Jesuits mourn well-loved priest, murdered in Syria

Order’s future in the region uncertain

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U.S. Jesuit officials said sacrificing security for service is something all of their missionaries are willing to do, pointing to the shooting death this week of a popular Jesuit priest in Syria.

The death of Father Francis Van Der Lugt at the hands of a masked gunman is a “tremendously sad moment,” said Father Thomas H. Smolich, president of the Jesuit Conference, adding that the late priest would have said he “did what [he] was called to do.”

“Father Francis was not the first Jesuit martyr,” Father Smolich said. Jesuit missionaries “are continually sent somewhere where they could get caught in wars and wind up offering their lives. Not every missionary stays when things get difficult, but I can tell you most do. They feel called to be there, they want to accompany the people they have come to know.”

Father Van Der Lugt was shot and killed Monday in the Syrian city of Homs, where he had been serving refugees at a monastery amid a civil war.

In January, an agreement was reached allowing people to flee the war-torn city — which lacks consistent and safe access to food and medical supplies — but Father Van Der Lugt refused to leave.

“I would say most Jesuits fall in love with the people they work with,” Father Smolich said. “So I think most guys when the going gets tough, most guys stay.”

In an interview with ReliefWeb, a website run by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Father Van Der Lugt said that he did not feel like a foreigner despite the fact he was not only Dutch but the only priest in the city.

“I’m head of the monastery. How can I leave it, how can I leave? This is impossible,” he said. “I don’t see Muslims or Christians. I see, above all, human beings.

Francis was a symbol of a dream for Syria, that there can be healing there, even be a home,” Father Smolich said. “He always said, ‘I welcome anyone … I welcome whoever walks through the door.’”

Father Smolich said there are about 19,000 Jesuits worldwide, with several thousand of them doing missionary work.

Fifty years ago — roughly when Father Van Der Lugt headed for Syria — Jesuit missionaries knew that, barring any unforeseen circumstances, they were going to stay where they were sent to do their work.

“Most people think of Jesuits as running schools, but we’re fundamentally a missionary order,” he said. “We go where we are sent. The fundamental thing is we are told to preach the Good News.”

What will become of the void in the missionary work left by Father Van Der Lugt’s death remains unknown. Father Smolich said the Jesuit population is divided into provinces around the world, and it would be up to the Middle Eastern province to make a decision about whether or not to send more missionaries.

He said that after the murder of six Jesuits in El Salvador in 1989, an “overwhelming” number of volunteers signed up to continue the work in the South American country.

“This is kind of what we do, it’s who we are,” he said.

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