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.
Fr. Bahjat Karakach is a 41-year-old Syrian friar who has been serving in the Franciscan monastery in Damascus, Syria, for a short time. After years of absence, he found his country completely changed from the war. Despite the hardships, he is alongside the Syrian people every day providing them with material and spiritual help.
Let’s start from the beginning. Where did your desire become a friar come from?
Originally, my vocation began when I met the Lord when I was 20, and he changed my life. It was a turning point in my faith. I felt the need to respond to this experience, to the love of God, [and] I could not keep it to myself. I then underwent a tiring journey of discernment that lasted for four years that led me to a definitive consecration choice. I believe that the Lord strikes each one with a different arrow. I do not think a person has to compare religious orders to choose one. The history of vocation is intertwined with our personal history. Therefore, the fact of being raised by the Franciscan friars was surely part of the Lord’s plan.
How did you learn about the Custody of the Holy Land and what was your journey like from your vocation until today?
The Custody is present in Syria and therefore it was part of my reality. As a teenager, I grew up with the Franciscan friars and my vocation also grew there silently. I found myself in this context without looking for it.
I joined the Custody in 2001, [and] I completed my formation in Italy and then I served the Custody in Italy for five years, where I was the master of the postulants.
I am Syrian, from Aleppo, but this is only my second year of serving in my country.
What is your mission specifically?
Currently, I am the guardian and parish priest of the Monastery of St. Paul in Damascus. Here we are five brothers divided into three communities and we have two parishes and two shrines. My parish is quite lively and has many activities. In addition to the strictly pastoral work with the families of the Latin rite here in Damascus, there is also an ecumenical dimension, and so our church is also visited by people of the Eastern rite. Then there are the scouts, the catechesis center, a group of heralds (Franciscan spirituality for children), a group of disabled people and a group for families and women. So there are various groups that are connected to our church that have followed us in their spiritual journey and in their social and work activities.
How is your life in Syria today?
I left Syria in 2000 and came back a year ago. I most certainly am in a very different reality than the one I left. Society has suffered a very great trauma, and so entire areas have changed, [and] whole families have disappeared or they have emigrated or moved to other parts of the country.
We encounter hardships on a daily basis and they can be seen as we approach people. The serious consequences of the war are evident: the disintegration of families, the escape of young people and professionals, poverty, the lack of education and psychological traumas. We friars try to do everything we possibly can [for them] materially and spiritually. From the material point of view, starting at the beginning of the war, we started to support Christian families and in the last year, we have extended this humanitarian aid. We have opened it, not only to our Latin rite families, but to everyone: the Eastern rite Catholics and Muslims. It is also a sign of reconciliation.
We do all of this thanks to the commitment of the Progetto Terra Sancta Association, which supports our emergency projects . I was elected parish priest here in October 2016, [and] so it has not been very long, but in recent months we have felt the need to carry out development projects. Not just material support is important; and this is why are preparing a project that gives people work, for example. As friars we also began a project three months ago that includes psychological support for traumatized children through games. It is a project curated by specialists and lasts three months. We also try to work in the field of education.
What motivates you in your daily mission and spiritual life?
Surely prayer and my connection with God give me strength, but also the community and the work we do together. I really believe in this. Sharing he hardships with the friars, but also the joys, gives [me] a lot of support. That is why we have formed a commission and we meet weekly to figure out everything we need to do, especially in the areas of humanitarian aid and projects. This certainly makes me feel like I’m not alone, because solitude is the hardest thing, while working together gives each one us each strength.
What are your greatest treasures and obstacles on your journey as a friar?
My personal difficulties are adapting to new situations, where relationships in a context of tension are also different. Society is no longer what it used to be. I encounter practical difficulties, even just getting around. It’s not easy here, in a city full of checkpoints on the streets and between the cities. There is also the difficulty of [managing] my time, 80 percent of which I must devote to humanitarian aid, while pastoral and spiritual work gets a bit forgotten. I wanted to give more to my spiritual work, but today, people are pressured much more by these needs, [and] so there is also the challenge of helping people understand what the Church is. While providing material and economic support, the Church is not only this, but it is also a place where the community lives and grows together.
My treasures are the goodness of many people, their help, their faith, their perseverance, everything that I see around me. We must not underestimate daily life where, despite all the difficulties of the war, there are young people and there are people who give of their time and energy for the good of others and the Church. This is a daily reality, but it should not be underestimated because it is ordinary.
If we want to talk about something that is a bit extraordinary, I have some people and witnesses in mind. For example, I have friends in Aleppo who before the war opened a school for the deaf. They also gave of their time despite many difficulties, but they had the opportunity to leave everything and go to a more convenient place. They chose to stay even though they had small children. So, they even risked their children’s lives. The school, despite being located in a very threatened area in Aleppo, is the only one remaining in the city for the deaf. Every time I meet them, they give me a lot of optimism and energy.
[Do you have] a message for a young man in discernment?
In love, there is no mathematical certainty. You never have the certainty of having a specific vocation. You have to be able to risk your life, attracted by something beautiful. I think that one must think about the beauty of life as a friar, and if this beauty suffices, then one can really give up some things for it. If, however, the vocation is perceived only as renunciation, doubt and suffering, it is certainly is not the right path.
N.S. – B.G.