Jesuit Priest Saw Christ Crucified Again in Syria

The martyr’s death of Father Frans van der Lugt has once again drawn attention to the enormous suffering of Syrians caught in a vicious civil war with no end in sight.

Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt
Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt (photo: Aid to the Church in Need)

HOMS, Syria — He decided to remain with Christ crucified in the suffering people of Syria.

And for that choice, a gunman gave the faithful son of St. Ignatius his martyr’s crown.

On April 7, a masked gunman abducted Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt in the early morning from his Jesuit monastery in Homs, where some 24 remaining Christians had taken refuge, took him out in the street and shot him twice in the head, according to information the Dutch Jesuit Order provided Agence France-Presse. The priest is another Christian martyr in a savage conflict that has claimed close to 150,000 lives, displaced 7 million people and has no end in sight.

The 75-year-old Dutch priest had been a missionary in Syria for 50 years, and he took care of children with intellectual disabilities. Caught between besieging Syrian government forces without and the rebel forces within the Old City district of Homs, Father van der Lugt made the monastery where he was superior a refuge for Christian and Muslim families and their children, suffering and starving. And he remained, even when offered the chance of safe passage out of the city.

The Islamist Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate filled with foreign fighters, is one of the rebel forces holding the Old City of Homs. The New York Times reported speculations that the Syrian government’s amnesty to Syrian rebels may have led to the exodus of native rebel fighters who had been protecting him from extremist fighters.

The news of Father van der Lugt’s murder has sent shockwaves around the world. Both sides of the Syrian conflict have been quick to blame the other for the Jesuit priest’s brutal execution.

A profoundly distressed Pope Francis condemned the “brutal murder,” saying the Dutch-born Jesuit’s death “has made me think again of the many people who are suffering and dying in that tormented country, my beloved Syria.”

In a heartfelt plea to the international community and both sides of the Syrian conflict, the Pope spoke out, “Please, silence the weapons; put an end to the violence! No more war! No more destruction!”

The last few months of Father van der Lugt’s journey in the footsteps of other Jesuit martyrs before him were filled with the priest’s witness to justice, peace and solidarity with the suffering Syrian people trapped in the inferno of war. Besieging government troops had bombed and shelled the rebel-occupied Old City district of Homs for months by January 2014, when Father van der Lugt’s impassioned pleas on behalf of 3,000 starving civilians, especially children, helped broker a U.N.-supervised humanitarian operation in February.

“We love life; we do not want to drown in a sea of pain and death," Father van der Lugt told the Jesuit Refugee Service just days before the humanitarian deal came through.

"I don't see Muslims or Christians. I see, above all, human beings,” he said.

The pause in hostilities allowed more than 1,400 Syrian civilians to evacuate the city, provided an amnesty to Syrian rebels (but not foreign fighters) willing to lay down their arms and leave and brought food to some of the remaining civilians. But Father van der Lugt told the Jesuit Refugee Service that he was staying: It was “impossible” for him to leave.

"If the Syrian people suffer now, I too can share their pain and problems,” he said, choosing to minister to the remaining Muslim families and the 25 remaining Christians (out of a population of 60,000) unable to leave the Old City.


Moved by Heroic Charity

The loss of Father van der Lugt has stirred profound emotions among his confreres of the Society of Jesus in the United States, many of whom told the Register that they see him as a martyr for Christ.

Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, noted linguist, Old Testament scholar and an EWTN host, said he believed Father van der Lugt’s goodness stood out in contradiction to Islamist extremists among the rebels trying to take over.

“Evil will not be neutral to good,” he said, because the presence of goodness “is a threat to its existence.”

Father Pacwa pointed out that Father van der Lugt teaches Christians that solidarity means recognizing the human dignity of one’s enemies, and instead of seeking revenge, to pray for them and forgive them — even those who falsely think martyrdom is losing one’s life to kill other people.

“In Father van der Lugt’s martyrdom, he died among his own people, defending them. That’s true martyrdom,” he said. “We have to identify with the martyrdom that’s like Christ’s: learning to be a victim in the face of these other problems.”

