The secret of true happiness: the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi in Jerusalem | Custodia Terrae Sanctae

The secret of true happiness: the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi in Jerusalem

Jerusalem, Church of St. Saviour, October 3rd-4th, 2011

The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, so precious for every Franciscan and dear to the heart of every Christian, was celebrated solemnly with the community of the faithful at the parish Church of St. Saviour on the evening October 3rd, with First Vespers presided by the Custos, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, and then on the morning of October 4th, with the solemn Holy Mass presided by the Dominican Father Guy Tardivy, prior of St. Stephen’s Monastery in Jerusalem, the seat of the Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Française. The Feast came to an end on the evening of October 4th, with the celebration of Second Vespers.
Alongside the Custos, during the first Vespers, there were Father Artemio Vitores, Custodial Vicar, and Father Noel Muscat, Discreet of the Holy Land. His Excellency William Shomali, the Auxiliary Bishop of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem was given a place of honour near the altar. Flanking the altar, around the Custos and the con-celebrants, were the 11 friars who, after the homily, renewed the simple vows into the hands of Father Pizzaballa. Receiving the vows of these sons and brothers, he answered them with the finest words that they could hear on the Feast of a great Saint like Francis, an intimate of Jesus and so important in the life of these young religious who have chosen to belong to his family with all their lives: “On behalf of God the Almighty, if you observe these things, I promise you eternal life.” In the vast assembly of the faithful present, there were also many religious from different congregations: they included students from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, the Fathers of the Seminary of the Latin Patriarchate of Beit Jala, the Salesian Fathers, the White Fathers and the Capuchin Fathers. Also present, both at the first Vespers and at the Holy Mass on the following morning, was Sergeant Major Johnny Kassabri, the officer from the Sub-district of police of Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem, who is in charge of relations with the Christian communities.

During Vespers, the Transitus of St. Francis was commemorated, with a moving ceremony during which all the participants, each holding a lit candle, first followed the reading of the episode of the death of the Saint and then, with all the lights of the Church switched off, followed the procession of the Custos and the con-celebrants to the side altar where there is the image of St. Francis and on which the relic had been placed, along with the Rule of the Friars Minor. At this point, everyone genuflected in an intense moment of prayer. The Custos, in his homily, also led a delicate reflection on the extraordinary relationship of St. Francis with “Sister Death”. For Francis, so docile and sensitive to the work of God by virtue of which his soul and his life are transformed through many precious meetings, welcomes this meeting as a blessing. “Death for Francis,” concluded Father Pizzaballa, “is an experience of love, like all the others, to be lived with the same love as Jesus lived it, in union with Him, like Him and transformed into Him.”

At the end of the celebration, in procession, everyone was able to approach the Saint’s relic for a brief act of devotion.

The celebrations then continued the following morning, with the solemn Holy Mass, in the packed Church of St. Saviour, as is usual on the most important occasions and those closest to everyone’s heart. With splendid floral decorations, the altar welcomed the celebrants and the long procession of the Franciscans and the other priests and religious who joined in, in a spirit of fraternal communion, the joy of this day. Respecting the reciprocal tradition of Dominicans leading the solemn celebration on the Feast of St. Francis and of Franciscans leading the solemn celebration for the Feast of St. Dominic, the Holy Mass was presided by the Dominican Father Guy Tardivy, with the Custos, Father Pizzaballa, and the Vicar, Father Vitores, as con-celebrants. The authorities present included the Bishop of the Syrian-Catholic Patriarchate and the Bishop of the Greek-Catholic Patriarchate in Jerusalem, given places of honour near the altar. There was also a representative of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem and, among the civil authorities, several government and consular representatives.

The musical introduction was splendid, with the flute played by the British musician Stella Turner, accompanied at the organ by Father Armando Pierucci, Director of the Magnificat Institute, the school of music of the Custody of the Holy Land. The liturgy was elegantly animated by the Magnificat Choir of the Custody, conducted by Hania Soudah-Sabbara and again accompanied at the organ by Father Armando, who composed many of the melodies played during this and many other occasions.

During the homily, the Dominican friar Riccardo Lufrani, professor of topography at the Ecole Biblique, highlighted how the figure of St. Francis is that of a “giant of Sainthood”, the “Saint par excellence”, who occupies a special place in the life and in the formation of every Christian. At the same time, this Saint, universally known and loved, remains a close and accessible figure and an “admirable witness of how God acts in us, of how God, if we do not oppose His action, sanctifies us and calls us to communion with Him, with ourselves and with the cosmos.”

At the end of the celebration, before the refreshments offered in the Curia, there was a moving performance by the Band of the Tau Music Center of Akko, where Jewish, Christian and Muslim children play together with great professionalism, conducted by a skillful maestro of Russian origin. This was a delightful present on this important feast organized by Father Quirico Calella, the Franciscan friar who looks after and very enthusiastically animates the Latin Church of St. John the Baptist in Akko. Amongst the many very beautiful pieces played by the close-knit group of young musicians, Father Quirico wanted to include a tribute to all the martyrs of the many centuries of history of the Franciscan Custody, through a touching performance of the hymn of the Holy Land, Super Muros Tuos, Jerusalem. The Tau Band, already known internationally, is the result of a genuine project of peace and hope, and it is our sincere wish that they continue to produce these invaluable results of education, dialogue and coexistence.

“A sun was born into this world”: with these words from the Divine Comedy (Paradise XI), Dante refers to the birth of Francis, a figure who continues to fascinate people of all ages and every religion. As Pope Benedict XVI says, he was truly an alter Christus, a living icon of Jesus, whom he loved deeply and of whom he imitated every virtue, especially interior and exterior poverty and deep humility. “His simplicity, his humility, his faith, his love for Christ and his love of every man and woman, his love for all God’s creatures have made him joyful in every situation. In fact, between sanctity and joy there is an intimate and inseparable relationship. A French writer has said that in the world there is only one sadness: that of not being saints, namely not being close to God. Looking at the testimony of St. Francis, we understand that this is the secret of true happiness: becoming saints, close to God!"

Francis, with his wonderful humanity, is truly the model of total openness to the relationship with the other, the gift of oneself, by virtue of his absolute trust in God and in the truth of man. “Trust,” teaches Martin Buber, “trust in the world, because this human being [...] As this human being exists, the absurd cannot be the real truth, however harshly it gives us angst. As this human being exists, the light is surely hidden in the darkness, salvation in fear and in the obtuseness of he who lives great love together with us.”

By Caterina Foppa Pedretti
Photos by Marco Gavasso