JERUSALEM/BETHLEHEM - On October 4th, the Holy Land celebrated the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Order of Friars Minor, the Order of St. Clare, the Third Order of St. Francis and the Custody of the Holy Land.
A major figure of Christianity, Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron saint not only of the Franciscan Order, but also of animals, merchants, ecology, stowaways, as well as the cities of Naga and General Trias (Philippines) and Italy. Very devoted to the Eucharist, he is said to have received the stigmata (the same wounds as Christ on the cross) a couple of years before his death in 1226. His friars, the Franciscans, have been established in the Holy Land since 1217.
In Jerusalem, Saint Francis is traditionally celebrated in the Franciscan church of Saint Savior, with a Mass presided over not by the Custos, but by a Dominican father. This tradition, sign of communion between the two orders, is reversed on the feast day of St Dominique, during which the Mass is presided over by a Franciscan friar.
This year, it was Fr. Jean-Jacques Pérennès, director of the French École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem, who led the celebration, attended by His Beatitude Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, but also by Mgr Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, bishop emeritus, Mgr Yaser Al-Ayyash, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchal Vicar of Jerusalem, as well as the consuls of Italy, Spain and Belgium, and the deputy consul of France. The Mass was concelebrated by Fr. Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land, Mgr Tomasz Grysa, newly appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Madagascar, as well as two vicars of the Latin Patriarchate; Fr. Piotr Zelasko and Fr. Nikodemus Schnabel, OSB.
Saint Francis, a spiritual father for the Saint Francis youth group of Bethlehem
In the city of Bethlehem, Saint Francis is the guiding pillar of the Saint Francis youth group; for them, his teachings and way of life are an inspiration to live and act as Christians in the Holy Land, despite the difficulties and challenges they face daily.
"The youth here see Saint Francis as a spiritual father guiding them in their Christian faith and journey. They embrace his great humility in order to face the materialistic world in which we live today," explains one of the Teaching Sisters of St. Dorothy living in Bethlehem, who is also a spiritual leader of the group. "Every week, we gather to meditate on the word of God and to discuss how we can apply it to our lives just like Saint Francis did."
"Commit your way to the Lord" (Psalm 37:5) is the sentence the youth live by as they trust God to strengthen them amidst the challenges they face as Christians living in Palestine. "As Saint Francis, who saw God in all creation, the youth gather together to discuss the ways they see God in their daily life," adds the sister.
The Saint Francis Youth Group in the St Catherine church (Bethlehem), where they renewed their vows to follow Saint Francis' way of life
"I always learn something new when I read stories about the life of the saints, and upon hearing the story of Saint Francis, I learned that following Christ is the most important thing in life," said Shatha, a 13 year old member of the youth group.
For Dima, a soon-to-be 14-year-old member, "The way Saint Francis renounced worldly pleasures and sold all his belongings inspired me greatly. Saint Francis is my role model; he helps me live in submission to God, and teaches me to have hope in His mercy and goodness."
Meanwhile, Fouad, a 16-year-old member, speaks of how Saint Francis has helped him "get closer to the Lord, love others and live in humility. I joined the youth group to learn how to follow Christ and fully experience the Scriptures." To do so, he chose to live by one of Saint Francis' sayings, "it is in pardoning that we are pardoned."