A parish and a school literally “overturned” through five “initiatives that stem from the Gospel”, in the Muslim city of Jericho where the small Christian minority is a tiny yet powerful beacon of hope. Fr Mario Hadchity, Franciscan priest of Lebanese origin, enthusiastically spelled out the achievements in that fragile stretch of land – with due accuracy – where the church dedicated to the Good Shepherd, and the “Terra Sancta School”, the only mixed school in the city, headed by Fr Hadchity, represent the beating heart of the small Christian religious community. Fr Mario said that when the friars of the Custody of the Holy Land first arrived there were very few schools. His school, created near the parish, in an oasis known for its lush buganvillea, was inaugurated in 1950 with “the constant goal to live together with the population and be at their service, especially in the field of education”, for “knowledge is viewed as a light both in the Bible and in the Koran.” Until 2013 the courses were held in the old building which was too small to host all the students. Today, the new school facilities in white stone bricks stands proudly on the main street of the “perfumed lunar city”, as it is described in the Palestinian tradition. Amidst daily efforts to develop and preserve a balance between the Arab presence and the Catholic and Jewish belief, the mission of Fr Hadchity is to serve as a “bridge of peace, order, beauty and dialogue”, through which bring up the young generations of “riyhaouïs”, the inhabitants of Jericho.
Father Mario, what is it like to run a parish in this corner of the world where the tolling of bells is mixed with the chant of the Muezzin?
I have been living here for six years with another religious from the United States, Father Anthony, to spread, through the Custody of the Holy Land present in these places for eight hundred years, Christian proclamation in a Muslim-majority environment. My personal commitment as Franciscan father is to
Never give up in spite of difficulties, with the hope of strengthening the faith and bring forth the ministry to which I am called.
Before bearing witness to parishioners I wished to experience in first person what it meant for the Lord to resist temptation for forty days and forty nights. The friars with their evangelical message enabled the spiritual and human growth of Jericho’s population, and I for first sought to elevate myself toward God, the only point of departure and arrival of everyone’s personal course. It is necessary to have a trustful attitude towards the Arab mentality, coupled by and attitude of listening expressed on a daily basis and through love for neighbour, embodying the message we were given by Jesus: “He who has ears, let him hear.” Moreover, the local population is inherently good, they are used to being happy with simple things. They need to be motivated and encouraged to evolve. Pedagogical progress is never-ending and the youths studying in the “Terra Sancta School” are an example.
Has there been positive feedback in terms of interreligious and cultural exchange?
There has. At the beginning of my mandate I didn’t realize the extent to which people observed us members of the clergy, until the local governor explicitly told me that the perception of our stature is a result of the fact that we don’t try to conceal our faith, that we are not afraid of making the sign of the cross before the members of a different faith. So I began to practice this ‘approach’ also at school, placing the crucifix in classes where the Muslim religion is studied, in total freedom and with no impositions. This reminds me of a story that conveys the value ascribed to that gesture.
A geography teacher one day removed the cross from the classroom to hang a map in its place. The students complained, pointing out that that symbol was very meaningful to them!
I explained to the mortified teacher that human value extends beyond differences. However, I was impressed by the fact that the youths, most of them Muslim, took a stand not in my defence but in favour of that symbol that represents a God to be loved , who gave His life for us all. In a Europe that hastily removes sacred items, I think that the reaction manifested here, in the West Bank, should prompt due reflection. In our school, also thanks to a synergic relationship with the families, pupils are educated on the grounds of mutual respect that welcomes otherness, and thus it also welcomes peaceful coexistence. This means that the Franciscan habit continues inspiring trust, security. I am increasingly convinced that education is the most powerful weapon and that this school for excellence – where, conversely from other public institutions, there are no separate classes – is a fruitful testing-ground.
As regards education, how did you place the most meaningful “bricks” of your Franciscan reception ministry?
In addition to the Good Shepherd church, we run the convent and the school, that extends from kindergarten to high-school. Upon my arrival in Jericho I had no experience as a school principal and I prayed to the Holy Spirit to enlighten me with wisdom. As the years went by, the school population started to grow from 460 to approximately 900 students, including girls.
The initial reorganization stage began with administration. With equal treatment, for although Christian students are a minority, equality remains the primary evangelical principle.
The walls are decorated with the paintings of the students, and we are proud of the cooperative network we have created between parents and teachers. We devote the same care to the education of every pupil, regardless of his/her religion.
From the perspective of pastoral ministry, how did you manage to transmit the values of the Gospel?
Support and encouragement are the heart of our service, based on the parables that Jesus addressed to the men and women of yesterday and of today, and, as I often say, we could retrace five events that still today characterize our Christian identity. First of all, temptation: Christ endured the heat and faced the devil in this arid land, and we too, as a Franciscan community, should not let ourselves be discouraged by inconveniences. Then Baptism, through which we become part of the Church. And after that, recalling the figures of the Gospel, we cannot fail to forget the blind man of Jericho, and thus our human conscience that oftentimes does not have the courage to see and recognize in God the merciful Father.
We cannot fail to forget the deed of the Good Samaritan and the perseverance, the determination that should always animate our Christian soul.
And most of all, in this city, we cannot fail to follow the example of Zaccheus, who never ceased seeking Jesus despite his low stature, by climbing a tree. That episode reminds us that we all have problems but that the true answer to our Christian vocation is to find the right means to overcome them, with the joy and the humbleness of the faith.