Frans van der Lugt: Bridge Builder and Martyr
25 July 2019
Fr. Frans van der Lugt was killed in Homs five years ago. Since then, every day, Christians and Muslims have visited the garden of the Jesuit residence to pray at his tomb.
Fr. Frans – in Arabic Abuna Francis – was a Jesuit priest originally from the Netherlands. He died in Homs, Syria, on April 7, 2014, a few days before his 76th birthday. Pope Francis, the United Nations and the Dutch Government were among those who sent messages of condolence.
A few months earlier television images had been broadcast all over the world of Fr. Frans pleading for an end to the siege of Homs where people were dying of hunger. The civil war had been raging in Syria for several years. In the center of the city of Homs, rebels and government troops fought from street to street and from house to house. A small area, where the Jesuit residence is located, was occupied by the rebel forces. That part of the city had remained isolated: people could not enter or leave, and the entry of supplies was prohibited. Fr. Frans made a television appeal for peace and food. He had stayed in Homs with the people.
Fr. Frans had arrived in the Middle East in 1964 and settled in Syria in 1980. In the years spent in this country he had built bridges between Christians and Muslims, between Catholics and Orthodox, between old and young. He was famous for the excursions he organized, multi-day marches in the mountains. They were difficult, challenging and healthy treks. He would walk with the young people and bring out the best in them. He also established a day care center for disabled children and a winery. He was Syrian with the Syrians.
A year after his death, a book about him was published in Holland: Frans van der Lugt, bridge builder and martyr. His life and death can be summed up as follows: he built bridges between people and was killed bearing witness.
Frans van der Lugt grew up in Amsterdam, Holland, in a Catholic family; his father was a banker. Frans attended Saint Ignatius College in Amsterdam. The fact that he felt a vocation to become a Jesuit surprised many, not least his girlfriend, because he had made a name for himself as a socialite. But he had come to hate the superficiality of the parties and being popular among his peers, as he later wrote when he entered the novitiate. After two years of novitiate and three years of philosophical studies in Holland, in 1964 he went to the Middle East to learn Arabic.
After the Suez crisis of 1956, the French were less accepted there, and this was also true of the Jesuits. Meanwhile, since its independence in 1949, the young State of Indonesia had been less hospitable toward missionaries coming from Holland, its former colonial master. This combination of factors led to the Dutch Jesuits being sent to Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach – who would become Superior General of the Society of Jesus from 1983 to 2008 – was one of the first Dutch Jesuits to be sent to the Middle East, and Frans van der Lugt was one of 30 who followed the same path.
Frans studied theology at Lyon-Fourvière and also obtained a degree in psychology. His qualities as an advisor and psychotherapist would help many young people find their way in life. On the day of his priestly ordination in 1971, he said, “We must accept that our hands are empty. It doesn’t matter if they’re full or dirty. Our hands are empty, because we must be able to receive, every time. Only when you know how to receive, can you learn to give.”
“Only with empty hands can one truly welcome one’s neighbor, fill one’s hands with him, give him space in one’s arms, call him by name, speak his language. This is Pentecost, speaking the language of the people, speaking in such a way that the other can recognize himself in what we say to him and can come to know himself.”
“It is only with empty hands that we can give so that others do not feel humiliated or subjugated. I found all this in a person who deeply attracts me, a man capable of living simply with empty hands: Jesus of Nazareth. Knowing how to live with empty hands, he always made room in his life for his Father and his brothers and sisters. By living in this way, he has given birth to God in the lives of others.”
Fr. Frans arrived in Syria in 1980 and stayed there until his death. He made his solemn vows at Homs in 1982 and began working as chaplain to the students and teaching religion. For 12 years in Damascus he carried out various ministries with young people and religious, giving spiritual retreats. In 1993 he returned to Homs where he became superior of the Jesuits and set up the Al Ard (The Earth) center for disabled children with the support of his family and Dutch friends. When the civil war broke out in 2011, activities had to be stopped and the buildings were occupied by others.
Frans moved from Al Ard to the Jesuit residence in the historic center of Homs. He decided to stay there so as not to leave the small group of people he led spiritually: as they had nowhere else to go, he stayed with them. The leaders of an old mosque nearby brought him their oldest documents: they entrusted their ancient heritage to the Jesuit priest, certain that in his hands their treasure would remain safe. Those documents survived the war.
Fr. Frans could also send messages from occupied Homs. In April 2012 the Flemish magazine Streven published a report on his celebration of Holy Week and Easter: “About six weeks ago we welcomed seven families into our home, a total of about 40 people. We’ve become one big family; we all use the same kitchen. These people heard that I wanted to celebrate Palm Sunday with a few remaining Christians, mostly Orthodox. Muslim guests cleaned the church for us. They were all there with their children, with their best clothes. One of them was an imam, and I asked him to read a passage from the Koran. He did so with great enthusiasm, and then gave a brief exhortation about brotherhood. And when the moment of communion came, some of them also came forward, and all my dogmatic ideas (if I had any) vanished at that moment.”
