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Custody of the Holy Land

The presence of the Franciscans in the Holy Land goes back to the dawn of the Order of Friars Minor itself. Founded by St.Francis in 1209, the order quickly opened up to missionary evangelization. With the General Chapter of 1217 that divided the Order into provinces, the Province of the Holy Land was born. Nurtured by the Crusader presence, its apostolate grew to include all the territories around the south- east Mediterranean basin, from Egypt to Greece and beyond.

The Province of the Holy Land naturally included the land where Christ was born and the places where our redemption was realized. For this reason the Province of the Holy Land was considered the "Pearl of all the Provinces" a title which has endured even to our day. It was visited by St. Francis himself, who traveled around for several months in 1219 and 1220 through Egypt, Syria and Palestine. This period saw the celebrated encounter between St. Francis and the Sultan Melek-el Kamel. Such amazement developed in the Church at that time that for centuries, the ecumenical spirit was fused with the missionary apostolate of the Franciscans in the lands of the Orient, near and far, whether it was among the "infidels" or among the " separated brethren." Hence the missionary expeditions of the Friars Minor were far and wide with friars such as John of Plan Carpini, Oderick of Pordenone, John of Montecorvino, John of Maringnolli, who pushed as far as Russia, Tibet, and China.

The Province of the Holy Land was later reduced, territorially speaking, in 1263 to make it a more effective organization in the work of evangelization in Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. It was further subdivided into territories called 'custodies.' In addition to the Custody of the Holy Land (which included the convents of Jerusalem, Acre, Jaffa, Tyre, Sidon, Tripoli and Antioch) there were the custodies of Cyprus and Syria.

It was during the Crusader times though, that the apostolates of the Friar Minors developed rapidly.
With the fall of St. John of Acre (1291) into Muslim hands came the definitive beginning of Islamic domination in Palestine. But the Franciscans, finding refuge on Cyprus, where the seat of the Province of the Orient was, continued to plan and extend every possible form of presence in Jerusalem as well as in the other Palestinian sanctuaries. Pope John XXII himself gave faculties to the provincial minister of the Holy Land to send every year two of his friars to the holy places. In spite of the fact that Christians were officially banned from Palestine, the Friars Minor continued to be present and to exercise as many kinds of apostolates as were possible. For example, it is certain that the friars were serving in the Holy Sepulchre between 1322 and 1327. In 1333 the Friars Minor secured the site of the Cenacle and immediately established a friary there. During this same period the Muslim authorities recognized the friars as 'official residents' in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The definitive return of the Friars Minor to the Holy Land, with the legal possession of certain sanctuaries and the right to use others, was owed to the generosity of Roberto d'Angio and of Queen Sancia, rulers of Naples. This acquisition was made possible through the mediation of Ruggero Garini with the Sultan of Egypt. They established an agreement that the Friars Minor would enjoy such rights in the name of, and on the part of, all Christianity. Pope Clement VI, with the bulls, "Gratias Agimus" and "Nuper Carissimae" of 1342 approved the actions of the Neapolitan royalty and mandated the friars to be the official custodians of the Holy Land. The friars assigned to the Holy Land could come from any province of the Order and once in service there, were under the jurisdiction of the "Guardian of Mount Zion in Jerusalem,"subordinate in turn to the provincial minister of the Holy Land, then residing on Cyprus.

The constant presence of the Franciscans in the Holy Land and their commitment to evangelization, promoting Christian values, was the determinant factor in the formation and growth of the local church, leading to the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate in 1847. After that the Custody held on to its specific role, based on the mandate given to it, to collaborate in a spirit of submission and ecclesial communion, with the Pastors of the Church and in "adiutorium etservitium" of clergy and faithful of the Church of Jerusalem as well as to all the various countries where they were working.

The Custody of the Holy Land is actually an autonomous province of the Order of Friars Minor: an international entity, governed by the Custos or "Guardian of Mt. Zion," with the authority of an ordinary as set forth in the norms of the General Constitutions of the Order. Once elected by the Order's central government, the Custos of the Holy Land must be confirmed by the Holy See.

On the 650th anniversary of the bull of Clement VI (Nov. 21,1992), Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to the Minister General of the Franciscan Order, Fr. Hermann Schaluck, recalling the event which entrusted the Holy Places to the Order. He exhorted the Friars Minor to constantly follow and persevere in accomplishing the mandate given by the Vatican. The Friars are therefore considered 'custodians' of the Holy Places by the will and mandate of the Apostolic See.