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Custos of the Holy Land: ‘Coronavirus can teach us a lesson in unity’

The Catholic Church's Guardian of the Christian Holy Places echoes Pope Francis' call for our times: Help others, especially the weak, no matter our differences
Fr. Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land, Guardian of the Christian Holy Places in the Holy Land on behalf of the Catholic Church (Courtesy)
Fr. Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land, Guardian of the Christian Holy Places in the Holy Land on behalf of the Catholic Church (Courtesy)

The coronavirus that has spread throughout the world and changed our lives, brought with it many hardships and a different kind of challenge – a challenge to our health, even to our very existence, and that of our loved ones. It also brings, unfortunately, a confrontation within ourselves and between groups, beliefs and even the understanding of life itself. In this context we should understand that this terrible virus also propels us to discover the value of unity, to set aside our individual selfishness and embrace the vision that we are all brothers and sisters. We should be united facing this invisible enemy, a virus that lacks identity and form that we can defeat only by taking care of each other.

We are currently witnessing what it means to love and live a selfless attitude in the dedication of “ordinary people – often forgotten people – who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines nor on the grand catwalks of the latest show, but who without any doubt are in these very days writing the decisive events of our time: doctors, nurses, supermarket employees, cleaners, caregivers, providers of transport, law and order forces, volunteers, priests, religious men and women and so very many others who have understood that no one reaches salvation by themselves” (Pope Francis, March 27, 2020). These people are risking their lives for us and for the existence of our society. It is exactly for this reason, witnessing the spread of the virus, in the day-to-day difficulties that we must look beyond our individual prospects and strive for the common good together.

The virus does not care if we are of right or left wing, Arab or Jew or a foreign migrant worker, if we are religious or secular, if we are a Jew, Muslim or Christian. We must all understand that the only way to overcome this pandemic is to stand united, together. As Pope Francis told us during a lonely evening liturgy: “we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat… are all of us… The Lord asks us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering” (March 27, 2020). Only by joining forces within the nation and between the nations will we be able to overcome the virus.

In the last 800 years, as Franciscans of the Holy Land, we have tried to incarnate the principle of brotherhood and solidarity in caring for the sick in Jerusalem, regardless of their religious affiliation.

During the Great Epidemic (the Black Plague) in 1347 and 1370, the activities of our Franciscan physicians in the Holy Land were vigorous. Different testimonies refer to inventions, medical assistance and treatment, given not only to local Christians and pilgrims but also to Muslims. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem himself was treated by a doctor from our Monastery of St. Saviour. Another famous case is that of the Pasha of Acre, Muhammad al-Gezer, who repeatedly asked for the presence of the Franciscan brother Lopez, who was a doctor in Jerusalem at that time.

Documents from our archives often report that some friars, before professing their religious vows, studied nursing and medicine. The Church allowed them to exercise medicine “in case of need” and on the condition that “the services be provided free of charge and for the love of God.” It is clear that these cases of need were many and more urgent in the places where the shortage of manpower, as well as the frequency and extent of the epidemic, could not leave the clergy indifferent.

With the advent of modern medicine, these cases have gradually ceased, but they are an important symbol of altruism and unity in the Middle East, which shows us today more than ever, the need for international and inter-religious solidarity.

The past teaches us that dialogue and cooperation can lead to brotherhood, even in times of crisis, between believers from different religions. Instead of arguing over who led to the spread of the virus in the country and those “guilty” sectors, we should act in unity and partnership, help and support each other in this difficult time. Where some live in social isolation, where elderly people stay at home for months without the warm and supportive closeness of family members, we should find the strength within us to help, especially the weak, those at risk and transform any negative feelings into mutual help.

When Pope John Paul II visited Israel in the year 2000, he reminded us that the role of religious leaders is first and foremost “to promote peace and mutual understanding.”

The coronavirus pandemic should arouse in us an awareness of unity, of helping each other. The virus does not distinguish between religious affiliation, culture and language, race or sex. So if we act in a way in which everyone considers only himself or herself, disconnected one from the other, we will never be able to overcome this virus, for we really are all in the same boat.

Last month, Pope Francis wrote in an open letter, telling us that everyone should choose whether to live helping the needy and the stranger neglected by his neighbors, “or to stand on the side of indifference”.

He reminded us that the most dangerous virus and pandemic is not COVID-19 but global indifference.

This letter on brotherhood amongst all peoples and persons only reinforces the concept of the Catholic Church calling for unity and solidarity amongst all, calling for acceptance of the other and particularly the little ones, the poor, the fragile and the stranger. Each of us should take personal responsibility for the other and identify with the other. As the great Jewish rabbi, theologian and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Human is he who is concerned with other selves. Man is a being that can never be self-sufficient, not only by what he must take in but also by what he must give out.” (Man Is Not Alone, p. 138).

About the Author
Fr. Francesco Patton is the Custos of the Holy Land, Guardian of the Christian Holy Places in the Holy Land on behalf of the Catholic Church.