Greg Friedman, OFM
Life at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America is never dull. A constant stream of visitors come for prayer, tours, or just to enjoy the beautiful gardens. But in the space of two weeks during July, the Monastery hosted two groups, both from different faith-traditions, who were a departure from the usual.
On Friday, July 8, the Utah Valley Children’s Choir—some 170-strong, along with chaperones—made the Monastery a stop on their cross-country tour. For most of these Mormon young people, and the adults with them, this was probably a first look inside a Catholic shrine.
Father Jim Gardiner, SA, arranged for the visit, and the group was able to use the inner courtyard for dinner and a reception following the concert. The musical program itself, which took place in the church, featured both religious and patriotic music.
One of the reasons the choir made the Monastery a destination was that their organist, Don Cook, is a member of the American Guild of Organists (AGO), and had taken part in a musical program here. The local Washington, DC, chapter of the AGO has—for the past several years—partnered with the Monastery in an annual series of Sunday “Music at the Monastery” concerts. His contact with Father Jim led to last Friday’s event.
As in any ecumenical exchange, there is learning on both sides. Some of the musical program and narration was drawn from the Mormons’ history—perhaps a bit of a stretch for some of the Catholics who came to hear the music. But the young singers and their leaders also got to ask questions about the Franciscan Monastery—how the friars live, our mission, and what one finds in a Catholic church.
One woman who directed a small group of singers noted that she appreciated the work of Franciscan Father Richard Rohr. “I’ve introduced a lot of Mormons to him,” she admitted, noting that Richard’s teachings on faith and contemplation move beyond a strictly Catholic audience. She also had high praise for Pope Francis and his pastoral leadership.
Finding common ground is what a place like the Monastery of the Holy Land is all about. On Wednesday, July 12, a group of nearly 40 young Buddhist day-campers from the U.S. Zen Institute in nearby Maryland spent the day at the Franciscan Monastery. The monk who organized the visit, Ven. Sagarananda Tien, —again a long-time friend of Father Jim—wanted to show his group what he had discovered in a previous visit: the beauty and peacefulness of the shrine church and gardens.
After lunch, the friars presented a short program on St. Francis and the Holy Land with the goal of finding points of common belief with the Buddhist and Franciscan traditions. The group toured the church, asked about the Catholic symbolism, the replicas of the shrines found in Jerusalem, and the parade of saints depicted above altars and in the window. The group then toured the farm, where the director of the Monastery Garden Guild explained the efforts to care for creation by raising pesticide-free vegetables for the needs of the community and neighborhood, and the Garden Guild’s beekeeping project. Each youngster received a plant to take home.
On Saturday, July 15, the Monastery continued to open its arms to people of different faiths as it hosted Muslim guests, vendors and a group of traditional dancers during the fourth annual Holy Land Festival. The festival showcased the culture, food, crafts and real-life issues facing those who live in the Holy Land. There, Jews, Muslims and Christians today dream the same dream which we Franciscans offer here—peace and harmony with the God whom we celebrate in common.
The Franciscan mission is about sharing the Gospel as Francis experienced it. He lived and preached a message of inclusion, of welcome, of universal kinship with all of creation, and especially with all people. The Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America seeks to provide this welcome for visitors who seek peace and a space with God—however they understand God.