinary pastoral councils, he added with fatherly goodness: “Dear Abouna Johnny, check your character, a little impetuous, and always be patient and charitable ... I’m sure you will govern this parish with prudence, zeal, and charity.” We can say that Fr. Johnny truly transformed his “impetuosity” into zealous and enterprising energy in many beautiful pastoral works.

4 - Successful patriarchal Chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem

On June 26, 1989, Patriarch Michel Sabbah appointed Fr. Johnny Sansour as Chancellor of the Patriarchate. A crucial and delicate appointment, as we know, which covers many important roles, and which came at a unique historical moment:

- The new period of the first Arab Patriarch (Mons. Michel Sabbah, 1987-)

- The time of the first Intifada (1987-1993) with its numerous consequences.

- The first Gulf War (January 17, 1991) which closely affected all the countries of the

  Patriarchate.

The beginning of the big Pastoral Synod of the Catholic Churches of the Holy Land.

With the help of Fr. P. Grech, of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Society (Betharram), secretary of Bishops Conferences ACOHL and of CELRA, and his former rector of the seminary, in whom he always kept a strong trust, Fr. Johnny was able to help successfully in a very efficient way the Patriarch and the Patriarchate in this delicate phase.

5 - The multicultural and multireligious parish priest of Paphos

In Cyprus, there is a centuries-old presence of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. But in Paphos, in southwestern Cyprus, there was no permanent Catholic presence; an American Franciscan from Limassol, Fr. Mark Hurst, came for a rather occasional ministry, especially for the few English-speaking Latin Catholics.

Things changed unexpectedly in 1992. On March 3, Patriarch M. Sabbah received a long letter with more than hundreds of signatories from the Limassol-Paphos area (Cyprus), accompanied by a letter from Fr. Umberto Baratto, ofm, the Patriarchal Vicar, and Fr. Mark Hurst, ofm. of Limassol. The two letters asked the Patriarch to make a special effort to appoint a Latin priest with a stable presence, for that area of Paphos, given the growth of the Latin faithful, especially foreigners, and not only English, in that area.

Patriarch M. Sabbah, in front of this request did not find better than to address himself to Fr. Johnny. On 25.5.1992, Fr. Johnny accepted the invitation of the Patriarch to be sent as a quasi-parish priest and then parish priest in Paphos in South-West Cyprus. Although the island was historically part of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, for the new parish priest, it was a radical change to the pastoral style usually followed in Palestine. Fr. Johnny, who already knew Greek, threw himself body and soul into this new experience, joining the Latin Patriarchal Vicariate of Cyprus, traditionally directed by a Franciscan father of the Custody of Holy Land. He observed that the most pressing needs of the Christian community are the pastoral care of the community, education at the international level, and the elderly.

Pastoral care of the latin community

Fr. John[4] began to collaborate with the Greek Orthodox Church, by far the majority on the island. The stable Latin faithful are relatively few, but more numerous are vacationers, pensioners, seasonal European tourists, soldiers from English bases, and immigrants of the Latin rite. His collaboration, therefore, also extends to the Anglicans, of whom, over time, three pastors became Catholics and are ordained priests.

The collaboration with the Greek Orthodox Church became so strong that the bishop of Paphos, H.B. Chrysostomos, future metropolitan of Cyprus, granted Fr, Johnny the use of one of his ancient Orthodox churches for the Latin community of St Paul. Paphos was the capital of Cyprus in Roman times. There came Barnabas and Saul, who from Paphos onwards adopts the Roman name Paul; there St. Paul performed the miracle of blinding and healing the magician Elymas; and there he converted Sergius Paul, the first Roman governor to become a Christian (Acts Apostles 13). There is a large archaeological site, the ancient Basilica Panagia Chrysopolitissa with seven naves, where a column, traditionally called St. Paul’s, is preserved. On the site, there is a church, the Aya Kyrikya (Sta Ciriaca), of medium size but ancient and pretty, granted to the Latin faithful to use, also for the service of other communities.

