They’re still talking about the Holy Father’s surprise visit to the refectory of Saint Saviour’s Monastery today, Monday, the 26th of May. First there was the announcement by Fra Stephane Milovitch, superior of the monastery, barely an hour before lunchtime. Having been informed of the probable visit of the sovereign pontiff the evening before, he and the Custos decided to keep the news a secret until the last minute. Only Fra Amar, the monastery’s treasurer was told due to the necessary security measures; the Israeli police would arrive at 9:30 in the morning to inspect the site.
But for those who were prepared in advance, and those who heard it as they came through the door the excitement was the same. Don Gaetano, an Italian priest who was living with the Custody of the Holy Land for a sabbatical year, still can’t quite believe it. “I had just left my room and someone told me the news. I just had time to change my clothes!” Also surprised was Sister Tiburzia, a Franciscan of the Heart of Jesus, and Chef Rami; they discovered that they were not cooking for the friars as usual, but for their pope! Sister Tiburzia is still emotional about it. “I could never even have dreamed of this! Our pope at the table with us!”
The Holy Father had explicitly requested that nothing be changed in either refectory customs or the day’s menu. He even excused himself to the community for the “two hours’ fast” that was imposed on them because of the time of his arrival! The community responded by smiling and singing the Regina coeli. Seated on a refectory bench just like the friars, the pope’s table mates were Fra Michael Anthony Perry (Minister General of the Franciscan Order), Msgr. Lazzarotto (Apostolic Nuncio), Msgr. Fouad Twal (Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem) and the Custos of the Holy Land. The reduced entourage allowed everyone to enjoy the spontaneity and hominess of the moment. Even some of the elderly friars came down from the infirmary to enjoy the meeting.
The pope spoke briefly, enthusiastically thanking the friars for their work, emphasizing that “without exaggeration we can say that the Holy Land is alive. If there are Christian communities, it is thanks to you!” As he invited the friars to continue living out their vocation with humility, the pope shared an anecdote. “Once the archbishop of Buenos Aires told me that there are priests who are pushed around or insulted as they walk down the street, with people yelling at them to ‘get a job’. In contrast, no one has ever said this about any of you!”
Before returning to his official program and leaving to visit the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the Holy Father parted from the friars with a warm and hearty “Arrivederci – See you again!” and “Pray for me” – that no one in the Custody of the Holy Land will forget. Sister Tiburzia says, “What I felt was inexpressible. You don’t see it, you can’t describe it, but it is absolutely in my heart and will stay there for the rest of my life!”