The responsibilities entrusted to him are great: caring for about 50 shrines, more than two dozen parishes, various schools and other services provided by more than 250 Franciscan friars stationed at some of the most embattled places in the Middle East.
But Franciscan Father Francesco Patton seems almost serene about the mission and his new post as the custos of the Franciscans of the Holy Land. In almost any other religious order, he’d be called a provincial or a superior, but because the founder of the Franciscans didn’t like terms that would denote superiority of one brother over another, he is called the custos, Latin for custodian, of the Holy Land Franciscans.
“This is Franciscan vocabulary,” he explained. “(St.) Francis said we are all equal in the Gospel. We are all brothers … the custos is the (custodian) of the sheep and it is an important vocabulary because the sheep, they are not the property of the custos. We all are sheep of Jesus, but we have to take care of one another. It’s pastoral vocabulary.”
Pastoral vocabulary is familiar and dear to Father Patton, whose father tended the fields of northern Italy. He said he feels comfortable and grounded in his farming community roots.
As custos, he said, his duty is to take care of the friars, and particularly to assume primary trust of places important to Christians in the Holy Land, including shrines in Galilee, Bethlehem, Emmaus and Jericho, as well holy places in Jordan and Syria.
It is a challenging post to be in, to be sure, especially because some of those places find themselves in political conflict, violence or outright war.
“In this moment, the land of conflict is Syria,” said Father Patton. “So, our shrines (in Syria) now are not visited by pilgrims. It’s impossible to organize a pilgrimage in Syria.”
Before the recent conflict broke out in 2001, Christian pilgrims would visit locales such as the Memorial of St. Paul, the place where he converted to Christianity, and the house were Ananias baptized him. Both places are in or near Damascus, Syria, and are under the care of the Holy Land Franciscans there.
“Now these are places in which local Christians are praying and asking for the end of this war,” Father Patton said.
Since the pilgrims are gone, they are places the friars use to provide shelter for those running from the daily conflict in other parts of the country. The guest house close to the memorial of St. Paul, where pilgrims used to stay, is now hosting refugees, he said. And the friars, even under danger, are providing food and any necessities to anyone who might need help.
Recently, the friars launched a campaign at myfranciscan.org/syria, which includes a video and social media component, using the hashtag #Syriafriars, asking for prayers as well as material help for the Franciscans trying to assist the local populations.
“We help everybody,” said Father Patton in an interview with Catholic News Service Nov. 3 in Washington, where he was visiting in early November trying to call attention to the dire situation in Syria.
“We don’t ask what is your religion when we help someone because we recognize in every person a living image of God and of Jesus who’s asking to be welcomed,” he said.
Friars and nuns find themselves in desperate situations trying to help burgeoning populations such as Lattakiah, near the Mediterranean, where parish populations have doubled, as people run from conflict zones to areas of relative safety. The conflict has drained once Christian strongholds such as Aleppo.
Aleppo was once a very important city and known as the “second cradle” of Christianity, said Father Patton, who recalls it had a Christian population anywhere from 250,000 to 300,000. These days, estimates say it could be down to 40,000 or 30,000 Christians, he said. Most have fled in the past five years, but many also have died there.
“Now there are unfortunately many funerals, also of children,” he said.
For the Christians who remain there, he said, it’s important that other Christians know of their suffering.
“They feel often abandoned by the other Christians,” he said. “They feel that many Christians are not interested in their suffering or what they are doing to remain Christian there. Many of them have lost everything. The only thing they haven’t lost is the faith.”
It’s important to know what’s happening to them, to pray for them but also to act, Father Patton said.
“Our Christian faith is that the word of God became flesh,” he said. “We are not part of an intellectualistic religion in which we think it is enough to think and to pray. We have to support concretely.”
The friars are helping the local communities with food, electricity, water, gas, diesel, restoring houses after bombardments.
“We need support,” he said.
Yet for all the abundance of misery, there also is abundance of hope, not just in Syria but also in the Holy Land, said Father Patton.
“I find hope in our schools, when I see children from different religions living together, becoming friends,” he said. “I find hope when I go to the shrine of Emmaus, in a small village in which there is only one Christian family and the others all are Muslims and when there is the feast of St. Cleophas, and a Muslim family pays the dinner for all the people present.”
There are countless stories in the region of collaborations among Jewish, Christians and Muslim teachers and students and their families, he said.
“I find hope when I have meetings with the religious leaders of Greek Orthodox and Armenians and we are able to find agreements, to do work together,” he said. “There are many, many signs of hope, but we need eyes to see the signs of hope. If we are blind, we cannot see signs of hope.”
And the Franciscans are involved in trying to build the bridges necessary to one day have lasting peace in the region, he said, and it starts with children.
“The first field is the first field of education,” he said, adding that Franciscan schools have a mix of Christians, Muslims and other religions. “It’s an important experience of living together and we notice that in these schools the prejudice is reduced.”
When children learn to live together and become friends with people who hold different beliefs, their families, too, learn to hold different views, he said.
“If we do something to connect with the other people, if we do something to reduce the prejudice against Christians, we are working for peace,” Father Patton said. “When they have an experience of Christian charity, they can change their mind on Christians.”
Father Patton sees this type of peacebuilding as some of the most important type of work in the world. He talks about the recent visit of Pope Francis to Sweden and the example in peacebuilding that he is setting. The Franciscans, following his lead, also have been involved in interreligious dialogue and cooperation.
“In this moment, in every part of the world, it is important to have dialogue with people of other faiths,” he said. “It may be the most important field for the future.”
And it started with the Second Vatican Council, which said that “it is important that everyone can express his religious identity and it is important that everyone respects the religious identity of the others,” said Father Patton, adding that “in the Holy Land, this is a good season for ecumenical dialogue.”
Franciscan friars are involved in interreligious dialogue with Jews and Muslims and other similar initiatives involving youth in the area, he said.
“And so these are good news,” he said. “We know there are also fanatics, but the only possibility to reduce the number of fanatics, I think, is to work to increase the number of open-minded people.”