Episode 1: Welcome to Following Francis

May 1, 2019
Duration: 00:33:53
Guests: Larry Dunham, OFM, Guardian & Commissary of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America; Fr. Michael Cusato, OFM

Listen to “Following Francis” on Spreaker.

Episode Description Welcome to Following Francis – Join host Chris Dwyer and the Friars of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America as they share stories of support from the Holy Land and engage in discussions with special guests about Franciscan spirituality and the Catholic faith.

In the very first episode, Chris sits down with Fr. Larry Dunham to discuss the Franciscan Friars, and their work here in the US and in the Holy Land. Plus, Fr. Michael Cusato joins the show to educate our viewers on St. Francis and how the Franciscan Friars became the guardians of the Holy Land.


“Providing jobs, providing a home, and providing education. Those are the three pillars that the friars are heavily invested in.” -Fr. Larry Dunham


Transcription Chris Dwyer: 00:07 Welcome to Following Francis where each episode, we will be recording here at the Franciscan Monastery in Washington, DC. This is our first episode, I’m Christopher Dwyer, I’m a lay administrator here at the Monastery, which is located on 42 acres of beautiful grounds. It’s a historic building. It’s built back in the early part of the last century. And we’re fortunate to have more than a dozen friars residing right here in this beautiful monastery. So we’re going to be introducing you to a number of these friars, we’re going to be discussing Franciscan spirituality and our Christian faith, we’ll be exploring what the friars do here at the monastery and also what they do over in the Holy Land. With me today is Father Larry Dunham, the Guardian of the Monastery here in Washington. Father, thank you for joining us today.

Larry Dunham: 01:09 Thank you Chris.

Chris Dwyer: 01:10 Father, could you give us an explanation of your role here at the monastery as Guardian and then also as commissary? Because these are different terms that people are probably not all that familiar with.

Larry Dunham: 01:20 You’re, I think very correct about that. People kind of go into a blank stare when I tell them I’m the Guardian of the commissary, the Guardian is Saint Francis’ word for superior. Saint Francis did not like the word superior because it implied inferiors and Francis was a very horizontal person, never hierarchical, never vertical. And he saw relationships as brother and sister. And so the word Guardian is, as I said, the term for superior, he is the one who guards, protects, serves, takes care of the community. In this case, the friars who live here, the brothers who live here at the monastery. So that’s, that’s the guardian part of my role. The second job, commissary, is a bit of a military term, which I’m, as an ex navy military chaplain, I’m very familiar with. And the commissary was the one who foraged for the army, found everything that the army needed for transportation, for food, for sleeping, for office, for anything that was needed, everything except weapons. That was never the job description of the commissary. So in that role, I forage for the Holy Land because this monastery belongs to the province of the Holy Land. My job is to forage for them, particularly for funds, for pilgrimage, for vocations, for people who would be willing to serve over in the Holy Land. And in that role, probably the chief duty of that role is the Good Friday pontifical collection that is taken up in every church, every Catholic church throughout the world. On Good Friday, during the Good Friday service, a collection is taken up and that collection, goes to the Holy Land to support the work of the Franciscans. So it’s very important for us to promote that collection, to market that collection, to educate the Bishops and the Pastors about that collection. It’s not a second collection. It’s not the local parishes collection. It’s not the bishop’s collection. It is the Holy Father’s collection. And it very important to us. So a large part of the role of commissary is promoting marketing, educating, and then collecting that collection to be sent over to the Holy Land.

Chris Dwyer: 03:55 Father, we hear the Franciscan friars of the Holy Land. Can you give us a history, a brief history of how we wound up, how the friars wound up in the Holy Land?

