In this year of significant religious anniversaries, the 800 years since St Francis sent the first friars to the Holy Land does not register alongside the Reformation or Fatima. Yet that decision continues to shape the Christian presence at our holiest sites.
The local Churches in the Holy Land are not in strong shape. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the largest of the Christian Churches, has long been dogged by both internal factionalism and occasional scandal. The Latin Patriarchate – the Roman Catholic diocese – is stronger due to the international support it receives from the Pontifical Mission for Palestine and the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre.
Yet last year when the Latin Patriarch, Fouad Twal, retired, the Holy See judged that there was no suitable local candidate for the diocese. Pope Francis left the patriarchate vacant and turned to the Franciscans to provide an archbishop administrator, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the recently retired Custos of the Holy Land.
The Custos is the head of the local Franciscan province, known as the Custody of the Holy Land. It was that province which the Franciscans established at their first general chapter in 1217. In the eight centuries since, as the presence of the various Churches of east and west have waxed and waned, the Franciscan Custody has been the enduring and reliable Christian presence at the holy sites.
Though it was a surprise that the Holy Father chose the former Custos to step in to run the Latin patriarchate, it is not the first time the Franciscans have provided leadership in a difficult time. In 1949, after Arab states attacked the newly established State of Israel and the subsequent armistice reshaped the Holy Land, the Venerable Pius XII chose Alberto Gori, who had been Custos for 12 years, as
the Latin Patriarch, a position he held until 1970.
The principal task of the Franciscan Custody is the establishment and maintenance of biblical shrines, welcoming and providing pastoral care for pilgrims. At times, when pilgrims were impeded from reaching the Holy Land, the Custody has kept the flicker of the faith alive in the places where it was born.
Eight centuries brings times of growth and decline. Three hundred years after that first general chapter led to the Franciscans becoming the principal Catholic presence, the Turks of Constantinople took control of Jerusalem in 1517. The Franciscans from the Latin west fell out of favour compared to the Orthodox of the Greek east. The 16th century saw the Franciscans lose their presence and historic rights at several shrines, including expulsion from the Cenacle.
Four hundred years later, the Ottoman Turks were gone, and the Franciscans had more than recovered. The 20th century would see them expand their development of shrines, both small and prayerful – Dominus Flevit on the Mount of Olives – and large and bustling with pilgrims, like the new Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.
As the late 20th century brought the age of mass pilgrimage, the Franciscans adapted better than anyone else, providing clean, orderly shrines that make it easy for pilgrims to pray and receive pastoral care. All of which does not even include the work of the Franciscans in pilgrim houses, schools, parishes, charitable services and media evangelisation.
When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected four years ago, he took the name Francis in honour of il Poverello’s love for the poor. This week he might draw more upon
St Francis’s efforts at encounter with Muslims in the Middle East, something that has always marked the mission of the Custody. The visit of Pope Francis to Egypt, accompanied by Bartholomew, Patriarch of Constantinople, will place before the eyes of the world the Islamist persecution of Christians. The Pope and Patriarch will stand in solidarity with the Coptic Orthodox, who suffered an ISIS massacre on Palm Sunday, including the attempted assassination of their chief shepherd, Pope Tawadros II. Another ISIS attack followed during Easter Week, killing a security officer at St Catherine’s Greek Orthodox monastery at Sinai, one of the holiest shrines in the Middle East, the place
of Moses’s reception of the Ten Commandments.
Down through the ages, St Francis and the Custody have faced both hostility and openness from local Muslim rulers. Today’s murderous jihadism is something new, a lethal threat that is driving Christians out of their ancient biblical lands. Eight hundred years later, the Franciscans determination to stay and bear witness is needed again.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium.ca