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. Carlos Santos, 62, is originally from the Philippines and has been in Tel Aviv since 2013, also serving the community of his country of origin. As guardian of the Monastery of the Church of St. Peter the Apostle, he is in charge of pastoral care for migrants.
How did you decide to become a friar?
I received my vocation very early, when I was eight years old. When I was still in school, I felt that I wanted to become a priest. After school, I wanted to go to seminary but, due to financial issues, I had to stay home. For 10 years, I worked in my country for a Japanese company. At that time, I had a girlfriend and I was planning on getting married, but my vocation was still there. I was 29 years old. I told my parents that I was originally planning on getting married, but that God was calling me. So, I was told that the most logical path would be to try to become a priest, and I realized then that was the right choice.
How did you learn about the Custody of the Holy Land and why are you part of it?
I realized that God wanted me to become a Franciscan in the Holy Land when I heard about an acquaintance who was priest and who was a teacher in the Holy Land. I had just heard of him thanks a friend of my mother’s. At the same time, there was also a Franciscan seminarian who had directed me to the Franciscan seminary. I was therefore led to the vocations director in the Philippines and that was the beginning of my journey.
I was 29 and I could not go back. In the Philippines, seminary studies begin after high school or in high school, meaning when you are 17. But I was a lot older and so I thought I would not be accepted. I told everyone that if I was accepted despite my age, that it would have been a sign. And so it was because the Manila seminary welcomed me.
Once I was priest, I became a pastor of two parishes, a seminary director and later, in 2009, I went to Rome as parish priest again .
But I always wanted to come to the Holy Land and so one day I met the then-Custos, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa. He told me they needed Filipinos to help with migrants, especially in Tel Aviv/Jaffa. I then came to Jaffa in 2013.
What is your mission in the Holy Land?
My mission is to look after the shrines and pilgrims, especially the Church of St. Peter at Jaffa. Here, we remember the place of St. Peter’s vision in the Bible (Acts 9). My main mission here is to take care of migrants, given that many come from the Philippines to Tel Aviv.
We have three centers: St. Anthony’s Parish, St. Peter’s Church, and a Takanamerkasir center. There are about 3,000 migrants among the practicing Christian Filipino community, but the majority are part of the Divine Mercy Community, which is a Filipino community composed of 1,500 migrants who go to mass on Thursdays (two masses), Saturdays (four masses) and Sundays (seven masses). In the church of St. Anthony, we have 700 Filipinos, but because of the difficulty of getting around (there is no public transport available on Saturdays, for example), they go to the Takanamerkasir center. I especially help them by celebrating the sacraments. In our community, there are priests coming from different parts of the world to help with migrants. One, for example, cares for the Indians and Armenians; one is Ukrainian and cares for the Melkites; one serves Polish Christians; one serves the Eritreans; and there is an American who helps to serve pilgrims.
What motivates you in your daily mission and spiritual life?
Our life is prayer. This is what motivates me and pushes me to carry out my mission, especially the Eucharist and the liturgy of the hours.
What are the greatest blessings and obstacles on your path as a friar?
One of my challenges is that here the [mass] attendance is very limited; [people come to mass] only on Sunday.
In the Philippines, which is a very Catholic country, there were 10,000 people who went to mass in my parish, with 16 masses taking place every Sunday; every afternoon we met with the various organizations; we took care of the sick and said funerals. There was a lot of work, [and] people called us. But here, and even in Rome, there is nothing to do. On the weekends, there are masses, but it is nothing compared to the Philippines. This gives me time to reflect on my work as a Christian and as a friar.
One difficulty I see here is also with young people. They live in different communities; it is hard for them. At school, for example, they learn the Torah, and when they go to church, they have difficulty connecting what they have learned at school to what they hear in church. The problem is also related to the language barrier. At school, they speak Hebrew and so many forget Filipino or English. Their faith is not nourished, and so it no longer grows.
But there are also some beautiful aspects to the work: our consolation is that Christians here are inspired by the Holy Places. Every month, they go to the Holy Places and they learn to appreciate the Bible more because they are familiar with these places.
The most beautiful thing for me is seeing people’s faith [and] seeing happy people in the Church, who live their lives as Christians.
What is your relationship with St. Francis like?
When I started getting closer to the church, I was in a charismatic movement. I started reading books, and some of them were about St. Francis. As I read them, I told myself that it was too good to be true. So, I got to know him through books, just when I was discerning what order I should join. And now that I am a Franciscan, I appreciate St. Francis more and more. He was truly a man of God. Especially when I came here, to the Holy Land, I realized what he had done.
[Do you have] a message for a young man in discernment?
I would like to tell young people to listen to the meaning of God’s instructions and to follow them, even if God calls them to consecrated life. They will not regret it. I believe that God has a plan for everyone.
N.S. – B.G.