Larry Dunham: 04:04 Biggest reason is because Saint Francis was so in love with Jesus Christ and he wanted to imitate him in every possible way. He therefore saw walking in the footsteps of Jesus as one of his goals. It was a, it was to be a life’s journey for him. That was his goal. He wanted to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. So he was tireless in his desire to come to the Holy Land and be in, walk in that land and sit in that land and just become a part of it. He therefore also wanted his brothers to minister and to be in the Holy Land. And to that extent in the year 1217, Saint Francis founded the first provinces. And a province is like a state here in the United States, all of the country, the United States is broken up into states for governance purposes. So the entire order had gotten so large by 1217 that Francis was in need of breaking the one order into a number of provinces so they could be better governed and they could be more ministered to by their ministers. And the province of the Holy Land was one of the ten first provinces that Francis founded, 1217. So he sends his friars, in 1217, off to the Holy Land. So we’ve been there now 800, over 800 years, which is quite a legacy. The friars stayed, you know, many times we were thrown out – wars, Crusades, difficulties with sometimes the Islamic rulers – but by the year 1342, Pope Clement VI looks at the Holy Land and he sees by golly the friars are still there through thick and thin. And there’d been some pretty tough and violent to years. And so in 1342, because the Franciscans were still there, he made it official. He gave all of the sacred shrines of the Holy Land to the Franciscans in 1342, made it official.

Chris Dwyer: 06:14 Well, when you say make it official, it’s really making it official that they are the custodians. They’re the ones who have to look after these and make sure that they’re well maintained and preserved for all of future Christians who will come and visit these sites.

Larry Dunham: 06:28 Well said.

Chris Dwyer: 06:28 It’s not ownership, but it’s, it’s actually a responsibility that was bestowed upon these friars correct.

Larry Dunham: 06:34 In the name of the church. So the friars, operate in the name of the church, never for themselves, but they take care of these places for the church. And that especially includes the credible number of millions of pilgrims that come there and includes in a special way the Arab Christians who are there, some of the very original Christians who heard the gospel for the very first time at the Pentecost event. So, it is a sacred responsibility that has been handed to them and that the friars take very seriously.

Chris Dwyer: 07:07 But their work even to extends well beyond that today because they are actually taking care of folks both through education, housing, even refugee services. So can you explain a little bit about the work that they’re doing with, with some of those ventures over there in the Holy Land?

Larry Dunham: 07:24 Certainly, and maybe in the first part of your question that it, the work of the Holy Land really extended beyond the holy man what, which we see the Holy Land Palestine because when the friars, when Saint Francis first founded the province, originally called the province of Syria, that entire region called the province of Syria back in 1217 now comprises, we’re in the same geographical area, but it’s completely changed. There’s a number of countries there, so we are in Egypt, we are in Lebanon, we are in Jordan, we are on the island of Cyprus, the island of Rhodes, and of course Palestine and Israel lands that have been, except for the island of Rhodes, all those lands have been in conflict for centuries and centuries and still so are this day. Syria is the last place that we are. We’re actually there, we have 17 friars in the country of Syria who have been there throughout this war, who never left the communities, who stayed there in Aleppo and Damascus in the northern Christian villages that we have. Every church we’ve had has been bombed, missiled, destroyed, attacked, the people have gone through horrific circumstances. Two of our friars were abducted by El Nuestra, one of the most fundamentalist of the groups, and were just lucky that two weeks later that both were released. One had been tortured, but still, he was released alive. So, it’s pretty hazardous duty, but the friars made the decision to stay there. So, again, more than just the Holy Land per say were also there. The work that we do encompasses more than the sacred duty of taking care of all the sacred shrines. We are very committed to serving, which we frequently refer to as the stones of memory, as the the sacred shrines. The other side of the ledger is the living stones, the people themselves that the friars are also have responsibility for since the very, very beginnings when Saint Francis first sent them. And the work to care for the living stones is incredible and extensive. My first visit there was eye opening. We have over 10,000, closer to 12,000 students in our schools. We see education as one of the pillars that is necessary to keep Christians in the Holy Land. Education is also a key to a decent life for the young people that are there. Very, very important work and our schools in Bethlehem and Nazareth and Jericho and Jerusalem and others that I’m not remembering. Schools in Syria, schools everywhere. Incredible, incredible work.

