On Saturday, the 10th of July, at Notre-Dame Center’s Church in Jerusalem, a Mass of thanksgiving was celebrated on the occasion of the 50 years of priesthood of H.E. Archbishop Antonio Franco, Apostolic Delegate for Jerusalem and Palestine and Apostolic Nuncio for Israel and Cyprus. Patriarch Twal, Patriarch Sabbah, Bishops Bathish, Shomali, Chacour and Sayyah, Rev. Custos Pierbattista Pizzaballa, representatives of the Armenian and Orthodox Churches, as well as many members of communities and faithful came to surround him and express their friendship.

During the Mass, Mons. Franco was offered a silver chalice. After Mass, a music show and speeches were held, followed by a buffet.

Homily of H.B. Michel Sabbah

Your Excellency, Mons Antonio Franco, Apostolic Delegate and Nuncio
Your Beatitude, Patriarch Fouad Twal
My brothers Archbishops and Bishops of all the Churches
My brothrs priests, religious, men and women
Consuls General. Diplomatic representatives
Brothers and Sisters

1.Your Excellency, Mons. Antonio Franco, we all, here present this evening with you, before the altar of God, and with all those who accompany us with their prayers, express to you our best wishes on the occasion of your 50th anniversary of priesthood. With you, we thank God for the grace of priesthood He gave you and for all the blessings He bestowed upon all whom you have served and for whom you have prayed during all these 50 years of priesthood.

We pray this evening with you and for you, may the Lord who has called you fill you with His peace and His joy as Jesus said in the Gospel of today: “That my joy may be yours and your joy may be complete” (Jn 15,11).

And like Jesus, the eternal and universal priest, and with Him, our prayer this evening goes beyond all barriers. We pray for all the city of Jerusalem and all the Holy Land with all its inhabitants, Jews, Moslems, Druzes and Christians, may God manifest to all the truth of this holy city and enable us all to act for its salvation.

2. The first reading, from prophet Jeremiah, (1,4-9) reminds us the origins of our priesthood, in the mystery of the divine predestination. God says to the Prophet: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I dedicated you” (1,5). And in the Gospel of St John (15,9-17) we have listened to now, Jesus tells us about the depths of God’s life, about the love of the Father for the Son and that of the Son for the Father “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Live in my love.” (15,9). That is the essence of our priesthood: to love as the Father loves the Son, and loves us. The fruit of this love within us will be the “abundant life” (cf Jn 10,10) and “the complete joy´ (15,11).

The priesthood is a relation to God. More than a relation, it is a communion to the mystery of His love. It is a configuration to Christ, the Son, the priest and mediator. This relation to God and this divine configuration is at the same time a relation to all men and women, to all the children of God, a relation summed up in the commandment: “Love each other”. And the model is Jesus: “Love each other as I have loved you (15,12). The love of Jesus, as that of the Father, has no limits “Greater love than this no man has, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (15,13). No limits, when the priest’s love is addressed to the vast family of humans with all their differences and divisions, and no limits in its quality. No limits that can be created through our egoism or weaknesses or points of view or even by our capacity of transforming our mission and our love in human structures that create limits and separate. “Greater love than this no man has, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (15,13).

Priesthood and the mission given to the priest may appear to be something beyond the capacity of man.

H.H. Pope Benedict, in his message, in the occasion of the beginning of the priests’ year: “As an alter Christus, the priest is profoundly united to the Word of the Father who, in becoming incarnate took the form of a servant, he became a servant (Phil 2: 5-11). The priest is a servant of Christ, in the sense that his existence, configured to Christ ontologically, acquires an essentially relational character: he is in Christ, for Christ and with Christ, at the service of humankind. Because he belongs to Christ, the priest is radically at the service of all people: he is the minister of their salvation, their happiness and their authentic liberation, developing, in this gradual assumption of Christ’s will, in prayer, in “being heart to heart” with him”.

Sometimes the priest’s mission is downgraded by himself or by others to human measures that could lead to success or to failure corresponding to the measures taken. A human success can sometimes be, according to God’s criteria, a simple failure, and the contrary is true. Jesus told us clearly: “He who seeks only himself brings himself to ruin, whereas he who brings himself to nothing for me discovers who he is” (Mt 10,39). Indeed failure can be a way of salvation. This was the case of Jesus condemned and crucified. That was a human failure in the eyes of men. His mission was to be a mediator between God and humankind and to bring salvation to all. Instead, he was condemned by the leaders of the community and the powers of this world.

3. Your Excellency, God has given you to live years of your priesthood and to celebrate your jubilee here in Jerusalem.

Jesus here was crucified outside the walls of the city. All Jerusalem today lives outside its vocation of peace, reconciliation and redemption. And you, nuncio and priest, you represent something that is from outside the city of men. Your mission, despite all the human relations it implies, is like that of Jesus, not recognized for what essentially it is. You are estimated by men according to the criteria of the city of men, different from those of God and those of your mission. The wall of separation is always there between those who want to see God and those who build the city like the people of Babel, who wanted to build and to take the place of God.

One can say about the achievement of a nuncio: he is strong, he is weak, he has succeeded, or he has failed. But God has his own criteria. And in the depth of your soul His word is the one that gives you the right judgment, and that remains beyond the understanding of the builders of Babel. The word of God in your soul remains the only light for all the external happenings that can surround your life.

Nuncio and Apostolic Delegate, you are priest of Jesus Christ. You were sent to Jerusalem to serve the Church with the Churches of Jerusalem and to work with the political powers of the land.

– To the Churches you worked for the communion within the one body of Christ, with the Holy Father, the successor of Peter, and among all its members and communities. Your insistence on the communion among our Churches will remain a salient note of your mission among us.

– With the political powers, their criteria are the prevalent ones, but, for all of them, you remain a question posed: what do you exactly represent? Beyond friendship, lobbying, a required support of their cause in a situation of permanent conflict, beyond all that, you remain for many a question without answer. One has to go beyond the nuncio and enter inside the mission of the priest in order to find the adequate answer.

4. Your Excellency, for you we pray in this Eucharist. With you we thank God and we continue the prayer of intercession for all the city of men, while keeping in mind the words of Jesus, which we have heard in the reading of today’s Gospel. These verses tell you and tell us who you are: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Live in my love so that my joy may be yours and your joy may be complete” (15,9-11).

Amen.

+ Michel Sabbah

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