“A week later came Easter. They joined us at Holy Mass. Death, resurrection of life: their Easter faith comes naturally. They’ve lost everything, but not their faith in life. They still know how to smile, help others, make children happy. They passed through the valley of death naked and empty-handed. Faith here is not artificial, but flows from the depths of the earth.”
“I once gave a ride to a group of people in my old 1976 Volkswagen van. I asked them where they were going. They explained to me that they had fled their village and were trying to reach Damascus. I asked, ‘Do you have friends or family in that town?’ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘but there will be some good souls.’ They had literally lost everything, but not their faith in the goodness of people. And it must be said that refugees are usually well received by Muslims. They have the parable of the Good Samaritan mingled with their blood.”
In January 2014 Fr. Frans was filmed making dramatic appeals for food and the opportunity to leave the area safely. He probably was not free to express everything he wanted to say. You could see in those images that his health was deteriorating and that he had bruises on his face: hunger had taken its toll, but Fr. Frans had refused to cooperate with the people who tried to force him to say on TV what they wanted.
Three days before Fr. Frans was killed, we caught up with him on the phone. He told us that the siege would end soon, and he was right: a week later, in fact, there was a ceasefire; provisions were brought into the city, and people could leave the occupied area. In a phone call that Friday, we invited him to return to his country of origin to rest, eat and recover. He told us that he would do so, but first he wanted to go to Damascus and renew his visa to make sure he could return.
Monday, April 7, 2014, Fr. Frans was killed on the doorstep of the Jesuit house in Homs. The next day he was buried in the garden. A few days later the siege of Homs ended, and civilians and fighters were able to leave the city.
The day before he died Fr. Frans had sent what would be his last message: “I give you some news about us in Homs. Christians here wonder: What can we do? There’s nothing we can do. God help us! A man cannot do anything, but he can believe that God is with him in his difficulties, that God will not abandon him. In these circumstances of need and hunger we experience the goodness of the people. Those who have nothing left will find some grain and lentils on their doorstep. If you have nothing left, you must accept and discover the goodness of others. We see evil around us, but this does not prevent us from seeing the goodness of others; evil must not drive goodness out of our hearts. We are preparing for Easter, for the transition from death to life. The light shines from a dark cave; those who look in the dark will see a great light. This is the resurrection we want for Syria… Ila I-amam, let’s go forward.”
The world reacted to his death with sadness and sorrow because this was a man of peace killed with weapons. The images that accompanied the news of his death were taken from the footage that had portrayed him in the previous months speaking from his home and his church in Homs.
Pope Francis remembered Fr. Frans during the General Audience of April 9, 2014: “Last Monday in Homs, Syria, Fr Frans van der Lugt, one of my Dutch Jesuit confreres, was assassinated at the age of 75. He arrived in Syria some 50 years ago and always did good to everyone generously and with love. He was therefore loved and highly esteemed by Christians and Muslims. His brutal murder has deeply distressed me and has made me think again of the many people who are suffering and dying in that tormented country, my beloved Syria, which for too long has been the prey of a bloody conflict that continues to reap death and destruction. I also think of the many people who have been kidnapped, Christians and Muslims, Syrians and those from other countries, including bishops and priests. From my heart I invite you all to join me in prayer for peace in Syria and the region.”
More than twenty years earlier, Fr. Frans had published a booklet in Arabic about failure and success. In those pages he reflected on the meaning of the cross: “Jesus was crucified by the hatred of men; in response, he shows that God does not love humanity only when we are good, but that He loves us anyway. God can only be a source of love: he gives his living water to all. The hatred of his enemies feeds the fire of his love. On the cross Christ was like a flowering branch, which offered its perfume to all people, even to those who cut it down.”
“The sun of God’s love can be seen on the cross of Christ. The sun rises to illuminate and strengthen the good. And it rises on the bad guys to invite them to become children of God. When Jesus was dying on the cross, God did not leave him alone: there his love exploded with all its strength. The cross is the culmination of the success of God’s love. Some say that Christ saved us by his suffering; but his saving power did not come from his suffering: the strength with which he saved us came from his divine love.”
In April 2019, five years after his death, ceremonies were held in Homs, Beirut and Amsterdam to commemorate Fr. Frans van der Lugt. The Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Arturo Sosa, presided over the celebrations in the Middle East, which were attended by thousands of people.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 8, art. 9, 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1908.9
 Paul Begheyn (ed.), Frans van der Lugt SJ 1938-2014. Bruggenbouwer en martelaar in Syrië, Nijmegen, Valkhof Pers,
 Ibid., 67.
 Ibid., 75f.
 Francis, General Audience, April 9, 2014, in w2.vatican.va
 F. van der Lugt, Wie ben jij, o liefde, edited by Cilia ter Horst, Utrecht, Kok, 2019, 38f.