Chris Dwyer: 10:26 The beauty of that work also Father, is that you’re not excluding any groups from those schools. You are actually welcoming anybody from any faith to come and participate in that education.

Larry Dunham: 10:39 Well said, and it’s a wonderful way to have, especially with the Muslims that our students, the Christians and the Muslims, go to school together. They do more than just go to school together, more than just play together, but more than just study reading, writing, and arithmetic. But, they study one another’s religion. They will study each other’s religions, so that when they grow up, they have an understanding that there is no proselytization that goes on at all. But, what goes on is understanding and learning of the other’s religion and it makes a major difference.

Chris Dwyer: 11:18 Exactly. And when I was there the same, I watched them actually be very mindful of the Muslim traditions. Fridays they were off from school and in fact they celebrate each other’s holidays or at least recognize it, maybe not celebrate it, but at least recognize each other’s holidays and holy days, which is beautiful. If we’re ever going to have peace, that’s the way to do it.

Larry Dunham: 11:42 A line I use all the time that if there’s, if some political settlement ever manages to come down the pike, it will not succeed unless it is built upon the bridge building efforts that the friars have been doing between the three great monotheistic religions; Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. So, these bridge building activities that the friars are involved in, are what will be the foundation for any peace that hopefully, prayerfully someday will come to the Middle East. The other two pillars that I believe the friars are very involved in that are necessary to keep Christians and preserve Christianity in the Holy Land, we’re down Christianity is no more than 2% at the most in Israel and Palestine. The other two pillars are housing and the friars are involved using their land, building housing for the Palestinian Christians that they will stay. And the third and last pillar that will continue to keep a Christian’s areas, of course a job. And for instance, the housing work, which is quite extensive is we hire the Palestinian Christians themselves. So providing jobs, providing a home, and providing education. Those are the three pillars that the friars are heavily invested in, in serving the living stones.

Chris Dwyer: 13:12 And even the education, the friars are very mindful that these students have to come out and get a job after they complete their education. So they focus on subjects at the end of it, basically the college years, the first couple of college years for hospitality and IT services, so that when the students graduate, they can actually go out and become employed. Another way of keeping them right there in their homeland.

Larry Dunham: 13:38 It’s very inspiring.

Chris Dwyer: 13:39 It is. It truly is. Well, thank you again. I really appreciate you coming out today and look forward to having this conversation again in the near future.

Larry Dunham: 13:48 Thank you, Chris. It’s a wonderful idea. We are always trying to reach out to people to get our message out because it’s a worthwhile message. We just seem to be so unknown, so this podcast is great.

Chris Dwyer: 14:02 We have to change that somehow.

Larry Dunham: 14:03 And this, here’s one of the ways I totally applaud this.

Chris Dwyer: 14:07 Excellent. Thank you Father. I appreciate it.

Larry Dunham: 14:09 You’re welcome.

Chris Dwyer: 14:10 Upcoming, we have Father Michael Cusato, who will be speaking about the 800th anniversary of the Franciscan Friars in the Holy Land as well as our favorite Saint here, Saint Francis.

Chris Dwyer: 14:39 Welcome back to Following Francis. We just heard from Father Larry about the Franciscans, the monastery here in Washington, D.C. and their work in the Holy Land. Now I’d like to invite Father Michael Cusato to join the show here today. Father Michael is one of the leading historians of Medieval Franciscan history working in the field today. He’s the former director of the Franciscan Institute at Saint Bonaventure University. He’s also the former dean of the school of the Franciscan Studies. In addition to holding a doctorate in Medieval Franciscan history, he holds a master’s degree in Franciscan Studies from Saint Bonaventure University and has authored numerous publications on the Franciscan movement and Frances’ meeting with the Sultan. Welcome Father Michael.

Michael Cusato: 15:33 Thank you very much.

Chris Dwyer: 15:35 We’re going to talk a little bit about Saint Francis here today and I think most folks know Saint Francis is the saint who loved animals and nature and he’s much more than that. Can you give us some understanding of who the man was?

