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.
Fr. Valdir Ribeiro Nunes is Brazilian, originally from Sao Paulo, and in his 56 years has lived multiple lives: he entered the order at 20 years old for formation and was a missionary in Africa and Japan. He has been in the Holy Land for only three months and serves [the Custody] by welcoming pilgrims to the Shrine of the Visitation in Ain Karem.
Let’s start from the beginning: why did you choose to become a friar?Up until I was seventeen, I had a girlfriend and I thought I was getting married. One day, however, I went to a religious community for mass that had been organized to pray for new vocations among young people. And there I asked “why others and not me?” No one in my family had ever become a religious. I talked to my girlfriend and it was hard. I had a path of discernment and then I asked myself where to go: I wanted something simple.
One day, a friend of mine told me about the Franciscans. So, I went to their monastery and there I met a friar. I asked him what the friars did, and he replied, “We live out the Gospel and we do what there is to do.” I have never forgotten those words.
What was your journey like as a seminarian and a friar?
I went into a seminary and went through the entire formation process. When I was in my last year, the provincial asked for volunteers for the mission in Angola and to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the province. I quickly accepted, but in the end, with the war going on, I could not leave right away. So, I went to Rome to study spirituality at the Antonianum.
When I was able to go to Angola, the war was still ongoing. One evening, I was even shot by a gun. I spent all night wounded and praying, waiting for relief. I thought it was my time to die. I really experienced what it means to live and die: dying seems so easy, but it is also difficult at the same time.
Life in Angola was tough and people did not eat much. I lived in a mobile home for years. However, I am happy with the work I did with Caritas. On my mission, I was able to return to the principles of Franciscan life.
I stayed in Angola for fifteen years old and then I also went to Japan and Brazil, until I got to the Holy Land. I came here because I wanted to carry out a more international mission.
What is your mission at the Shrine of the Visitation today?
My job has always been to help others and do what there is to do. Today I work with pilgrims, I talk to them and greet them with a smile. At the very Shrine of the Visitation, where I serve, welcoming [pilgrims ] is very important because this is where Mary was welcomed by Elizabeth.
My main mission here is to return to the sources of Christian spirituality by doing things as simple as talking to people. But this requires an inner experience; otherwise, speaking becomes only intellectual.
How does your mission come together with your being a Franciscan?
The Franciscan experience is always one of coming together. Sometimes, there can be a more difficult encounters because there are many tensions between religions, but this is a very important challenge. As Franciscans, we must be a presence of peace, love. We must be like brothers who try to live out a good faith experience that is different from that of others, as well as a set of different traditions, as a challenge. For us friars minor, diversity is not a problem, as Francis has taught us: at the origin, we are all people. This must be the basis of dialogue and when there are hardships, we must return to these our roots.
What motivates you in your mission and spiritual life?
Seeing people’s faith. To come here to our sanctuary, pilgrims must make a very challenging climb, but then they come and enter into this atmosphere of encounter of Mary and Elizabeth’s experience. Seeing how they experience this moment helps me to go on in my mission and to carry out my service well.
The missionary dimension of the order is for everyone, but there are different types of missions. My mission is welcoming [pilgrims].
What are the obstacles on your journey as a friar?
The most difficult obstacle for me is that of [foreign] languages, which there are so many of and [which are] essential to fraternal and parish life. I haven’t been here long living in an international community is the best thing for me. Life with others is difficult but it is enriching at the same time.
What is your relationship with St. Francis like?
For Franciscans, he is the source that teaches [us] how to live the Gospel: having a simple, warm heart, being awestruck by creation. It also allows us to experience hardships, challenges and suffering as someone who knows why they live and that one day they will have to die. Dying is not a problem, Francis teaches us.
Would you have a message for a young man who is in a time of discernment [trying] to understand his vocation?
To a young man in discernment, I would say to not be afraid to consecrate his life to God in the service of the Church. It is always a great opportunity to be willing to know this world created by God more deeply, and Franciscan life offers us this opportunity to live intensely. It opens up a path that leads to encounter and wonderment in front of different cultures and peoples.
If young people have this desire, it is a very beautiful journey.