Custody of the Holy Land

The name “Custody of the Holy Land” refers to the Franciscans of the Order of Friars Minor, who have been present in the southeastern Mediterranean region since the earliest days of the Order. Founded by St. Francis in 1209, the Franciscan Order was commissioned by the Church in the 13th century to protect the Holy Places in the Holy Land in the name of all of Christianity.

“St. Francis was the man of the Incarnation, a man in love with Christ incarnate. Francis wanted to be one with Christ not only in spirit but in flesh. He desired to become completely one with him, in the most concrete sense of the phrase. One cannot desire to identify with Jesus and neglect the place where He lived.”

Brief History (for further information please visit the official homepage of the Custody of the Holy Land: www.custodia.org)

The Franciscan Order was founded by St. Francis in 1209. The General Chapter of 1217, which divided the Order into Provinces, led to the creation of the Province of the Holy Land. It includes all the regions of the southeast basin of the Mediterranean, including “the homeland of Christ and the places where the mystery of our redemption took place.” As such, the Province of the Holy Land has always been seen by the Franciscans as a pearl among their provinces.

St. Francis lived in the Holy Land between 1219 and 1220. This was the time during which he had his famous meeting with Sultan Melek el-Kamel. During a time of war and at the height of the Crusades, Francis of Assisi leapt over trenches to enter into dialogue with the person who was generally viewed as the enemy of the Western world par excellence. Although he did not convert, the Sultan was impressed and let Francis continue on his way to the Holy Land.

In 1291, the city of Akko, the last remaining Crusader stronghold, fell into Muslim hands. The Franciscans retreated to Cyprus, but they made sure to maintain a Franciscan presence in Jerusalem and the other Holy Places in the Holy Land, often risking or losing their lives in the process. In spite of the numerous difficulties that came with the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land, the Friars Minor continued to perform their pastoral duties in the Holy Land in various ways.

In 1333, through the mediation of Franciscans, the royal family of Naples acquired the legal right to the Holy Cenacle from the Sultan of Egypt as well as the right to hold religious services at the Holy Sepulchre. They decided that the Franciscans should exercise these rights on behalf of the Christian world. In 1342, Pope Clement VI approved the decision of the royal family of Naples with a bull, thereby officially establishing the Custody of the Holy Land.  Throughout the centuries, with much bloodshed and many difficulties, the Franciscans carried out the tasks entrusted to them by the Church.   They were able to acquire custody of more Christian Holy Places. Their commitment to evangelization and to the spread of Christian values were decisive factors in the development of the local church. Until the 19th centur, the Franciscans were the only Catholic order represented in the Holy Land, and until the reconstruction of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem in 1847, the Custody was charged with almost all ecclesiastical tasks in the region.

In 1992, Pope John Paul II wrote a personal letter to the minister general of the Order of Friars Minor, emphasizing the transfer of the custody of the Holy Places to the Order and exhorting them to continue carrying out the task entrusted to them by the Holy See. On the occasion of the millennial celebration in 2000, Pope John Paul II once again reminded the world that the Friars Minor were custodians of the Holy Places by the will of the Universal Church.

The significance of the Custody was summarized by Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the current Custos, with the following words:

“Being able to preserve the Holy Places – this has always been our primary task … after he Crusades, the Franciscans were the only people who could remain in a land governed by Muslims. For this reason the Pope entrusted the Order with the task of recovering the Holy Places of Redemption, maintaining them and reconstituting a Catholic presence around the sanctuaries. While doing so, they were to uphold an essential principle: to turn the stones into “living stones”.

The Custody today

The Franciscan calling in the Holy Land includes three principal elements:

Prayer in the Holy Places

The daily prayer of the friars in the Holy Places is a reminder to all that these places are not museums. Each of them commemorates a particular moment in the life of Christ and of His disciples. Praying there and commemorating the Salvation Story means making Christ Himself present.

Welcoming pilgrims

The task of the Franciscans is not only to support pilgrims from all over the world during their stay in the Holy Land but also to assist them in their walk of faith.

Looking after Christians and serving the poor

The Custody has always been committed not only to caring for the Sanctuaries in the physical sense of the term, but also to preserving the “living stones” of the Holy Land, that is the believers and local Christian communities that live in difficult conditions in the Holy Land.

In all the countries of the Middle East in which the Custody is present, the Christian communities are a tiny minority compared to Muslims or Jews (they currently constitute less than 2% of the population). The extremely difficult situation created by the Arab-Israeli conflict has led to a constant mass outflow of the local Arab Christian population. All this gives rise to unusual problems, which the Franciscans strive to solve concretely in the best possible ways by promoting the edification of highly motivated Christian communities.

The “preference for the poor” is not limited to Christians: the Franciscans have always been committed to serving the poorest within the population, regardless of their religious persuasion. They remain faithful to their task as missionaries and prophets of reconciliation and peace, and the simplicity of style and the openness to dialogue what St Francis taught.

“Since the very beginning, St. Francis has influenced our lifestyle in the Holy Land: we live simply, like poor people, always in contact with people … and we seek out dialogue with the Islamic majority. Today, we also dialogue with the Jewish majority at times, in a style that is argumentative but always fraternal and free.”

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