Michael Cusato: 15:50 Well everybody knows that Francis lived in the 13th century. He was born around 1181/1182 died in 1226. My approach to Francis is a little bit different from a lot of people’s approach. I like to situate Francis within the movement that he started. So to talk about Francis as the saint, which is what the biographers generally refer to him as, they take Francis in a sense out of the movement that he created and isolate him. I prefer to see Francis as the founder of a movement of brothers who attempted to live closely with the poor, to live with what we call in our language of the Middle Ages, the Minores of society, the little people, the people who have been neglected and forgotten, and that he and his brother’s dedicated themselves after Francis had encountered one of these Minors out outside the city of Assisi, a leper, he dedicated himself to living in close proximity with people of that kind. So as to give those people who had become invisible to the town of Assisi in particular, a sense of the compassion and the closeness of Christ to them. And that he and his brothers attempted to live closely with them, ministering to them, showing them the compassionate face of Christ because they had been the forgotten of the city of Assisi, and this was the movement that Francis had founded in around 1205/1206, and his brothers began to come to him around the year 1208. Their way of life that the brothers had constructed for living in proximity to the Minores of society was approved as a legitimate form of religious life by Pope Innocent III in 1210 or 1209. And then, the movement began to grow and prosper because this was the spirituality which was very much attuned to the needs, spiritual needs of the people of his time as they took their message of compassion and solidarity with the poor and the forgotten out back into the cities of Italy. And they began to attract people who felt that this was what the church really needed to attend to in their day and age. And that’s how the movement began to grow and flourish.

Chris Dwyer: 18:17 You and I talked before the show here and we were talking about this individual was really an unknown. He wasn’t anybody you know, of notoriety, but he built a whole movement all by himself. That’s pretty powerful that nobody can change really the church. How do we apply that today to each of us and what we can do to help change the church?

Michael Cusato: 18:42 The very choice of, as we’d like to say, his social location, he chose to live among the Minores, which necessarily meant he would live and choose to live a life of invisibility among the forgotten. But, by the very fact that he innovated this style of life, he caught the attention of Christians at the time. And that’s how he became, in a sense, popular. He became, although he sought invisibility, he wasn’t out to do grandiose projects or anything of that nature, but his very intense Christianity, his exemplification of the values of the Gospel in the midst of the poor caught the attention, and the imagination of Christians around him. And that’s how he went from sort of invisibility to visibility and popularity.

Chris Dwyer: 19:41 He also shook up the establishment at that point.

Michael Cusato: 19:45 In some ways, yes, his message, even without words, his message was a kind of indictment of the way that the church was living its life. Fairly much among the wealthy, the powerful, the movers and shakers of society. That’s the place where you sort of want it to be as a churchman or as a person within the church. Francis shows that there’s a broader meaning to what it meant to be church, that the church can compass not only prelates in ecclesiastics, but also regular people like you and myself. People who go to church, people try to lead a good life, people try to implement the various of Jesus from the gospels in our own daily life. And if that’s what Francis did, and I think people eventually caught on to that message.

Chris Dwyer: 20:39 And so that term Minores also is part of the name of the order now.

Michael Cusato: 20:45 Exactly.

Chris Dwyer: 20:45 So it’s the order of Friars Minor and that’s how we recognize the precise leader.

Michael Cusato: 20:50 Even though material poverty, the lack of ownership of anything, became the hallmark of the community. In point of fact, the foundational value of the community was Minoritoss in Latin, minority living among the Minores, the little people of the world. If you are living among the Minores you will be poor. You can’t drive a Cadillac while ministering to lepers. You will be poor. But, you can be poor and yet not be a minor. You can exemplify poverty, but not necessarily live among the Minores. So the accent for the early community was the first and not the second. In other words, you choose to live among the little people of society and in solidarity with them, caring for them as best as you can, showing the compassion face of Christ. And by that very fact, you will be poor.

