Sunday Retreat at the Holy Sepulchre | Custodia Terrae Sanctae

Sunday Retreat at the Holy Sepulchre

"Lent is a time of conversion, and to convert means to turn toward Christ and his Gospel through the Lenten practices of fasting, charity, and prayer," as Father Artemio Vitores, Custodial Vicar, likes to say. Among the "Lenten practices", Fra Artemio also includes, for the Franciscans of Jerusalem, participation in the prayers and liturgical celebrations of the Holy Sepulchre and the Lenten pilgrimages.

This doesn't mean that the celebrations of the Holy Sepulchre are so excruciating that they constitute "Lenten penance"! Their frequency is certainly dense and demanding, but it must be understood that the Lenten liturgies at the Holy Sepulchre are to be thought of, through the instruction of the liturgy, as ascending steps to a greater communion with the Paschal Mystery.

The Sundays of Lent are particularly representative. The patriarch himself is invited by the Franciscans to come make a retreat at the Holy Sepulchre. The Franciscan guardians of the site go to meet the patriarch to invite him to assist at a Mass over which he does not preside, and during which he does not preach.

On this Sunday, February 17, it was Fra Feras Hijazin, pastor of the parish, who gave the sermon of the First Sunday of Retreat of Lent. It is here where we are, in the world with all its temptations, that we must follow the example of Christ and make a generous gift of ourselves to the Lord, was his message.

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The homily was given in Arabic, just as the Gospel that immediately preceded it had been proclaimed and sung in Arabic by the deacon, Fra Sandro Tomašević.

His fellow seminarians drank in his words, which for the most part they did not understand, to encourage him. The curiosity of the seminarians of the Patriarchate was acute. Even the patriarch called particular attention to this deacon's voice.

Because Fra Sandro is Croatian. He was sent to Jerusalem by his Franciscan province to complete his time in the seminary. Arriving in September 2010, Fra Sandro did not take long to learn the basics of Arabic with the young people of the parish. "In my country, I was part of Franciscan Youth. When I came here (he was 26 years old), I wanted to meet the young people of the Young Christian Workers, to meet them within their culture."

It would be an understatement to say that Fra Sandro has a gift for languages. In addition to his mother tongue of Croatian, he speaks fluent Italian and English, and has good basic Spanish and German. He has only been learning dialectical Arabic for two years, but practices it as often as possible with the young people of the parish, who are all charmed by his smile, his good humor, his pastoral zeal, and the notes of his guitar.

This Sunday was the third time that Fra Sandro proclaimed the Gospel while reading it in Arabic.

He seemed a little tense when he arrived. "I had to practice for five or six days." And when he seated himself to listen to the homily, he was still completely concentrated and completely given to his role as deacon. But the smiles of his fellow seminarians and of the Arab faithful president applauded the feat.

Fra Sandro's joy is dual: the joy of being a deacon and being able to proclaim the Gospel for the first time in the Holy Sepulchre, and the joy of doing so within the culture where God had placed him.

The rapidity with which Fra Sandro set out to learn Arabic without belonging to the province of the Custody is notable. But the Custody friars do it as a matter of course. Many Italian and Spanish friars know Arabic and sometimes also Hebrew. Fra Athanasius, a Texan, has even been in a parish Syria.

Although there were a few years in which the emphasis on local languages was a bit weak, the present Custos of the Holy Land instituted a language year. Every young friar of the custody must dedicate one year of his Franciscan formation to learning one of the Custody's languages: Arabic, Hebrew, or Greek by preference, but they may also learn or perfect another language.

In this way, the friars of the Custody prepare themselves to serve the greatest number of people, each in his own language.