The first stage of formation for a Franciscan friar of the Holy Land passes through the convent of Montefalco, a small Italian village in the province of Perugia. Everyone who wants to become a friar in the service of the Holy Land spends a whole year in the convent which is only a few miles from Assisi, before entering the Novitiate, which will be spent in the convent of La Verna. In Montefalco the friars work on improving their Italian and continue their human and Franciscan formation in depth. After the year spent in one of the houses of “aspirantado”, the youngsters in formation are catapulted into a completely new situation.
“The two houses for aspiring friars of the Custody are in Bethlehem, in Palestinian territory, and in Harissa, in Lebanon. The friars from the Middle East who cannot go to Bethlehem for reasons of visas, spend the period of welcome in Harissa. The two groups meet for the first time in Montefalco.” Fr. Fábio Inácio Borges, guardian of the convent, explains life in Montefalco to us. “At this stage, there is a great focus on the aspect of the human formation. For these young men who come from all over the world, living in the same house with such great cultural differences is not easy. They bring their different contexts and their different education in their families with them.” This is why the figure of the master is important in their formation, who accompanies them along the way, as is the figure of the psychologist who comes from Rome and accompanies them in a parallel way.
“Here there are four friars and nine postulants and the only Italian is the master of the students, Fr. Antonino Milazzo,” continues Fr. Fábio. “I have been here for a year and a half and before that I was in the Holy Land. As a house of formation, the life we lead here is not very different from that in the Holy Land: we have the household work to do, the harvest of the olives and the work on formation. Our convent is also a mini-shrine, because we live in the place where St Fortunato lived. Many pilgrims also used to come before the pandemic and on Sundays our church was always full.”
In the times of the pandemic, life inside the convent has not changed, but there have been some differences: “We used to pray more during the lockdown. What we missed was the contact with the parishioners and this has tired us, but we have understood better our spiritual life of prayer,” continued the guardian. Despite the difficulties of these times, the usual service in the chapel of the Clarissa sisters and of the Agostinian sisters continues. The friars are also responsible for the church of San Lorenzo, a small country parish, as well as the support they give for the parish of San Bartolomeo in the centre of Montefalco.
“For the youngsters who arrive in Montefalco, everything is new: a new country, a new language,” Fr. Fábio explains. ”Here we are not in the Holy Places, but we are in the heart, in the cradle of Franciscanism, in the holy land of Franciscanism. It was from here that St Francis set off for the Holy Land. So, if we do not draw on the spirituality of these places, we cannot serve the Holy Land.” This is why during the year, the students have various visits planned to the Franciscan places and lessons on Franciscanism with experts and professors. Many of them learn about the Franciscan places from the internet, have dreamt of being here for a long time and this is why it is a marvellous time of discovery for them.
“I was formed in Brazil and I came to the Holy Land in service,” Fr. Fàbio tells us. “Ever since I was a student I had a very strong desire to be a missionary, but I did not know where yet. I was thinking of Africa, I did not know the Holy Land. But one day I arrived in the Holy Land with a pilgrimage from my parish in Brazil, On the pilgrimage I was always asking myself a question: why not here? So, after a deep crisis, they gave me permission to go and serve the Holy Land.”
The convent of Montefalco is constantly in touch with Jerusalem and takes an active part in the life of the Custody through the online meetings with the guardians, sharing in prayer and participating in the life of all the houses in the Holy Land.
“Here we live the charisma of Franciscan life intensely: working with our own hands, eating the fruits of our sweat, leading a simple life,” concludes Fr. Fàbio. “We have nothing extraordinary, except a simple life, to live the Gospel. This simple life is enough for me.”