Chris Dwyer: 21:56 Father Michael, 2019 marks the 800th anniversary of Saint Francis’ arrival in the Holy Land. This is two years after he sent his first friars to the region. Can you tell the listeners what motivated Francis to send his friars and then also for himself to venture to the Middle East?

Michael Cusato: 22:17 We have a golden opportunity in this day and age that we live in, especially after the 911 attacks, that we have rediscovered in our own tradition, a very important event in the life of Francis and his brothers. And that is the 1219 journey to Damietta in Egypt in which he stayed for a time with the fifth crusade among the crusaders who were trying to lay siege to the town of Damietta. He lived for a time, for a number of weeks in the crusader camp trying to get them to not attack and further the bloodshed of the fifth crusade because Francis was, by virtue of his own value system, very much opposed to the further bloodshed created by the Crusades against the Muslims in that region of the world. But then when there was a ceasefire that was declared after our rather brutal Christian defeat, out on the plain below the town of Damietta, during a ceasefire, he and his brother Illuminato, they went across enemy lines, so to speak, and presented himself before the Sultan Al-Malik Al-Kamel According to some accounts, he was assumed to be a Sufi because he was dressed much like a Muslim Sufi would have been dressed in very simple garb, almost ragged garb and he was unexpectedly welcomed into the camp by Al-Malik Al-Kamel, who was known for his expansive notion of religious welcome. He had many people at his court from other religions. He enjoyed engaging in conversation and he welcomed this Sufi-like figure into his tent as well in which they began apparently to have conversations. We don’t really know exactly what occurred entirely. We don’t have any transcript. There were no recordings of what transpired. But, the very fact that he left the camp literally with his head still attached because there were people being for his execution as a Christian Preacher. There was, we believe, a very important encounter between the two men, a meeting of the mind of the heart on the subject of God and of creature hood. One of the things that we have come to rediscover in Francis is the motivation why he went there. The biographies and the hagiography, the lives of the saints that have been written, tend to put the accent quite classically on that he went to convert the Sultan and other Muslims. That kind of has receded into the background now because we now realize that it’s Francis’ encounter with lepers at the very beginning of his conversion journey, which provide the ultimate motivation of why he would go among the Muslims. In other words, in his encounter with lepers, he discovered people who have become, had become invisible to the society of Assisi. We’re actually human beings like himself, men and women of flesh and blood who have been offered the same gift of salvation of anybody else, whether you were a clergy, a prelate, an ecclesiastic, or the pope. We are all have been gifted with the gift of salvation offered that and that every human being, whether you are a Christian or not, held a dignity in the sight of God. You are a creature of God, including the Muslim, as they call them in the Middle Ages, infidels, unbelievers. There were not believers in Christ, but of course Muslims were fervent, profound believers in their religion and God as well. Francis went to share that vision of what he, we call today, the universal fraternity of creatures. He reached out to Al-Kamel the Sultan, as a brother, as a person of faith, and that he recognized in him and the fellow Muslims in the camp of Damietta, fellow believers. That’s what the encounter was really all about. He went to live and share a vision of human creature hood at peace with itself, all recognizing the sovereignty of God above us all. One of the profound things that happened to him, I believe in Damietta, because he spent three weeks in the camp of the Sultan, was he saw a little bit different from in the West, people who prayed five days a week. Everybody, men, women, children, everybody prayed five times a day. Whereas in the West, prayer was primarily a reserved to a spiritual elite in the choirs of the churches, in the monasteries, and so forth. He appreciated the fact that these creatures of God recognized their primordial responsibility, was to be a person of prayer, to give honor and glory to God even though they’re of a different faith and a different religion. He recognized and took that insight back to the west with him and began to transform Western Christianity in his own small quiet way.

Chris Dwyer: 27:53 But he also had success over there with the Sultan because the Sultan allowed his friars to remain in the region.

Michael Cusato: 27:59 Not immediately.

Chris Dwyer: 28:00 Not immediately.

