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Franciscan Friary
St. Francis Str. 1

The Custody
is present in:
Israel / Palestine
Buenos Aires


in various
all around
the world

An Historic Note

About the beginning of the thirteenth century, the small group of Franciscans had become a great religious order animated by a strong religious fervour and inexhaustible dynamism. The "General Chapters" (like today's congresses) were periodical meetings held to decide on future policy and developments .

At the General Chapter of 1217, the Franciscans took the decision to extend the witness of their way of life - the joy of the Gospel throughout the world.

This decision sprang from St. Francis' prophetic and ecumenical spirit. He believed that all that all the problems of mankind could be resolved when seen in the light of the Gospel. The Second Vatican Council would sum up that by saying: "All men are called to form the new people of God, be they Catholic, non-catholic Christians, non- Christian believers (Moslems, Buddhists, etc.), or unbelievers". In accordance with these words, St. Francis was proclaiming:"Let us proclaim the Gospel to all men".

So, in the General Chapter of 1217, the known world was divided into distinct Franciscan "Provinces" and the friars left Assisi to scatter to the four corners of the globe. This Franciscan initiative recharged the Church with missionary fervour and they became the natural, almost official representatives of the Catholic hierarchy in the other religious centres of the world. During the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, many of the papal legates were Franciscans. Amongst these were Friar Giovanni del Pian dei Carpini, Friar Odorico da Pordenone, Friar Giovanni da Montecorvino and Friar Giovanni da Marignolli. Throughout the 14th century, these and other Friars acted as papal messengers and preached the Gospels in both the principal centres and, farthest outposts of the world, going as far as Russia and Tibet. One of the "Provinces" constituted by the Chapter of 1217 was the "Province of the Holy Land", sometimes called the "Province of Syria", "Romania" or, more generally, "Ultramarina" (Beyond the Sea). This Province included all the regions around the south-east Mediterranean basin, extending from Egypt to Greece and farther. Because it included the homeland of Our Lord, it was considered as the most important of all the Provinces and, on account of this, was visited by St. Francis himself who travelled through Egypt, Syria and Palestine between1219 and 1220.

A painting depicting St. Francis overlooking Jerusalem

In succeeding times, the Order's authorities continued to treat the Holy Land with the reverence. In 1265, at the General Chapter of Pisa, presided over by St. Bonaventure, the Province of the Holy Land was restricted to Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, i.e. the territories conquered by the Crusades. This decision was taken in the light of the fact that the sheer vastness of the Province impeded the organisation of an apostolic mission appropriate to the needs of this special area. Furthermore, the Order sub-divided the Province of the Holy Land into small areas called "Custodies" which took into consideration the monasteries of each particular zone. Hence, there was the "Custody" of Cyprus, Syria and the Holy Land (Palestine) etc. In the 13th century, the Custody of the Holy Land was composed of the friaries of Acre, Antioch, Sidon, Tripoli, Tyre, Jerusalem and Jaffa. Some of these monasteries had a very short life span; for example, those of Jerusalem and Jaffa which lasted on and off for about ten years before disappearing completely.

The missionary work of the Custody of the Holy Land during this period was carried out mostly, although not exclusively, within Crusade dominated territories. On 18 May 1291, St. John of Acre fell to the Moslem army. This marked the end of the early presence of the Franciscans in the Holy Land. With this definitive introduction of Islamic domination into Palestine, the Franciscans took refuge in Cyprus, the headquarters of the Eastern Province. Here, they began planning a direct and gradually increasing return to Jerusalem and the area of Palestine. A bull from Pope John XXII (9 August 1328) granted permission to the Provincial Minister, resident in Cyprus, to send two of his friars to the holy places every year. This document was not simply a recognition of the personal feelings of several dedicated friars but also, and above all, the renewal of the former missionary objectives to have a Catholic presence in the Holy Land In so doing the Pope was formalising a phenomenon which, in reality, was far more widespread than would or could be declared in official documents.

Historical evidence proves the presence of Franciscans at the Holy Sepulchre during the period 1322 to 1327. Around the year 1333, Friar Ruggero Garini managed to obtain the Cenacle from the Sultan of Egypt and nearby he built a monastery for his friars using funds provided by Queen Sancia of Naples. During the same period, the Moslem authorities gave official recognition to the presence of the Franciscans as regular officiants in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. The definitive return of the Franciscans to the Holy Land, with legal possession of specific sanctuaries and the rights of use in others, flows from the generosity of Robert of Anjou, King of Naples and his consort, Queen Sancia. After laborious negotiations with the Sultan of Egypt, conducted on their behalf by the said Friar Ruggero Garini, they purchased in cash the Cenacle and the functional rights of the Holy Sepulchre and they decreed that the Franciscans should exercise these rights for and on behalf of the Christian Church. In the papal bulls, "Gratias agimus" and "Nuper carissimae" of 21 November 1342, Pope Clement VI, acclaimed the works of the King and Queen of Naples and gave useful instructions regarding the smooth running of the new ecclesiastical and religious organisation. These two documents were, in practice, the constitutional act of the New Custody of the Holy Land. Although they are never openly termed as such, their basic principles formed an official religious guideline for the new administration: friars appointed to serve in the Holy Land may come from any of the Order's Provinces (thus ensuring the internationality of the Custody); once in the Holy Land the said friars are under the jurisdiction of the Guardian (Superior) of the Monastery of Mount Sion in Jerusalem; in his turn, the Guardian was answerable to the Minister Provincial of the Holy Land in Cyprus.

