Life at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, here in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., is never dull. A constant stream of visitors come for prayer, tours, or just to enjoy our beautiful gardens. But in the past week, we hosted two groups, from two different faith-traditions, who were a departure from the usual.
On Friday, July 8, the Utah Valley Children’s Choir—some 150-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 at a Catholic shrine.
Friar Jim Gardiner, SA, a fellow Franciscan on our staff, arranged for the visit, and the group was able to use our 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 us in an annual series of Sunday “Music at the Monastery” concerts.) His contact with Friar 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 us questions about what we are about here—how the friars live, our mission, and what one finds in a Catholic church.
One conversation stands out for me. A woman who directed a small group of singers told me of her appreciation for the work of Franciscan Friar 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, we hosted a group of nearly 40 young Buddhist day-campers from the U.S. Zen Institute in nearby Maryland. The monk, Ven. Sagarananda Tien, who organized the visit—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 in our dining room, Friar Jim and I presented a short program on St. Francis and the Holy Land. We were able to find points of common belief with the Buddhist and Franciscan traditions. The group toured the church, and got to ask about the Catholic symbolism, the replicas of the shrines found in Jerusalem, and the parade of saints depicted above altars and in the window. Then we took the young people to our farm, where the director of our Garden Guild explained our efforts to care for creation by raising pesticide-free vegetables for the needs of the community and neighborhood, and our beekeeping project. Each youngster received a plant to take home.
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. I’d like to think that’s what our Monastery here in Washington can be for visitors who seek peace and a space with God—however they understand God.
That’s what we’ll be about on Saturday, July 15, when we will add Muslim guests, vendors and a group of traditional dancers, to the list of visitors in the past week or so! We will celebrate of our annual Holy Land Festival, where we showcase the culture, food, crafts and real-life issues facing those who live in that 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.