800 years have passed since the friars arrived in the Middle East, and many things have changed since the beginning of this adventure. However, the commitment and dedication with which, for 800 years, the friars have guarded the holy places and have worked to serve the local people have not changed. For this reason, in order to understand what the Custody of the Holy Land is today, we must begin with them and their stories: they come from all over the world and from different countries and each of them has a specific mission.
Br. Michael Sarquah is originally from Ghana, and welcoming pilgrims to Bethany has been his only mission for fifteen years. He is currently the guardian of the Bethany fraternity.
Why did you become a friar?
A friar from the Custody used to visit Ghana on vacation; he used to tell me about the Franciscans and the Holy Land and I wanted to be like him. I cherished his stories about St. Francis. I loved the sight of a friar wearing his habit. In Ghana, I used to be an altar boy as is often the case for those who later become priests. My country is Catholic: only 1 percent of the population is Muslim and 85 percent is Catholic. We have 24 dioceses in the country.
Describe your journey since you discovered your vocation?
I arrived from Rome in 1997 and started my journey at Ain Karem; I later went to Bethlehem, where I completed two years of philosophy studies; in 2004, I arrived in St. Savior’s, in Jerusalem, to study theology.
Later, I was sent to the Holy Sepulcher where I stayed for a year, until 2005. I was then transferred to Bethlehem for almost another year and I arrived in Bethany in 2007. I have been in Bethany for fifteen years.
What is your mission in the Holy Land?
I am a priest, but my mission here in Bethany is also to welcome pilgrims throughout the day. So many people come here and I have the opportunity to talk to them and to make acquaintances. I like to talk to people, and having the opportunity to do it is a blessing. My morning starts at 7 a.m. with mass, [and] then we have the morning and afternoon services, which we attend in shifts. Finally, at 6 p.m., vespers take place.
How do you combine your mission with the fact that you are a Franciscan?
My mission is Franciscan because it is a mission of peace.
What enlivens your mission and your spiritual life on a daily basis?
Prayer. We pray and attend mass every day.
Has living in the Holy Land changed your relationship with religion?
Living in the Holy Land is definitely a blessing. The fact of coming to another country has been an important stage of my life because the culture here is totally different than where I come from, and so is the attitude. For example, some gestures that in Ghana are signs of bad luck, in Italy are very common. The same rule applies to the way we talk to people. Therefore, I had to get used to the country I live in, and to other cultures and religions as well. For example, in Ghana, we do not have all of the Byzantine rites. Our mass in Ghana is also different than the mass here.
Here, in Bethany, we are also close to a mosque, therefore, we meet and greet Muslims. Sometimes they come to our church.
What were the greatest blessings and major obstacles along your journey as a friar?
The thing I like most is spending time in the sanctuary, with the people. On the other hand, I find it difficult to see the sanctuary empty. However, we hope things will slowly get better.
What do you admire about St. Francis?
I would say that his humility and his poverty always inspire me. Francis reminds us of Jesus as poor, dead and crucified.
If one has the desire to be a friar, he must cultivate that desire and talk about it. God will help him.
N.S. – B.G.