The coat of arms of the Custody

In 1347, the Franciscans settled on a permanent basis also in Bethlehem near the Basilica of the Nativity. The first statutes regarding the Holy Land, dating from 1377, provided that a maximum of twenty friars should serve the Holy Places (Cenacle, Holy Sepulchre and Bethlehem). Their principal activity was to ensure worship in these Sanctuaries and to give spiritual assistance to pilgrims. In a document dating 1390, it was decreed that the Province of the Holy Land should also include a Custody of Syria thus having four friaries: Mount Sion, the Holy Sepulchre, Bethlehem and Beirut. It is to be noted that the document in question merely formalises a situation which had already existed for some time. This is true of its references to the number of monasteries and to the denomination of the religious organisation called the Custody of Syria. The aim, perhaps, was to avoid confusion with the title of the Province of which it was part.

In this early period of its official history, the Custody of the Holy Land suffered the martyrdom of many friars including the four friars canonised by Pope Paul VI on 21 June, 1970: Nicolo Tavelich (Slav), Stefano da Cuneo (Italian), Deodato da Rodez and Pietro da Narbona (French). They all belonged to the friary of Mount Sion in Jerusalem and were killed on 14 November 1391.. In 1414, the General Chapter of Lausanne conceded to the Custody of the Holy Land greater autonomy in its relationship with the Provincial Administration and stipulated a closer dependence on the Order's Central Government. The need for an increase in the number of friars serving the Holy Places was also recognised. The General Constitutions of 1430 (i.e. the set of rules which the Order renews and varies from time to time in order to adapt to changing times), decreed that the Guardian (Superior) of Mount Sion, that is, the Guardian of the Holy Land, should be elected by the General Chapter. This reflected the importance of the office and the great interest of the whole Order regarding the Custody of Holy Land. These rules remained in force for three centuries after which the election of the Guardian passed into the hands of the General Curia of the Order (i.e. the Minister General and his permanent Counsellors).

The first Franciscan friary on Mount Sion

In 1517, the Custody, whilst keeping its name, was granted complete autonomy and received the status of a "Province" with certain special privileges. With the gradual establishment of its official status, the Custody was given by the Holy See, particular rights and faculties in several fields, always in view of a more dynamic presence of the Franciscans in the Holy Land. Thus, they were empowered to decide upon the best way of spiritually assisting pilgrims to the Holy Land. But more important were their initiatives in the ecumenical field which culminated in the Council of Florence (1431-1443) when a number of Christians of Eastern Rite returned to form part of the Catholic Church. This was destined to prove short-lived and during the two centuries which followed, the Franciscans of the Holy Land represented virtually the only on-the-spot force which had a direct and authorised relationship with the separated Churches of the Near and Far East. This contact with the Churches of the East has continued up to the present day, adapting itself to the changing conditions and times, and working in conjunction with numerous other initiatives of the Holy See to renew contacts with these Churches, thus strengthening the ecumenical spirit. Unfortunately, whilst having been studied adequately, this somewhat special apostolate has never been given the recognition it deserves.

Another not so well known activity undertook by the Franciscan is the spiritual aid given to European merchants resident or passing through the main cities of Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. Initially this was offered only during Lent and Advent which gradually grew and became more stable.

However, the presence of the Franciscans in the Holy Land is of singular importance as an important service on behalf of the entire Church. With the passing of time, the Custody acquired more sites through hard work, perseverance and sacrifice. It is to be remembered that, along with these acquisitions and increase in its possessions, the Custody endured many painful losses and humiliating restrictions frequently imposed by the Turkish governors. The Franciscans of the Custody sought protection of their ancient rights, either directly or through the Holy See, from all the Catholic powers which had diplomatic connections with the Moslem Sultans. In a Bull dating 1623, Pope Urban VII clearly stated that it was the duty of all Catholic Princes, as well as that of the Popes, to protect the Franciscans in the Holy Land. Obviously, the Custody's relations with the Catholic West were also economic in character. Being Franciscan it had no deposited capital or funds and in the area of activity there was no possible source of financial support. Thus, the Custody has always had to depend on external financing. Throughout the centuries, in numerous important documents, the Popes have stressed "the duty of the Church to the Holy Land".

In spite of all difficulties and tribulations, the Franciscans always confronted every situation with spirit and efficiency. In fact, it was at the end of the troublesome centuries, from 1500 to 1800, that the Franciscans established innumerable religious, cultural and social activities. Many of these initiatives, given the place and circumstance, may be considered the works of true pioneers. . In recording the history of the Custody from the 16th to the 19th centuries, we must also take note of the many variations in juridical titles; these, in turn, stem from the variations in the titles of the Custos during the evolution of the Custody. The Dominican Father Felice Fabri, who went to the Holy Land in 1480 and 1488, calls the Guardian of the Holy Land by the name of "Provisor" for the Latin Church in the East, a title with which the Pope frequently conferred of him. In 1628, the Custos of the Holy Land was called for the first time the "Responsale" (Responsible) of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in nearly all of the Middle East. Following this, the title became an institution. It was frequently used in conjunction with the title of "Prefect" of the Missions for Egypt, Cyprus, etc. We must also keep in mind the other significant title - "Apostolic Commissary to the Holy Land and the East". All these responsibilities were carried out by the Custos up to the re-establishment of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in 1847.

The Custody of the Holy Land still remains an important institution, continuing its historical and providential mission in the Holy Places and, through many other activities, bearing witness to the Catholic Faith in the countries in which it operates. These activities have been increased or reduced, changed and varied, in accordance with the needs of recent times in the tormented Middle East. The Custody conspicuously increased its social assistance activities during the last hundred years, whilst still maintained its traditional character. It has also brought about the reflowering of cultural-scientific activities in the archaeological field, particularly in research and excavation connected with the Holy Scriptures.

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Created / Updated Monday, December 17, 2001 at 04:15:54 by John Abela ofm
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