800 years have passed 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. Jerzy Kraj saw Jerusalem for the first time in 1983. He came to study at St. Savior’s Seminary at the age of 20, and he now has 30 years of priesthood under his belt. He is in Cyprus, where he is the delegate to the Custos and the guardian of the Nicosia monastery.
Why did you become a friar?
I had this desire to become a priest thanks to a diocesan priest who introduced me to a Franciscan, the rector of a monastery near Krakow in my province. He suggested that I come to their school to experience how these young men lived and that is how I began to get acquainted with the Franciscan order, which opened my mind. I recall a nice sentence that the Rector said to me: “If you become a Franciscan, you will become a citizen of the world.” This was providential, because in my experience as a religious servant of the Custody for 30 years, this expression has proved true for me. I have also been very open to the international dimension of the Custody, being a member of the International Seminary in Jerusalem, in its multicultural, multiethnic and multilingual composition. I have always remembered this priest who knew how to be intuitive and point me in the right direction, which I am glad to have continued to embrace.
How did you learn about the Custody of the Holy Land?
I heard about it for the first time when my formator offered me the opportunity to come and study in Jerusalem. I did not know the Custody of the Holy Land at all. Then, living in Jerusalem and working in various fields, I have truly experienced the Holy Land. Immersion is the best thing: at 23 years old, I arrived in Jerusalem and this immersion into the Holy Land formed me into a Franciscan. He opened me to the perspective of serving where the Lord calls me. After nearly 30 years since my trip to Jerusalem as a student helping in different ministries, beginning in 2013, I have been in Cyprus. I am in exile from the motherland of Jerusalem, but this is an exile that is part of the great history of our Franciscan presence in the Middle East.
What is your mission in the Holy Land?
I am in charge of the Franciscan mission to Cyprus. I am the delegate of the Custos to Cyprus, where we have three Franciscan monasteries. I am the guardian of the one in Nicosia, and then we also have the house in Lanarca and the house in Limassol. There are currently nine friars. In addition to this, I am also a the patriarchal vicar for Mons. Pierbattista Pizzaballa for Cyprus. I am a priest in Cyprus whose main responsibility is to [serve] Catholics.
We have a large community of foreigners [and] students who are African, Filipino, Vietnamese and so on. We work both for the south and for the north, [and] we have a very mixed community and we have celebrations in various languages in each parish. Usually, once a month, we have liturgies for Filipinos, Poles, Indians, Spaniards, Sri Lankans, in their own language. Sometimes, [the faithful] might travel 400 kilometers on a Sunday, but it is always beautiful when people seek out the service of a priest.
How do you combine your mission with your being Franciscan?
The most important thing in our choice is to be able to see the positive aspects. I say jokingly that I am in exile, and this means facing new challenges. At 50 years, I had to resume studying languages (English, Greek) and this gives me an opportunity to develop my skills and carry out a totally different ministry. I did very little pastoral work in the past, whereas now I am a full-time pastor both in the parish and in my mission as vicar. This role is part of what a Franciscan must be: he must go where he is needed. We are citizens of the world but we have to adapt to this world and not the other way around. We must resume the path the Lord points us to, trying to live it out with more joy and serenity and by doing the work that is shown to us.
What motivates your daily missionary work and spiritual life?
Community and personal prayer is the what must guide and nourish the mission. The mission is in the name of our Master so we have to sit down at his feet every now and then to speak with him [to] pray.
It is part of our mission to be stewards of human relationships, not just in our Franciscan fraternity but also in the Church itself. What is also important is being open to dialogue, even interreligious dialogue. This ecumenical dialogue already exists, because I am also part of a group of [interreligious] dialogue with the heads of Christian churches and the Turkish mufti.
Has living in the Holy Land changed the way you relate to religion?
Definitely. Living in the Holy Land means entering into a deep dialogue with the personal experience of faith that has been revealed and formed there, not only in Jesus Christ and in the apostles, but also in the Church. By touching these stones, we touch the experience of God who revealed himself and became man, and who died, rose and gave us the Holy Spirit. My beliefs [and] my experience as a Franciscan religious have become very enriched.
What have been the greatest blessings and obstacles on your path as a friar?
Certainly, there are always difficulties, especially with the lack of qualified personnel in Cyprus, [and] with the language and the facilities that are available.
One of the joys that I experience here, on the other hand, is tied to the people who are simple and good. We must always remember that we are in a country where most of our faithful are foreign, poor, laborers and workers. People are happy to participate and so, even if we are aware of the difficulties, we know that Providence will help us.
A message for a young man in vocational discernment?
Becoming a friar means becoming a citizen of the world. For those who have their heart open to adventure and feel that they want to love, love God and their neighbor, Franciscan life is the best way to do it.
Today’s world needs simplicity, and Pope Francis is the greatest example.
N.S. – B.G.