On the day when the Church celebrates the World Day for Consecrated Life, CNA met with two Americans who followed God into religious life and now live out their vocations in the Holy Land.
Father Peter Vasko, a Franciscan friar of the Custody of the Holy Land, and Sister Naomi Zimmermann, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, a congregation born in the United States 50 years ago, both live in Jerusalem and continue to say “yes” to the Lord through the works entrusted to them.
“I had all that I wanted — girlfriends, money, a good job, I traveled around the world — and one day I just said: Life is very empty,” Vasko told CNA. He said he began spending some weekends at a Trappist monastery.
“One day I asked the Lord, “show me what you want me to do.’ I picked up a Bible — it was the Jerusalem Bible — and I saw the five crusaders cross [the symbol of the Custody of the Holy Land]. I knelt down and I just started crying, because in that moment I knew what the Lord wanted.” “I sold everything and gave to the poor — I had two homes, I had a car, a lot of clothes — and I became penniless,” he shared. “I gave everything away to be with the Lord, and I’ve been very blessed. I’m not perfect, but I try to love the Lord and to love the people each day.”
After a period of discernment, Vasko, who called Brooklyn, New York, home, joined the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land and moved to Jerusalem.
In the Holy Land, Vasko, who recently turned 80, has led numerous groups of American pilgrims and founded (and continues to direct) the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land in support of local Christians. Since 1987, he has served as the chaplain for the U.S. Marines stationed at the American embassy in Jerusalem.
“We get together maybe once a month, we have dinner together, we have a big Christmas program, and we celebrate Mass together for Christmas and Easter, even if not all of them are Catholics,” Vasko told CNA. “I started out with four Marines; today they are 17. It has been such a joy to work with young Americans, to assist them in their difficulties as young people.”
In 2008 Vasko was chosen to be an honorary Marine and awarded with the globe and anchor, the symbol of the Marine Corps. “My greatest honor was being ordained a priest. This is the second-best wonderful honor that I received,” he said.
The Franciscan priest continues to work at a full pace despite his advanced years. Every year, he still leads groups of pilgrims from the U.S. He is especially involved in stopping the Christian exodus and helping the local Christians to remain rooted in this land.
“How to do it? How to provide them valid reasons not to leave? The answer was higher education,” he explained, which is the main purpose of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land (FFHL).
“American Catholics have responded so generously! We have an average of about 45-50 college scholarships every year. We have given over 650 scholarships, and 95% of them secured professional employment. They are the future of Christianity!” Vasko said.
FFHL also supports the “Boys Home” for troubled boys in Bethlehem and the Magnificat Institute, the school of music of the Custody where Christian, Muslim, and Hebrew children and teachers work together. It also support the Children without Borders program to promote sports among children, both Christians and Muslims.
After more than 37 years serving in the Holy Land, Vasko said, “my life has been so fruitful, so special, and I’m so thankful for the vocation that the Lord gave me and honored that the Lord chose me to do these works for him. He is the one who does it all; I’m just a spokesman. It’s a very unusual story, but it’s the story the Lord had wanted and prepared for me for a long time.”
Another Franciscan from the U.S. who found her way to Jerusalem is Sister Naomi Zimmermann.
Originally from Connecticut, Zimmermann, 58, met the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist as a teenager when they were a fairly new community. (Their motherhouse is in Meriden, Connecticut, and they now have nine houses in the U.S.)
She has now been a religious sister for 30 years. “I joined a youth group and I went some weekends to work with the sisters, which meant cleaning out the chicken coop, taking care of the animals, helping them in the field,” she recounted. “I was happy when I was with them; they were joyful, and when I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with my life it made sense to at least ‘look and see’ if I was called to a religious life with them.”
From the beginning, the founders of the congregation, Mother Rosemae Pender and Mother Shaun Vergauwen, desired a presence in the Holy Land, where the Church has its roots.
Zimmermann responded with a “yes” to a request for availability. She was too young at that time and still in formation, but the mother general encouraged her desire and sent her to the Holy Land from time to time, when needed, until there was the opportunity to move to Jerusalem permanently and help as a teacher in a family center run by the sisters.
Zimmermann currently works for the Christian Information Center in Jerusalem, whose aim is to provide information on Christianity and on the Holy Land to pilgrims and tourists.
“Our charism is about looking at the problems of the world, taking what’s in the world and trying to redeem it. Being a teacher prepared me in a way to be able to answer the question the pilgrims have,” she explained to CNA. “Many people want to know how to get places, but there’s someone who wants to discuss problems that brought them here. It’s a call to be here, and I feel like my education and my background, my time with the community, it’s all preparation for however I am supposed to be taking this bit of humanity, this bit of land, this bit of turmoil and trying to be a support.”
Unlike their community in the U.S, in Jerusalem the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist are currently only two. “We wake up, we have Mass together with the friars, go home to have breakfast together — we make sure we sit down even if it’s 10 minutes before we both run in our directions — we share the responsibilities, like laundry or common cooking,” Zimmerman shared. “We put a big emphasis on community. We are people who are really trying to live the dynamic of Trinitarian life. It’s not always easy but it’s beautiful! Furthermore, we live on a compound with other religious communities so it brightens our community life in a sense.”
The Fransiscan sister said that “adoration is also important for us. And also to have fun together, especially during this time of war. We have to be aware of what’s going on, so we’ve been watching the news together and we discuss it. But we also relax and have fun: We sing, we play games, we take care of the garden.”
Zimmermann became emotional when she talked about how her life as a religious began and expressed gratitude for her vocation.
“I knew the founders of our community and I had such beautiful examples of women who knew what they wanted in their religious call because they made the decision to say ‘this is what religious life is and [what it] is not.’” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was coming into something preformed, a prefab idea of what religious life is. I was able as a young person to see it grow and evolve. When I just heard that I was called to a religious life it’s because I saw the beauty of that life. God called me. Why me? I don’t know, but he did, and I’m really glad that I was young enough and open enough and willing enough to say ‘yes’ and find out what it was about.”
By Marinella Bandini