(The Holy Land Review, By Adélie Pojzman-Pontay, Spring 2015) “Already in first grade I wanted to become a priest, in order to ‘save souls.’ Can you imagine, first grade? It was very strange!” Franciscan Father Peter Vasko traces his early calling to the very Catholic environment in which he grew up. Born in New York, he was educated in Catholic institutions from kindergarten to his college years. “I was surrounded with nuns and priests,” he exclaimed with a hearty laugh.
Growing up, other interests caught young Peter’s attention and time. He eventually developed a strong background in business administration and public relations and worked for well-known corporations. “I was very successful and lived the good life. Needless to say,” he added, “people who tend to do well become a bit materialistic and after a while nothing seemed to please me. I became indifferent and eventually felt little joy or peace of mind.”
Father Peter however, wasn’t at a loss over what to do. During his time at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., he had come to know the friars at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land. He also made retreats at a Trappist Monastery in North Carolina and began reflecting on who he was and on the meaning of his life.
“One day, I picked up the Jerusalem Bible and before opening its pages I asked God to show me what he wanted of me. As I opened the second page, there was the Crusader’s cross. It was like an axe splitting me in two, which led me to join the Franciscan Monastery in Washington and eventually to serve in the Holy Land. The rest is history,” he concluded.
Of course, his story doesn’t stop there. At 33, he sold everything he had and traveled, penniless, to the Holy Land. This leap of faith brought him great happiness, he confided. “I always believed in God but this conversion focused me on what was really important in life. It’s spiritual realities; it’s God.” At the moment of his conversion, he didn’t know what was ahead of him: Was he to become a devout Catholic layperson? Eventually however, he was led to his Franciscan vocation and the priesthood.
“After the conversion, I gained a deeper spirituality of the Eucharist, which played an important role in becoming a friar,” he explained. Before coming to the Franciscans he recalls being on a boat on the Sea of Galilee. “I thought: This is where Jesus walked, this is where he multiplied the loaves and fishes and where he cured the sick. In Jerusalem, when I was in the Tomb of our Lord during Mass, I felt such unworthiness and realized that this is where God was calling me to be and to eventually serve Him.”
Seven years after joining the Franciscans of the Holy Land, Father Peter became the president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, which funds many educational programs of the Franciscans in the Holy Land. The foundation had its origins in a special need among Christians in the Holy Land.
“The leadership of the Franciscans asked me to take over marketing and public relations for the collection,” recalled Father Peter. He’s referring to the Good Friday Collection, which is dedicated to supporting Christians – parishes, schools, the poor – as well as maintaining shrines in the Holy Land. This collection is taken up annually at the request of the Holy Father in every Catholic parish in the world on or around Good Friday.
Since the collection could not raise all the money needed for education, Father Peter traveled to the United States to explore the possibility of establishing a foundation for raising supplemental funding. In 1994, the foundation was incorporated and in 1996, it began soliciting funds as a non-profit organization.
“The foundation was established to help stem the ongoing Christian exodus from the Holy Land due to the fact that many young Christians were leaving with the hope of something better elsewhere. We started this foundation to provide motivation for these young people to stay.”
The foundation’s two main programs are aimed at encouraging college education and vocational education for students with great academic potential who come from economically marginalized families. “Every year we award 30 to 35 students with a free college education in the name of the Franciscans,” Father Peter explained. “We have educators, engineers, accountants, doctors, lawyers, dentists. And these were the kids who were going to leave. Now they are staying. Of the 266 students that received a scholarship, only one has left. That’s a pretty good ratio!”
Twice a year, Father Peter goes to the United States to raise awareness and funding via dinners, talks and receptions. A lot of the money dedicated to these programs comes from individuals. “The best contacts are the people who have come on pilgrimage. They know what we’re talking about, they’ve met our students. I think identification is very important in fundraising. And if you haven’t come to the Holy Land and seen for yourself, you might contribute, but not as much and not in the same way, as a person who’s been here and seen the problems at hand. These people are our best supporters. They’re extremely important.”
As an English-speaking guide for the Franciscans in Jerusalem, Father Peter believes it is essential to tell his groups about the economic and social hardships encountered by Christians in the Holy Land. And he is gratified by their response: “Considering the economic situation in the United States, I’m amazed at the generosity of American Catholics. Charity is definitely part of our character and culture, both as Americans and Catholics.”
Aside from running the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land and being an English-speaking guide, Father Peter also serves as chaplain for the U.S. Marines at the American Consulate in Jerusalem. “I’ve worked with the Marines for 25 years. They are young men committed to the service of their country and who embody the core values of honor, courage and commitment.”
Father Peter helps them with not only with spiritual guidance but with counseling opportunities. From time to time, he gets together with them on outings and sports events. In 2008, he was chosen to receive a great honor, being elevated as Honorary Marine at the Pentagon. “That’s the second best thing that’s happened to me after my priestly ordination!” he exclaimed proudly.
Father Peter’s work – both with pilgrims and with the Marines – echo the meaning of his vocation as a friar in the Holy Land. “I often think that vocation in general is a mystery. But to be called here in the Holy Land, that is something very special. Here, I feel like I’ve come back home, to my spiritual home – and I try to bring this spirituality to the pilgrims who come here. Every time I get a new pilgrimage group, I am reminded of the section of the breviary under the title of pastors that says ‘take care of your flock and be a shepherd.’ I think as a guide and as a friar, you’re a facilitator between God and the people who have come to seek him.”