Michael Cusato: 28:01 No, not immediately. That would come,

Chris Dwyer: 28:03 Over time,

Michael Cusato: 28:05 Somewhat later. Eventually in the following century, in the beginning of the 14th century, in the 1340’s, through some interesting negotiations between the Muslims who controlled the Holy Land, especially after 1291 when the crusaders were eventually kicked out for good off of Accra, which is the little toll hold, northwest of Jerusalem. The friars were allowed to come back into the Holy Land as custodians of the holy places through the intervention of, I believe, Robert of Sicily, if I have the name correct, in the 1340’s and his wife, Queen Sanchia, who were friends of the Franciscans and who had owned properties in the Holy Land. And these sites were now deeded over, if you will, not in terms of ownership, but in terms of, we call it custody, the custodial guardianship of the various holy sites. And over the years, over the next decades and centuries, those holy places were added to, the longer the friars stayed in the region. And they had a relatively peaceful relationship with the Muslim authorities who had oversight of those lands.

Chris Dwyer: 29:27 And that continues today. The work of the Holy Land friars right now.

Michael Cusato: 29:30 Very much so. It’s added, the complications are added with the other Christian religions as well, the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians, and so on and so forth.

Chris Dwyer: 29:39 Yes. But the friars do remain neutral and have played a peaceful role. I mean keeping peace in the region to the best that he can.

Michael Cusato: 30:31 As best as they can because it is, as you can imagine, a very complicated situation now that the holy places are mostly, not mostly, but for a large part in the state of Israel and in the occupied territories. That adds a complicating factor as well. So you have this, as I call it, the delicate dance of the Cousteau’s, between the Israeli authorities and the Muslim population, but also the Christian Arab population as well. It’s a rather complex situation, especially when you move outside of the state of Israel to say Syria, which has also a very complex situation in which the Christianity has been very much helped by the state of Syria, whatever one thinks of its current government. They have offered a great deal of protection for the Christians and the friars themselves in living in the shrines and in the parishes of Syria, Lebanon as well. You can add Lebanon, Jordan.

Chris Dwyer: 30:57 Jordan. Yes. I know you’re involved with many publications and some you’ve translated, you’ve authored many. Is there any one in particular that you would recommend our listeners to read? Michael Cusato: 31:13 Well, today, the finest biography of Francis is one actually written originally in French by my own professor in Paris. His name is Andre Vauchez. He’s one of the premiere medieval historians of religious life and religiosity, still working today in Europe. He wrote a book simply called Francis of Assisi and it was translated by myself and published by Yale University press. It’s a big book. It’s not necessarily an easy read, but it is an extremely well written and deeply researched and profound reading of the man in his charism and the movement that he founded. It’s the best thing going in terms of the English language for reading today.

Chris Dwyer: 32:10 Excellent. So that is a Francis of Assisi, Andre Vauchez, and that would be available I’m sure on Amazon.

Michael Cusato: 32:18 It’s available in both both in hardback and in paper pack at actually a very reasonable price on Amazon for example.

Chris Dwyer: 32:24 So thanks again to Father Michael Cusato. I appreciate your time today Father. You certainly have given us a lot of information about Saint Francis and the saint, the individual, and also a history lesson on the friars and Saint Francis’ visit with Sultan. So, thank you again for your time.

Michael Cusato: 32:47 You’re very welcome. I appreciate the opportunity.

Chris Dwyer: 32:50 Well that’s all for today’s episode of Following Francis. Thank you for listening and thank you to Father Larry and Father Michael for joining us today. Our next episode will focus a little bit more on the Garden Guild and the activities here revolving around the gardens at the monastery. We’re going to have Lou Maroulis, our CEO of the Garden Guild and a representative from D.C. Central kitchen, who works in collaboration with our Garden Guild to produce, produce for our folks in need in the D.C. area. Please make sure you subscribe to the podcast so you never miss an episode of Following Francis and also visit our monastery website, myfranciscan.org. Also follow us on social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and stay up to date on all the happenings here in Washington. Until next time, I’m Christopher Dwyer and I extend to you the Franciscan blessing peace and all good.

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