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A most annoying martyr

Dutch Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt chats to civilians in Homs, Syria (CNS)

Let me paint a scene for you. It’s September 2009 and the Ignatian family has gathered from all over Syria at Al-ard, an agricultural project and retreat centre near Homs, where Fr Frans van der Lugt has served for years. We have gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Dutch priest’s entry into religious life. I have been staying at Al-ard a couple of weeks before I join the Jesuit novitiate in Cairo.

Fr Nawras Sammour SJ, a companion and co-worker of Fr Frans, prepares to make his speech. Everyone is waiting to hear a Jesuit companion talk about his friend and master. I have been yearning for a moment like this. I am moved by the amity among the Jesuits and know I will be one of them soon.

Fr Nawras starts his tribute to Fr Frans this way: “Frans, do you know that you are an annoying person?” And silence descends on the participants…

What Fr Nawras was trying to say, and what we shared together in community just a few days ago, is that Frans’s most famous slogan – “Go forth” – is an annoying call and even a pushy one. It is a call to change and put more effort into our life and our mission with Christ in his Kingdom. I want to share with you who this annoying person, whom we still miss as we witness the desperate conflict in Syria, really was. I want to share where he is leading us by his bright life as we mark the first anniversary of his assassination in Homs.

His death is a tragedy that moves us all to pose these questions: what should we do now? Where does God want us to serve? How can we continue what Frans has already begun? How can his brilliant example lead us to pass from the death of Syria to its resurrection?

Let me offer some reasons why Frans’s life was annoying. Patient hope  One of our weaknesses is that we get tired of the situation we live in here in Syria. We have almost submitted ourselves to our miserable fate. After four years of the conflict, we see that it has gone on too long to survive. But Frans, who spent two years under siege in Homs, didn’t know how to die. He knew not only how to survive, but also how to give hope to people around him. Maybe we need to be more patient, to reflect on our situation and to find the key to open the door that will lead us to our freedom.

A passionate heart This is how Frans fully lived his Ignatian spirituality, by living the Magis, the Jesuit aspiration to do more for Christ and therefore for others. We were always amazed by his passionate heart, which embraced all of creation. This heart found a place for peace wherever he stayed, even under siege in Homs. What could we say about a man who took care of three turtles in the Jesuit garden, where he created what he called an “island of peace”? Maybe our hearts get turned to stone and we forget how to be compassionate, even with ourselves. We need to make our hearts tender as a first step towards peace.

Syrian blood Frans always claimed that he was more Syrian than Dutch, and with this he never exaggerated. He embraced Syrian culture, and there wasn’t a spot in Syria he hadn’t visited or couldn’t talk about.

What is still annoying is that we Syrians are often missing this patriotic feeling towards our homeland. It has been so easy for most of us to find our way (legally or illegally) out of Syria. While most refugees risk their lives by taking rafts or small boats to cross the Mediterranean and reach the shores of Europe, a European risked his life by staying in Homs among us. He also died with us. Maybe we need to root ourselves deeper in the Syrian soil, so we can survive and never leave for ever what is good there.

A comprehensive attitude This very characteristic quality of Frans came from a deep and passionate intimacy with Jesus and was the fruit of his living out of Ignatian spirituality. One of the slogans of this spirituality is “positive presupposition”: the decision to assume that others possess good intentions.

Frans made an idol of this within the realm of inter-religious dialogue and was a man of reconciliation. Dialogue has almost vanished between the different parties in Syria. Could a positive attitude like his change the results of this bloody conflict? Perhaps we need to listen more to each other. Maybe we need to be more open towards each other and believe we are all brothers and sisters in one loving God.

Fr Frans van der Lugt celebrates Mass at a church in Homs (CNS)
Fr Frans van der Lugt celebrates Mass at a church in Homs (CNS)

Selflessness Frans succeeded in directing his knowledge in psychology and spirituality for the good of other people, not only for himself. He mastered the skills of listening and paying attention. I still remember how he was present for everyone, day and night, during a pilgrimage or a hike. He was so generous. What he had been giving sincerely to others was time: a measurable dimension to unmeasurable love. How do we stray into the forest of selfishness? How could we manage to return to the garden of innocence, where we can give without count, and where we share more than we take?

Endless energy  Maybe this is a more personal one, but it is very annoying for a young person in his 20s to get tired of hiking while an older priest in his 70s leads the group. Especially when all we could brag about was that we could catch up with him for a mile. People are still talking about his tendency to walk off-road. It was a double invitation to us: first, to move forward, and second, to move differently. Frans was calling us to take the hard road, and to enter through the narrow door.

Frans was like other prophets and saints in that he faced a lot of resistance in his life. That was what led him to be persecuted and then killed.

His call for all to live together with one heart was annoying. Asking us to give up our prejudices and admit that we don’t own the whole truth was also annoying. His brave decision to stay in Homs was annoying to us as well.

Despite his remarkable fidelity, the Frans we knew was still a human being who experienced the usual ups and downs. He faced both glory and failure. He was “another Jesus”, a contemporary one who lived in the same context I was born and raised in.

Let’s return to that celebration of Frans’s 50th anniversary of religious life. He shared his vocation story with us. “One day, I entered a chapel,” he said. “I saw Jesus crucified. When I looked at him I understood that the Cross is incarnated love, an endless one.” And that was how he fulfilled his life.

I have learnt more from Frans and his life in Syria than I could ever have asked for. God granted me a model Jesuit to guide me by his example. Now that I am working with the Jesuit Refugee Service,

I hear his call echoing in my heart, telling me to “Go forth”. To go forth by coming back home. One of my deepest desires is to continue Frans’s work and embrace Syria as Frans did. I want to try to answer these questions: what will I do now? Where does God want me to serve? How can I continue what Frans began?

Tony Homsy is a 30-year-old Syrian Jesuit from the Middle East Province. He is webmaster for his province’s website and project director for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Syria. After he graduated from the University of Aleppo in biochemistry, he joined the Society of Jesus, spending two years in Cairo, after which he studied philosophy and Arab civilisation in Beirut and digital journalism at Creighton University in Omaha. His interests
include translating texts in Arabic

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (03/4/15).

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