Melkite priest celebrates 50 years

May 5, 1968. Protests in France sparked street battles in Paris between students and army troops. Communist units initiated Phase II of the Tet Offensive, attacking 119 targets in South Vietnam, including the capital Saigon. Bobby Goldboro’s Honey was Number 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 record chart. And at Our Lady of the Annunciation Cathedral in West Roxbury, Mass., Bishop Justin Najmy ordained 25-year-old Deacon Joseph Francavilla as a priest in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. As Father Francavilla put on his vestments for the first time as a priest, the congregation chanted again and again:  “Axios” — Greek for “He is worthy.”

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Melkite Fr. Joseph Francavilla celebrates 50 years as a priest. PHIL BATTEY | COURTESY

“It was a beautiful spring day in Boston, and you don’t get many of those there,” recalled Father Francavilla, who will celebrate his 50th anniversary as a priest next month. “I would spend the next four years assisting at Annunciation Cathedral and then come to Washington as pastor of the newly established Holy Transfiguration Church in McLean.”  He has served at Holy Transfiguration, one of five Eastern Catholic parishes in the Washington area, for the past 47 years.

However, his being named pastor of Holy Transfiguration was not a happy occasion for Father Francavilla. He came to McLean to bury his friend and predecessor, the parish’s first pastor, Father Armond J. Jacopin, who had died suddenly.

The fledging parish had 30 families on its rolls and fewer than 100 people.

“The first years, I was the only clergy — no deacon, no reader,” said Father Francavilla. “To hold services, we had bought a former Methodist meeting house down Route 7 that had been built before the Civil War. But only nine years later we were able to build the beautiful temple we have at 8501 Lewinsville Rd., which has a hall and, now, an education wing.”

Today, Father Ephrem Handal serves as a parish priest with Father Francavilla, along with four deacons, a subdeacon, seven readers and two seminarians. The parish rolls list about 400 families and on a typical Sunday hundreds of faithful attend the one Divine Liturgy that is served.

“I am fortunate to have been able to baptize the children, and in some cases, the grandchildren of parishioners whom I, as a young priest, baptized as infants and to have seen our parish family grow beyond expectation,” Father Francavilla said. “People come to us attracted by what we offer: a faith community, the beauty of Byzantine worship, a vision of the holiness of life, the mystery of God beyond human kind, an entry into the transcendent.”

When the catechists at Holy Transfiguration prepare adults for baptism they stress that the Eastern Catholic Church is scriptural, doctrinal, liturgical, mystical, experiential and particular, the last meaning that the church they belong to is local. The scriptural, doctrinal, liturgical, mystical, and experiential streams flow together, as seen clearly in the Divine Liturgy, which on Sundays and Holy Days typically lasts about 75 minutes.                 

“The Divine Liturgy appeals to all the senses,” said Father Francavilla, “and in the Eastern Church, the virtue of knowledge rests on the foundation of the senses, along with the mind and the revelation of God. The Divine Liturgy is a sensuous experience in the best meaning of the term. Clouds of sweet-smelling incense rise as our prayers rise to God. Byzantine vestments and icons in the church appeal to the eye, as well as express doctrine in visual form. We hear the word of God in our prayers, our hymns, our readings from the epistles and the Gospels, and in the homily. Holy Eucharist involves our sense of taste. Through the senses, we experience the Divine Presence and, if only briefly, paradise. When we pray, we pray body, mind and soul.”  

Father Francavilla also noted that, during Lent, Holy Transfiguration holds services every day, “because we see Lent not as deprivation but as joyful fulfillment, marveling in wonder at what our baptism has wrought.” 

The Melkite Greek Catholic Church is one of 23 Eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris (self-governing) that are in full communion with the Holy See. Its origin is in the Middle East generally and in the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in particular, from which it sprang in 1724. With the Arab diaspora in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Melkite Church has spread to Europe, North and South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Worldwide, it has approximately 1.6 million members among the total of approximately 16 million Eastern Catholics.       

Pope Francis has been extraordinarily supportive of the Eastern Catholic Churches, as a bishop in Argentina and as pontiff. Some observers have attributed that support to the influence of Father Stefan Czmil, a Ukrainian Salesian missionary in Argentina. A young Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who attended Salesian College, would often rise early to assist Father Stefan at Mass.

The four other Eastern Catholic churches in the Washington area are:  Epiphany of Our Lord, a Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic parish in Annandale; Kidane-Mehret Ge’ez Rite Catholic Church, an Ethiopian Catholic parish in Washington; Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Church, another Catholic Church originating in the Middle East, in Washington; and the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family near The Catholic University of America in Washington.

Father Francavilla knows the Catholic U. neighborhood well having been a seminarian at the university in the 1960s. It was there that he met Bishop Najmy, when His Excellency visited. 

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Father Francavilla was raised in an Italian Catholic household. 

“When I was 8 years old,” Father Francavilla remembered, “my grandfather took me to Midnight Mass for the first time at Christmas. I can still remember holding his hand as we walked to church through the cold, dark streets. Then the door of the church opened and I was flooded by the light, the smell of incense, the glowing candles, the music — it was my first experience of being overwhelmed by Holy Mystery. It spoke to my heart and I have never lost the vision.”    

Battey is a parishioner of Holy Transfiguration Church in McLean. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018