JERUSALEM — On his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land just at the outbreak of the intifada, Franciscan Father Wladyslaw Brzezinski was awed by the quiet contemplation with which a fellow friar was able to pray under a sprawling sabra cactus in the courtyard of the Church of the Visitation.
Little did he know that his life’s path would eventually lead him back to this Franciscan shrine which, according to Christian tradition, marks the home of Elizabeth and Zachariah and commemorates the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, when Mary recited the Magnificat as Elizabeth announced she was pregnant.
Brzezinski, who wanted to be sent as a missionary to Africa, followed his vow of obedience and remained in Poland. In 2003, his superiors sent him to the Holy Land, where the Franciscan ‘Custos’ and his staff serve as guardians of the Catholic holy places and welcome pilgrims.
Upon his arrival, Brzezinski, now 53, spent seven months serving at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and four years at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, three of them as the superior. But for the past 10 years, he has been superior at the Church of the Visitation.
Nestled at the top of a steep stairway in the sleepy Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Karem, on the outskirts of the southern part of the city, the shrine where he and one other Franciscan live is far from the local Christian community.
“The Church of the Nativity and the Holy Sepulcher are very important for Christians,” Brzezinski said. “In the Holy Sepulcher, (religious) life is 24 hours a day … it is very special for this, but it is also a very difficult life.”
Working as superior at the Holy Sepulcher, with its rigorous prayer schedule and hundreds of daily visitors, can be very trying, he said, noting that while other friars have a week off every five weeks, the superior does not.
Coming to serve at this smaller shrine was like coming to a “sanatorium,” he said, where he now has time for his own prayers and to pray for others who have asked for his prayers. He also has time to spend a few moments with some of the pilgrims who visit the shrine.
“When I am looking at people, 70 years old, going up those stairs slowly — those are holy people, they want to touch these stones, the story of the New Testament,” he said.
As the Franciscans celebrate the 800th anniversary of their presence in the Holy Land, the sacred role the 300 friars from 34 countries continue to play is a blessing, he said.
“We are continuing our mission until now. We have never followed the politics (of the time) but we have always been here for the holy sites and the pilgrims and (local Christians) who need us. It is a very important mission,” he said.
The Church of the Visitation is one of 29 shrines in the care of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. On a busy day, the church receives up to 20 pilgrimage groups, he said, though some days there are none. Brzezinski and the other friars have begun to work on the garden to make it more inviting for pilgrims and visitors, so they will stay for a bit longer than the average half-hour visit and contemplate the miracle of the place, he said. Many of the Jewish neighbors also come to visit and, often on Saturdays, Jewish Israelis from around the country are among the visitors.
“They are very kind people, very gentle people,” he said. “We have the occasion to have a meeting here, like Mary and Elizabeth. It is a very good occasion to be together.”
In this way, he said, the shrine seems to still reflect the meeting between Mary, representing the New Testament, and Elizabeth, representing the Old Testament.
In a crypt below the modern day church, the “rock of concealment” marks the spot where tradition holds St. John and Elizabeth were hidden from Herod’s soldiers. The compound also consists of Byzantine-era ruins and a well-preserved Crusader hall.
Following the Muslim defeat of the Crusaders, the church fell into disrepair, though it was under the care of Armenian monks for a time. The Franciscans, who returned to the Holy Land in 1217, purchased the property from an Arab family in the mid-16th century
Recently, a group of Polish-American pilgrims admired the mosaic verses from the Magnificat on a wall of the courtyard. One woman from the group spied Brzezinski and asked him for his blessing, and others in her group quickly formed a line behind her.
The priest said it is these moments that are most precious to him.
“I want to understand their life, why they are asking for a blessing. Sometimes they tell me, sometimes it is between them and God,” he said.