It should be added that, according to the places and people of a seasonal nature, Fr. Johnny used other locations added in the Paphos area for the Latin community: The Church of St. Nicholas in Polis, the Church of St. Antonios (of the Orthodox Coptic church), the Church of St Dimitris and the chapel of the cemetery dedicated to the SS. Cosmas and Damian.

For his spiritual collaboration, he welcomed the monastic family of the “Nuns of Bethlehem, of the Assumption of the Virgin and of Saint Bruno” in Mesa Khorio on 6 December 2004. "The Church of Paphos can be said to be complete – the Sisters remember that he said - now that there is also a contemplative life". Unfortunately, their experience lasted only until 2014, when they realized that, for various reasons, there was no room for a Carthusian monastic life.

Education at an international level

For education, Fr. Johnny first thought of founding a nursery school in Kalo Chorio (Paphos) in 1999, “La Souris Verte kindergarten,” to gradually evolve it into a small Catholic school. The nursery school operated until 2012 when, for economic reasons, it was closed. Still, in the field of education, mostly international for the many foreigners present on the island, Fr. Johnny gradually entered the participatory management of the famous school “The International School of Paphos” (ISOP), a private institute of ‘shares’, founded in 1987, daytime and relatively secular and high-quality boarding school in the city center. Fr. Johnny had acquired, in the name of the Latin Patriarchate, even some shares which occasionally produced some minor gain for the Latin community and gave the possibility to participate in the life of this institute.

Mesa Khorio: the monache di clausura e Archangel Michael Hospice for elderly people

Collaborating with local civil authorities and the Anglican Church, he obtained a land in Mesa Chorio, beside Paphos. Later in 1995, Fr. Johnny purchased land for a cemetery project, which later led to the construction, next to the same land, of the “Archangel Michael Hospice” for the terminally ill, for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The project took many years of gestation: from 1996 the collection of funds, from 2002 the start of construction work, amid many difficulties. Pope Benedict XVI was unable to go to Paphos, during his pilgrimage to Cyprus in June 2010, but at least he blessed the entrance plaque of this project.

Finally, with the help of many friends, including the brother and parents of Fr. Johnny in Peru, on 4.12.2014, the Patriarch Fouad Twal was able to inaugurate the work, but without the presence of the founding parish priest, unfortunately, already semi-paralyzed and allergic to any official public act without at least a satisfactory recovery.[5]

During the time of his ministry in Paphos, Fr. John welcomed various personalities and prepared various ecclesial occasions. On 29 June 2009, in his community of St Paul, he welcomed Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Justitia et Pax Council, who had come for the closing of the Year of St. Paul. In October 2009 he received Cardinals Leonardo Sandri and Walter Kasper for the Theological Commission of Dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

6- Patriarchal provicar, canon, and his useful pastoral co-operators

Meanwhile, on November 1, 2008, the Patriarch had appointed him patriarchal pro-vicar for Cyprus in the temporary absence of the ordinary vicar. On 10.2.2009, also as a sign of gratitude, he appointed him a Canon of the Holy Sepulcher.

Fr. Johnny got help from other stable or transitional priests: Fr. Derek Gibbs, of Sheffield, chaplain pastor for Anglicans in Paphos (1992), converted to Catholicism (1994), ordained a priest for service in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem on 27.1.1996, with special permission from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and died 1998; Fr. Jerome Thompson, American, died at the airport in 2000; Fr. John McNally; Fr. Malcolm Smeaton, Anglican pastor converted in the UK where he still lives; Fr. James Kennedy remains active in Paphos.

Assured his pastoral presence in Paphos, Fr. John in his religious care for Christians of the Latin rite, planned to create, in agreement with the Patriarchal Vicar for Cyprus, other centers elsewhere, such as in Polis, in Pissouri, and above all in Aya Napa… The religious Sisters of Bethlehem who knew him well at that time in Cyprus do not hesitate to define him as: “A true missionary who continually wanders from place to place, for one pastoral occasion to another, for different communities and in different languages. The interesting thing is that, in this variety of situations, he always seemed to be at ease, everywhere and with everyone".

