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. Clovis Luis Bettinelli, originally from southern Brazil, from the city of Vanini, is 29 years old and he is full of enthusiasm and energy to have been part of the Custody of the Holy Land for almost nine years. He can be found at the Holy Sepulcher or in other Franciscan pilgrimages in the Holy Land, while serving in the Custody’s choir. He will make his solemn vows on October 7.
Why did you become a friar? What was your journey to the Holy Land like?
I had a very early vocation: from the time I was a child, I would already say that I wanted to be a priest. That was hilarious to my parents, but my motivation was serious and came mainly from my grandparents. As I got closer to adulthood, I could see in the figure of the priest someone from whom to draw inspiration. I went to seminary in my diocese when I was 13 years old.
During seminary, I met a Capuchin friar and a curiosity about Franciscan life was born inside of me.
After five years I had an experience outside [of the seminary] so as to work and do something that was more “normal.” I then worked in the metallurgical field, in pharmacies and then in social work. But I still had this desire to be a priest.
One day at a pastoral religious meeting in the novitiate of the St. Francis Province in Southern Brazil, my spiritual director met the vocations director. This is how the possibility of a journey to the Holy Land opened up for me. I was not absolutely expecting it: I did not even know that there were friars in the Holy Land and did not know anything about [the Custody]. After a while, I began to speak with Fr. Bruno, who then was the vocations director for the Custody. Soon, thanks to his attention and to the conversations we had, a greater desire grew inside of me to be a friar in the Holy Land.
It seemed like something really unattainable to us: we were a humble family from a very small town. I only left in August 2009 for Argentina, where I was in a Holy Land Commissariat with other youth and we then went to Italy for formation.
How has your formation been going thus far?
My initial formation and arrival to the Holy Land was a hard time because our brotherhood is international. A young man who wants to become a friar in Brazil and enters a monastery in Brazil, meets a community of friars who know the language, who understand the culture, food, and who have fun in the same way, laugh about the same jokes, and who get angry with the same words. When you enter the Custody of the Holy Land, on the other hand, you experience culture shock immediately because you have to live in a monastery 24 hours a day with people from different countries: friars from Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa…
It was very difficult time, but always pointing toward the Holy Land, there was a growing need to open up to an international community, to learn languages, cultures, and then to welcome other people from all over the world. world. After the journey, I chose to learn Hebrew because I think the Custody needs to open itself up more to the Jewish world. Not because it is advantageous, but because speaking Hebrew can help you get more acclimated in the country. Now I am at St. Savior’s studying theology. In October, I will make my solemn vows.
What is your mission in the Holy Land?
I believe my mission here is directly linked to the Church’s mission. In the 800-year presence here, we friars have always had the role of guarding the holy sites, celebrating in the holy places, welcoming pilgrims, and staying with the “living stones.” I am very attached to welcoming pilgrims. I have a lot of interest in and I like learning languages because it creates new relationships and opens your mind to understanding new cultures. This is very important in order to better fulfill the mission that the Church gives us in the Holy Land. I speak with Brazilian, Italian and Spanish pilgrims and I speak five languages.
I also have the temporary mission of singing in the friars’ choir for liturgies in the holy places. Everyone most make the most of their own strengths during formation. I am connected to music and this is why I help out at the Holy Sepulcher for the celebrations and for some of the friars’ pilgrimages .
How do you combine your mission with being Franciscan?
The mission of the Holy Land is a Franciscan mission par excellence because Francis himself in 1217, founded the overseas province, expecting the friars to be present in this land. Then, he himself came with the crusaders, [and] he had this experience that no crusader and no powerful man was able to have: he found the sultan and was given permission to visit the holy places. This is in a way the mission of all of the friars all over the world, because it is the pearl of order’s missions. It is genetically within the Franciscan mission of [each friar], including my own in Brazil.
What does motivates you in your mission and your spiritual life daily?
Right now, study that directs my daily life, with prayer and fraternal life. It is basically the triangle of our daily life. In the morning we get up early (at 5:55 a.m.) to be at choir practice at 6:15 p.m., and then I pray and study in the afternoon.
Has living in the Holy Land has changed your relationship with religion?
The change has been a bit arduous because we have to strip ourselves of what we have as truth, as knowledge. When you come from a small town like mine, you are used to the small church with the pastor, the small community. When you come out of that world, you have to understand that the universal Church is far greater than you know. You have to make this effort to get out of yourself, [and] it is a really exhausting, yet satisfying, effort when you reap to the fruits of work. When you get out of yourself, and start having wider relationships with other people, it is very beautiful. This experience has opened me up to be able to be better at this mission.
What are the greatest blessings and obstacles on your journey as a friar?
The riches of life here is being able to be in the heart of the Christian life of the world, where you have a flow of pilgrims coming from all over the world and where you have the opportunity to meet them in the shrines. Then, the fact of living the Franciscan life in an international context, where you have direct contact with the representatives of the order from all over the world. The friars come; they want to know and feel the holy places, see our mission here and after visiting, maybe even live with us. So, it is an experience of an order that is not provincial, but universal, just like Francis wanted.
It is also a great richness to understand the reality of the Arab people, of the Christians who come to Jesus’ land, [and to learn about] other languages, people, cultures, and the religion of Jesus. These are all of the incalculable benefits I could not have in other places.
A very big obstacle is the problem of the conflict between these two worlds living together. It is an obstacle because you have to be very careful when in your approach toward different cultures. You have to be careful not to put yourself on one side or the other, but you have to aim to become support and help both sides. Becoming this bridge of unity is very difficult, even for our Christians.
Do you have a message for young people who are discerning?
I would say that a vocation to the Holy Land is a vocation within the Franciscan one. You must have the Franciscan vocation and have the vocation for the Holy Land. The only way to know this is to get in touch with the friars, ask them questions, removing all of the doubts that may arise. Coming here, you have a direct experience of this land, this culture, this Church, the Holy Land in its entirety. I want to encourage all those who wish to be friars in the Holy Land, because it is a beautiful mission that fills hearts with so many challenges every day. There is always something to do, something that happens, because we are at the center of the Church. It is a vocation that requires young people who wish to come here to have radical spirit.