Parish News

The pastor of refugees

Translation:The Osservatore Romano

"Do you speak Italian?" "I am more Italian than the Italians! “This is how Father Luke, parish priest, introduced himself. He is a Franciscan ministering on the islands of Rhodes and Kos. And indeed when speaking to Father Luke I noticed he has all the typical ways of native Italian speakers: a good chat, lively gesticulation, nice facial expressions, and then a river in flood when I inquire about his mission to the refugees, quite the contrary of that stereotypical phlegmatic reserved manner of the British. Yet Father Luke Gregory really is English, born 62 years ago in Sheffield, the cradle of the industrial revolution in South Yorkshire, just above the Midlands. What is an English Franciscan doing in Rhodes? «In truth, I belong to the Custody of the Holy Land, which as you may know extends its jurisdiction also into some neighbouring areas to the land of Jesus, like Rhodes.

I arrived here a little by chance - he says, after having served in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I received my obedience to come here to Rhodes. I have been here for many years, maybe because originally, I too come from an island, but I felt at home right away and felt comfortable with island life, and today, I'll tell you: “I could not imagine myself elsewhere ». It has been for many years that so many have looked toward the beauty of Rhodes. «Fr. Luke is an extraordinary character, you'll see ". And in fact, yes, already from the first encounter I feel my intuition is correct.

For if you expect to find a missionary who sadly tells you about the many tribulations of the poor people who seek him, you will be disappointed. Father Luke has the extraordinary ability to navigate between true pain and despair whilst keeping an approach that is always positive, full of hope and goodwill: this is true Franciscan joy! This is certainly the central characteristic and the most important element of the charity that he dispenses with both hands. «Yes, I bring them a lot of essential items so they can survive - he says speaking of the refugees - but what makes them more happy and grateful is that I am willing to spend time with them, to listen to them, to talk to them, to give them a word of hope and encouragement. It must be understood that the initial and burdensome suffering that a refugee faces is loneliness, the feeling of strangeness that you feel when you are in a land which is not yours. Far from your home, where you were born from ». "But tell us a little of your life before, Fr. Luke.’ “I attended school in Sheffield where I learned to love languages and the culture of the classics through Greek and Latin. I never imagined that my love for Ancient Greek ancient would one day be useful living on a Greek island full of history. After school, I moved to London to attend university, I enrolled at the prestigious King's College. But before I began university, as a gap year, I decided to take a course in Applied Social Science at what was then the East London Polytechnic. It was a course run by the Social Studies Centre based from a Methodist Mission which included many experiences in the field, so I found myself coming to know for the first time in my life many marginal realities of which I did not even imagine existed. Homeless, the sick, prostitutes, various forms of addiction, a contact with a world that touched me and changed deep within myself. Whilst continuing my passion in classical studies, I realized that my life was beginning to follow an unexpected road, that of a vocation at the service of the poor, the discarded, the least wanted in society. Galeotto was on a pilgrimage accompanying the sick to Lourdes. There - continues Fr. Luke - I met a Franciscan Friar who fascinated me very much talking about the "Fifth Gospel": the Land of Jesus. So I went to Jerusalem and there I discovered the link between my passion for the ancient world, the historical truth of the Kerugma, and the life dedicated to others. I found myself very quickly, let's say, so naturally as a Franciscan novice in Ein Karen, the village of the Baptist; and then on to Jerusalem to study theology.
I spent some very happy years in the Holy Land. I was cantor at the Holy Sepulchre, I was in the Custodial secretariat and then to Bethlehem during the very difficult time of the second Intifada. I lived the beauty of the ancient liturgies at the Holy Sepulcher, but also the terrible aspects of human suffering in the Occupied Territories ". As we talk, Fr. Luke walks around the friary garden showing me with pride his crops "Here there were some beautiful roses, I took them out and now there are these, which are even more beautiful »and he shows me a row of marrows, tomatoes, salads, eggplants. «Refugees need more of food than roses! And then I must tell you I am an enthusiast supporter of Laudato si 'by Pope Francis. Here you will find ecology in practice: we recycle everything, we preserve water and energy, we don't use plastic, we have our animals, we go almost everywhere on foot". W return to the friary which once housed dozens of friars «I'll introduce you to my lovely little pet Percy ».

