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 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.