An important aspect of his ministry was the celebration of many weddings in his ancient and suggestive Agia Kyrikia church in Paphos, also for many foreigners who came from the most diverse countries, especially from the United Kingdom, on purpose in Cyprus to get married. Of course, as you can imagine, it was a great commitment for him to check the documents for the canonical and, when necessary, civil validity of all these marriages.

He planned…, but his health problems, suddenly, slowed down his apostolic zeal!

7 - Eleven years of Calvary: “sufferings, patience, interior rebellion, deception”

On January 13, 2010, Abuna Johnny was, unfortunately, struck by hemiplegia and aphasia, caused by hypertension, which had consequences in his speech and walking. For some months, an English priest, Br. James Kennedy continued to take care of the Latin community of Saint Paul in Paphos until Fr. Carlos Ferrero of the Community of the Incarnate Word was appointed.

Fr. Johnny received treatment in Cyprus, and then in Jerusalem, and Beit Jala (in the “Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation”). Later, he received care in Lima (Peru) from his brother and other relatives, and again in Cyprus (Larnaca) in the “Holy Land Rest Home” of the Custody of the Holy Land run by the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. The result of the treatments and physiotherapy, many and varied, as seen from his many movements, was not satisfactory. For ten years, he had to carry around this semi-paralysis, on and off, almost always in bed or in the wheelchair, but luckily, he could at least see and hear and, even if little, speak.

Don Johnny deeply hoped for his recovery and, in the early years, he could not accept the idea that there was nothing to be done to improve his case. His situation had its ups and downs. In certain low moments, he even had reactions of protest and agitation, against himself above all, to find himself suddenly, almost unable to do anything. He who was so active that he still felt in the full strength of him did not accept to see himself nearly totally dependent on other people, even in the little personal things, and having to disturb them always. Every so often, finding a small smile, he called those polemical reactions of him “Biblical lamentations ... confessions of Jeremiah and Job!”

A deep interior conversion. “Now I understand better what “O felix culpa” means

Gradually, an “internal conversion” took place. For the year of the priestly golden jubilee, in 2020, he refused to accept any organization of a small jubilee act, not even with his ordination brothers. Why? “... Not to disturb ... I am not presentable.  I thank the Lord in my heart and, grateful if you do too. Accepting and offering my state of health is the best prayer of thanks for these 50 years of ministry.”

Eventually, he resigned himself, and it was a real act of humility and realism for him. Accepting his limitations was, he himself said, “a victory against my somewhat proud and overconfident demeanor in the personal abilities.” He finally abandoned the idea of ​​returning to Paphos and agreed to retire to the “Afram House” for the elderly in “his” Taybeh, of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem (2016).  There, he was under the care of the consecrated “Filhos de Maria” (Brazilians) and, from June 2020, of the sisters of the Institute of the Incarnate Word (“Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matarà”). Alone, it was tough for him to celebrate Mass, but he gladly concelebrated in his room. Reading cost him a lot, and he was very grateful when someone came; usually, a nun, who read him the Office of Hours, and he liked this prayer preferably in Latin!

He was delighted when his brother-priests, nuns, or faithful came to visit him; uniquely, he showed his appreciation of him for those who came from afar on purpose (from Jordan or Tunisia, for example). This state was for him, as he told us in confidence during a visit: “… A true Calvary not so much of pain but suffering (not only physically but morally) and ... infinite patience, saber, saber, saber! (‘patience’ in Arabic). And he added: But it is an ordeal of prayer with Jesus and therefore of redemption, where I always exercise my priesthood. It was in this state that I truly understood what prayer is”!