I was guessing on an island at nights the friars keep the company of a faithful dog or a tender kitten. I, therefore, stop in my tracks, open-mouthed when I make the acquaintance of Percy: for he is a splendid Royal python, a couple of meters in length. Fr. Luke doesn't appear to be surprised by my astonishment, and remaining seraphic, - and a rather British – he impassively explains to me: "Percy, Perseus: like the son of Zeus and Danae, but also like the constellation between Andromeda and Auriga ». One of the turning points in the life of Fr. Luke happened just five years ago, with the outbreak of war in Syria. Many fled from the bombs and Rhodes is one of the harbours safer and closer to which the rubber boats of the desperate can arrive to. They came in their hundreds and then in thousands during these years. And they will find always Fr. Luke, even at night, waiting to welcome them, refresh them, and support them. "Actually, I have never wondered what I should be doing. It is natural to welcome a brother or sister, who flees in fear and dread. There is little to think about it really, is there?. I don’t ask anything about them unless they wish to talk about their lives, it is up to them if they want to talk about themselves, and anyway, their faces speak volumes. I bring them food but also shampoo, soap and razors. I stock up from the local supermarkets, inaccessible to them, I buy things with the money that they send me from our Father Custos, the Commissariats of the Holy Land, and the generous donations of Association from Italy: Pro Terra Sancta. In the summer months when there are many tourists on the island, I say to them «Before leaving us, leave anything you want, even toothpaste or bubble bath open or not, slippers, the food that you have not eaten: here everything is useful ». He continues: I try to help them in every way I can, except the transit bureaucracy. I don't want to interfere with the Local Authorities and they in turn leave me to do my job, even if at times they try to prevent the landings. After the first arrivals, I decided to go to Syria, to our friars in Aleppo and also to Damascus, to make me a better account of the situation from which they fled. I had never seen so much devastation and despair like that, awful! Today the origin of refugees has changed: there are fewer Syrians, and more Africans from the north and the Horn of Africa, and especially many Palestinians fleeing from Gaza. With the Palestinians, I feel like I’m at home with them. At the moment –he continues - there are about 250 refugees on the island, they live in homemade sheds, housed in what was once the slaughterhouse for the island: a terrible symbol. I do what I can, I try to help everyone.

Many are Muslims, and yet it seems not to matter at all that I am a Catholic priest, they seem to be very fond of me. During I the Islamic holidays we celebrate with them giving typical sweets, this enables them to feel less far away from home. On the other hand, here in Rhodes solidarity makes all brothers. We have an excellent relationship with our Orthodox brothers and also with the Protestants. In fact, for the Lutherans, we have set up a chapel on our premises so they can celebrate their liturgy ". Fr Luke continues to work even while he is speaking to me; he seems never to get tired. «Do you never tire of doing good I ask him? »?”No, I feel a fulfilled person: what is it that could possibly make you happier in the life than see the results of the good things you are trying to do? ». And Fr. Luke's efforts are well known outside the island's borders and also outside the ecclesial circuits, winning solidarity, support, and also gratitude. So it was that the president of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, wanted to express his appreciation for Fr. Luke's work with refugees, honouring him with the title of Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy. Patrizia Falcinelli, the Ambassadress of Italy in Athens, told m he is a profound connoisseur of the Mediterranean oriental world and tensions associated with it. “Father Luke, as well as being an extraordinary example of dedication and generosity in his activity in favour of the needy, refugees and migrants, he also represents a fundamental point of reference for the Italian community in Rhodes and for the promotion of culture and Italian values on the island. For this, the President wanted to award him, at the proposal of the Italian Ambassador to Greece and to recognize his efforts". In view of all this notoriety, he seems quite surprised: "There is nothing extraordinary in what I do: I welcome the stranger, the refugee, this is a duty not merit for all of us.

And so, when this pandemic ends, come to Rhodes on holiday and give me a hand: this place is so beautiful, ". And saying goodbye he walks away with Percy coiled affectionately around his neck.