Its name became confused with a White House-condemned terrorist front.
Franciscan Father Peter Vasko is president of the Holy Land Foundation in Jerusalem, which sponsors housing, employment and educational projects to stem the emigration of Christians from the historic land of their birth. He spoke recently with Register staff writer John Burger.
You grew up in Brooklyn. How did you end up as a priest — and a Franciscan in the Holy Land no less?
I went to Catholic University and was attending Sunday Mass at the Franciscan Monastery in Washington, D.C., so I got to know several friars who worked in the Holy Land.
But I worked for nine years at a Holiday Inn in North Carolina in public relations and marketing and then as vice president of a large corporate travel firm in Atlanta. I was very successful, but I was living an Augustinian lifestyle of riotous living. I got to the top of the corporate ladder, but it didn't pan out to what I had expected. One day I was sitting in my home with all my cars outside and I felt an emptiness. It was the beginning of a conversion. I felt very sad that I was not as faithful to God all these years. I realized how empty materialism is. From that point I started seeking the Lord.
I was going to prayer groups and reading Scripture more, and one day I picked up the Bible and opened at random to Matthew 13, which says that when a merchant finds a pearl of great price he sells all he has. Here I was, a wealthy businessman, but when I came to the order I was penniless. That was the beginning of peace in my life.
Did you enter the seminary right away?
I started going on retreats at the Trappist monastery in Conyers, Ga. My friends thought I was losing my mind. But those weekends were the most peaceful times in my life. And all of a sudden, as I opened the Jerusalem Bible, I saw the fivefold Crusader cross, which I knew from the Friars of the Holy Land Monastery. Above it I had written “Come follow me” about a year before. It had a different meaning to me now. It was like a lightning bolt that hit me from head to toe. I said, “This is where you want me, Lord — in the Holy Land.”
So I started visiting the Franciscan monastery and was finally accepted. I had a house to sell and was leaving within 10 days. My real estate agent, whose name was Frances, said, “There's no way this house is going to sell in 10 days.” I said I just got an acceptance letter to be a candidate for the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land [which oversees the Christian Holy Places in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Cyprus, Rhodes and Lebanon.] I was in total peace that this house would sell. And in five days, it sold — for exactly the price I'd asked. When God wants something, he kicks the picket fence down and gets it.
How has the Holy Land affected you personally?
To be called to the Holy Land and begin, as the first disciples did, to minister to people in need is a privilege. To be at these holy sites really identifies what one is as a Christian. They are the stage props in the drama of our redemption.
The first time I went there, in 1984, I was serving Mass with a pilgrim group at the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and it was an overwhelming feeling of “Who am I to be in the very place where Jesus rose from the dead?” I just started crying profusely when I realized that. The second time, we were crossing the Sea of Galilee to the north shore, the same shore where he called the apostles. In a way he was calling me to follow him too. I knew this is where I should be working.
For my first seven years in Jerusalem, I was assigned to headquarters at St. Savior's Monastery as a simple Franciscan guide. After seven years.
I became the official guide for the White House through the U.S. Embassy — for Cabinet members and military dignitaries — and for world leaders, through the municipality of Jerusalem.
How does the Holy Land affect visitors?
About three years ago, I took Tipper Gore and her son, Albert, around for two and a half days. One thing I noticed was that at every place we stopped, she wanted to meditate and pray for 10-15 minutes. It was the first time I saw (one of the people I was guiding) pray and reflect on what she was seeing. I also took (former South African) president F.W. de Klerk and his wife around. In the tomb of Christ, both prayed very fervently. You could even see some tears from the side of Mrs. de Klerk's face. There's a lot of respect at these sites, whether you're a president or a student. Coming and kneeling at these places has a tremendous effect on people.
They usually just listen, with not too many questions. Gen. John Shalikashvili (former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and other top military people have asked geographical questions. But at the holy places, you see they're sort of trans-figured. They're powerful people, but they're very humbled. You can see it reflected in their faces.
Solving the Holy Land Conundrum