What happens to older Holy Land Franciscans when they can no longer get around?

Hidden from view under the rooftop of Saint Saviour Monastery, retired Franciscans rest from their many years of labor. They are from 88 to 101 years old; they are the living memory of the Custody. Fra Jad, at their side for the past nine years, is in charge of the nursing home that allows these friars to continue to live their Franciscan spirituality.

Saint Saviour Monastery is a hive of workshops and offices, but on the topmost floor tranquility and prayer reign: a striking contrast to the noise and bustle of the Old City of Jerusalem that lies below. “Many people don’t even know that we have rooms for our elder brothers,” are Fra Jad’s first words. A team of six nurses, a doctor, a Franciscan sister and four other employees take care of the eight resident friars, day in and day out, twenty-four hours a day.

“Our brothers’ morning care is done at around 6:30 and then at 7:30 we have Mass in community and breakfast,” shares Fra Jad. The day goes by at the friars’ pace. Several times Fra Jad states that everything is done to adapt Franciscan spirituality to the friar’s poor health and age. For example, Vespers is replaced by a rosary and on Sunday afternoon a time of adoration is offered. 

“On major feasts like Christmas, the Custos comes to celebrate mass in our little chapel and the patriarch comes to greet them! We have also installed a Way of the Cross in the infirmary, so at Easter we participate as we are able. We pray gazing down at the Holy Sepulchre that is so dear to us,” Fra Jad continues. The Franciscan habit is saved for important occasions; the friars find it uncomfortable or difficult to put on when they can hardly move any more.

During the day, the friars read or correct manuscripts, like Father Ignazio Mancini; others receive visitors, pray, listen to Gregorian chant or watch the Italian television network TelePace. Fra Jad laughs, “The know more than I do! Fra Giuseppe Marra is our reporter. You see him hunched over in his chair, almost asleep, but he hears everything and if you want to know the news about some cardinal, he knows his whole life!” The affection is palpable; it shines through every anecdote of daily life.

After the meal, we find Fra Jad and his brothers sitting outside on the terrace. Together, they recall the past of Father Justo Artaraz who was guardian of the Nativity in Bethlehem or that of Father Felix Del Buey, who wrote several books. There is also Father Emilio Barcena who has been all over Egypt. Like the rest of the infirmary, this terrace has been arranged for comfort and decorated with flowers by Fra Jad to encourage the monastery’s other friars to visit their older brothers. From now and on all Wednesdays during the summer there is a barbecue for the entire community! With the same idea in mind, an elevator was installed in 2007 so that the friars could more easily go for walks and visits. “Our older brothers find it difficult to accept their situation or state of health,” notes Fra Jad, and when he does convince one or the other of them to go out they announce, “This is the last time!” But Fra Jad patiently reminds them that there will be other excursions and “they are happy to hear and see that they are still important to the Custody,” the Palestinian friar shares.

In charge of the smooth functioning and logistics of the infirmary, Fra Jad is first and foremost the one who accompanies his brothers to their final repose. “The first time a brother left us, he took hold of my hand and I asked myself what I had done to receive such a mission.” Fra Jad was barely 26 years old at the time. Not everyone has the strength to face death. He adds, “Some of the brothers laugh and say that I’ve become as old as the ones I take care of. That makes me smile because to better understand our older brothers and their anxieties, we have to put ourselves into their emotional and spiritual state.” It is not easy. Fra Jad recognizes that he has changed a great deal in these last years! “I have a virulent temper and before I had a tendency to get annoyed and answer them back. Today I am much more peaceful and even when our older brothers hurt me with their words, I know that are not doing it intentionally and I can stay calm.”

These friars require courage, joy and good humor, and thanks be to God, Fra Jad is not lacking in these qualities. In spite of the fatigue and the heavy involvement required by his mission, this Franciscan already looks to the future with a tinge of nostalgia. “It will cost me to leave the infirmary. The human relationships are so intense. Before passing on, the friars thank me. I am always surprised because it is I who should be saying thank you.” Recently it was Fra Vianney Delalande who went home to the Father. “I don’t know if it’s because of experience, but the day of his passing I felt that something was different and I stayed near him,” he shares emotionally. He also remembers the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch Torkom II Manougian, who spent over seven months in the Custodial infirmary. “What moved me the most was the attitude and tenderness of our brothers. They accepted him as one of their own. Fra Basilio Talatian, an Armenian by birth, sang the Armenian mass into his ear every day!” There is no doubt: these aging friars remain Franciscans to their last breath, and Fra Jad is there to accompany them toward eternal life.

Emilie Rey (w/ revisions by C.W.)