And, in another of our visits, he surprised us with the following confidence: “Now I can better understand what Saint Augustine meant with his famous sentence: “O felix culpa!”. His personal interior agitation was over. As has happened to a good number of faithful, especially some saints, in the history of the Church, Abuna Johnny had received a special grace from the Holy Spirit: to see in his sufferings a strong sign of the will of God the Father and of the love of his friend Jesus of whom he always and in any case saw himself as an apostle and shepherd.

We can conclude, touched by a feeling of emotion and of admiration, that the final phase of his life was the indeed a complete crowning of his priestly motto: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd offers his life for the sheep “. The Mother Church of Jerusalem can be humbly proud and warmly thankful for this example of its children and priests.

8 - A serene and edifying death: “the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”

Serene and resigned, on February 14/ 2021, he passed to the Heavenly Father’s House at the St. Joseph’s Hospital in Jerusalem, having accomplished many, I would say incredibly many pastoral achievements, and leaving to us, for now and the future, many other projects, and inspiring ideas. Beyond all, he left to us the clear example of an educated, good, and active priest, and the witness of a very zealous, enterprising, and resourceful son of the land of Jesus and a faithful servant of the Mother Church of Jerusalem at this precise juncture of its history.

As a seminarian, I remember, he was fond with the Psalms of David - “my close neighbor”, he was calling him - (since Beit Jala and Bethlehem are on two adjacent hills). Not only for the deep religious meanings of the psalms, but for their “poetic elevations”. In a special way the psalm 22 which he was humming and warbling rather oft, and which we want to recite or to sing now in memory of our dear Abouna Johnny and for his eternal rest:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

The funeral of Canon Abouna Johnny Sansour was celebrated on February 15, 2021, in the Co-cathedral of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, in simplicity due to the global pandemic of Covid-19, but also in an atmosphere of very strong emotion, by his colleague of the seminary, bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, patriarchal vicar, in the presence of H.B. Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the other priests of the patriarchate residence, of some religious Brothers and Nuns of the Rosary, of Saint Joseph, of the Pious Disciples (Sisters of the Patriarchate), and of the faithful from the staff of the curia offices. His body rests, in the hope of the resurrection, in the funerary crypt of the Co-Cathedral.

“May his memory remain a blessing forever”.

+  Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo

Jerusalem, 24.4.2021


[1] In this writing, I refer to my personal memories as a fellow student at the seminary and as a confrere in the patriarchal clergy. I then used the historical archive of the Patriarchate, especially for some accurate information. For a complete and better presentation of our dear Abouna Johnny it was necessary to consult the local archives of the parishes where he served. That was not possible, unfortunately.

[2] His entrance to the seminary, the seminarian Johnny humorously reminded us, took place thanks to a small expedient, curious anecdote of his father, and the parish priest Fr. Michel Karam! His father, a butcher and breeder of pigs, well known throughout the area, had heard from the parish priest who, according to the Code of Canon Law (the old one!) the son of a butcher could not become a priest and therefore enter the seminary. In the presentation sheet of the seminarian candidate, the question: “Father Craft,”? his father answered with the name of his favorite hobby: “Stone cutter,” a very popular and appreciated craft in Palestine. “It was an innocent, diplomatic prophetical trick -was saying later with humor Fr. Johnny – because, as a priest, I saw myself as an engraver and a carver of the customs of the faithful”

[3] Was it a way to rehabilitate his biblical fellow citizen Ahithophel, who made the end of Judas, right there in Gilo (Beit Jala)?

[4] In Cyprus he was called in Greek Patera Joannis. But in his Community, composed especially of foreigners, he was always called Father John.

[5]Among his many pastoral experiences, Don Johnny witnessed a special and curious one, that could be a “supernatural” phenomenon. He wrote to the Patriarch: “On the 14.2.2006 in Paphos: during the mass and after, a Canadian lady called Lilian Bernas…“was bleeding from her feet, …wounds corresponding to those of the Crucified. The tissues and cotton imbibed with her blood smelled a lovely flagrance. Almost the same phenomenon happened in the chapel of the cemetery of Mesa Khorio. Could that be a stigmatization phenomenon?”