800 years have gone by 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.
In addition to the work of friars who are permanently located in the Middle East, the service of those elsewhere is also crucial to the Custody of the Holy Land. Fr. Antonino Milazzo, for example, is a teacher for postulants in Montefalco and he works to help the Custody from Italy. Of his 38 years of life, he has spent 14 of them in the fraternity, two of which he spent in Italy (postulancy and novitiate), one in Lebanon (a year to learn Arabic), six in Jerusalem and five in Montefalco (at the formation house) .
Let’s start from the beginning. Where did your desire become a friar come from?
Ever since I was a child, the Lord kept me near him by making me an altar boy at church. My childhood games were a bit different from other kids’. In fact, while some were collecting soccer player figurines or playing ball, I collected little [holy] images and I enjoyed making processions and [pretending] to say holy mass outside. When I was about 10 years old, I witnessed the vows of a cousin who became a nun and I remember the joy that she shared with me and my mother: “When I grow up, I want to be a priest.”
The years went by and I began to work with Catholic Action and a group that was helping the poor and the suffering. At the age of 16, I had my first big crisis: I felt that the Lord wanted something more from me, and this I felt from the words of the Gospel “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few,” “go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor… then come, follow me” and other phrases of the sort that always left me with a sense of restlessness. So. I decided to talk to my mother, who convinced me that it was just an illusion, which was what people expected of me, since they always saw me at church. From that moment on, I quieted the voice that was knocking on my heart and I dedicated myself to something else: my passion for art.”
My life was going by serenely and quietly just like any young man of my age, between study and work, as a photographer or as a florist, until I met a person, a simple hairdresser who spent his days talking about Jesus, a Jesus, who despite the many years that had gone by, I still did not know, a Jesus whom I could almost touch with my hand, alive, who is walking among us. He persuaded me to get confirmed. I will never forget that day; the Lord made me feel his love more strongly and it was from that day on that I began to want to know him more and spend more time in prayer, listening to his Word—and I realized that little by little, I found a great peace.
How did the certainty of having your vocation grow inside you?
After my confirmation, I entered the Renewal in the Spirit group, and the praise brought me into a closer relationship with God. It was at this group’s retreat that during a catechesis that a friar spoke of the great gift of the call and of the priesthood. Those words went straight to my heart so much that I then felt bad, thus allowing a new crisis, to begin, which lasted even longer. In fact, I began to seriously consider the possibility that the Lord would suggest something different than what I had built for myself. I remembered all of the times that I had refused to follow him and every time I let his voice go silent in my heart. Not to mention that that was not the best time for me because I was almost at the end of the studies, with an open future before my eyes, full of wonders. I was afraid to talk about it with my family or with friends who would think I was crazy, as was later the case. But the Lord decided otherwise and so, after speaking with my pastor, I was convinced – not without having some doubts – that the Lord was calling me. My doubts came from my fears of truly abandoning myself to God’s will [and] from telling myself in fact that it was perhaps my own illusion and that I was already serving the Lord. So, why give him more? After getting my arm twisted several times by the Man Upstairs, I began to occasionally attend the seminary in my diocese, because of my university studies I still had to complete, but I soon noticed that this was not the place where the Lord was calling me.
How did you become a Franciscan friar of the Custody?
In various ways, I learned about St. Francis and his model of evangelical life, [and] I listened to the precious witness of the friars of the Custody and of the Poor Clares, who, based on St. Francis’ example, left everything to follow the poor and crucified Lord. And finally, after about six months, I found my place. My vocational journey was not immune to suffering and difficulties, and among them the obstacle of my family and acquaintances or the completion of my studies that had lost their importance by then, but the Lord used these little obstacles to strengthen my faith in Him. Immediately after my graduation, I understood that the Lord was asking me to totally renounce myself so as to be able to trust him completely. Like Abraham, he made me leave my land, my home, my fields, my father, mother, brothers, sisters and dreams, for a land I did not know that he had shown me. After wandering for a long time, I found myself in Jesus’ land, a gift inside of a gift, which I would not have expected, continuing on this journey of seeking the Lord. The Holy Land changed my eyes, my heart, my perception of life, of fraternity, of a God who is the Father of all and who wants the salvation of all: this is a great treasure that I bring into my heart wherever the Lord calls me to serve him.
What is your mission today?
Today as a teacher I find myself accompanying other young people on this wonderful adventure of discovering God’s will in their lives. These young people have totally different personalities, histories, languages, cultures and ways of seeing and perceiving life and the world in general. This is a commitment for me to make a “single picture,” one heart and one thing in Christ Jesus from “so many colors.”
What motivates you on this mission?
It is a beautiful endeavor that is often tiring, but it is also full of joys and fruits, which are constantly fueled by prayer, by the “holy patience” of the farmer and the assistance of the Holy Spirit, in order to discern what God really wants, always being moved by the search for the true good of the youth who are on their journey. In accompanying them, I try to put into practice what I first learned from my personal story, and I try to convey the centrality and passion for Jesus Christ without whom this path would not have any reason to exist.
What is your relationship to the figure of Saint Francis?
In my mission, I am obviously inspired by the search and discovery of the figure of Francis who lived and worked in this “holy Franciscan land” before leaving for the East to bring peace. For me, Francis is model of fraternity, minority, evangelical poverty, dialogue [and] charismatic identity, without which I would lose my missionary style.
Would you have a message for a young man in discernment?
To young people discerning I say, I hope that you will be able to carry out the mission that God has for your life, because it is with him that we truly become what we are called to be and that we acquire that happiness that we so ardently are seeking.
N.S. – B.G.