“It’s always very moving when a Jesuit is martyred,” said Jesuit Father James Martin, author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage and editor-at-large for America magazine. “Even if I don’t know him, he’s my brother. And it’s a reminder of the high level of service that all of us are called to as Christians.”

Father Martin said he believed Father van der Lugt fulfilled what Blessed John Paul II called a “martyr of charity.” John Paul II declared St. Maximilian Kolbe this kind of martyr for sacrificing his life to save another prisoner in a Nazi death camp, as the systemic barbarity of the Nazis was a form of hatred of the faith.

Jesuit Father Brian Frain, a former missionary and now part-time teacher at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, said his community came together to offer Mass for Father van der Lugt at 5pm as soon as they heard the news. He said Father van der Lugt’s death was deeply saddening, but also a source of courage — reminding him of the Trappist martyrs of Algeria, whose story is told in the film Of Gods and Men.

Although Father Frain had risked arrest throughout his two-and-a-half-year missionary work in Myanmar, as his presence was illegal, he said he had no cause to fear for his life, unlike Father van der Lugt.

“I don’t believe I have that kind of courage,” he said. “But he inspires me to be a little more courageous, as he was, and not to be moved by terrorists of any sort — those people who make us afraid or make us fearful from violence; not to be afraid of the inner cities, but to engage the world, even in the dangerous parts of the world.”


Part of the Jesuit Charism

The Jesuits the Register spoke with, however, pointed out that Father van der Lugt’s martyrdom witnesses to the agony of Syria, as both sides in the conflict try to defeat the other through a merciless war of attrition.

“The martyrdom of an individual Jesuit or an individual religious worker — there’s sadness in that — points to the suffering and persecution of others,” said Jesuit Father Thomas Smolich, president of the U.S. Conference of the Society of Jesus.

“As the Pope himself said, less for Father Frans and more for the thousands and thousands of other people who had been killed there,” he said, “the [media] play this is getting is another reminder that peace is really what is needed.”

He said the solidarity of Father van der Lugt to the people of Homs prompted him to reflect, “What am I doing to respond to God’s call? What am I doing to witness to Christ’s presence in the world?”

Throughout history, Jesuits have risked danger, capture, suffering and death when offered the choice of another assignment: St. Isaac Jogues, St. Edmund Campion, Blessed Miguel Pro, the 1989 Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador and Father van der Lugt are only just a handful of examples.

Father Smolich explained that St. Ignatius was a “practical mystic” for whom “the idea of taking up one’s cross and following Christ was never far from [his] thinking.”

“He told his companions: 'We have to be ready to suffer, even to die,'” he said.

St. Ignatius wanted his Jesuits to have a union of hearts and minds, added Father Martin, and his Spiritual Exercises provide them a similar spiritual vocabulary. The introduction of the exercises, he said, makes clear that “we want neither a long life nor a short one; we prefer neither health nor sickness; honor nor dishonor.”

“The goal is freedom in order to follow God,” he said, including “being open to losing your life.”


‘Crossing From Death to Resurrection’

Father van der Lugt received a crucifix on the day he made his first profession as a religious. Jesuit Father Robert Caro, vice president for mission and ministry at Loyola Marymount University, reflected that the martyr would likely have carried this “vow crucifix” with him throughout his life and be buried with it in his grave.

“In his heroic death earlier this week, Father Van der Lugt must surely have been united closely with Christ crucified,” he said. “His dedication to those he served, refusing to leave them in their time of need, is an inspiring witness to the Christlike mercy and compassion that should be at the heart of all discipleship.”

The Jesuit Post has published some of the last words Father van der Lugt posted to his Facebook page just before he died: “Now, when we are poor and in need, we rediscover the goodness of human beings, when we receive from our brothers and sisters. We see evil is trying to find his way among us, but it can’t turn us blind before the goodness, and we need to fight to keep this flame in our hearts. … We are preparing ourselves for Easter, reflecting on crossing from death to resurrection. We feel like we are in the valley of the shadows, but we can see that light far away, leading us to life again.

“We hope that Syria experiences resurrection soon again … and let’s move forward.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.