The presence of the Franciscans in the Holy Land goes back to the very origins of the Order of Friars Minor which, founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209, has been open to missionary evangelisation since its origins. The Province of the Holy Land was born at the General Chapter of 1217 that divided the Order into Provinces; it grew to include all the lands around the southeast Mediterranean basin, from Egypt to Greece and beyond.
The Province of the Holy Land naturally included the land of Christ’s birth, together with the places where the mystery of our redemption was realised. For this reason it was considered to be the jewel among the other Provinces and, as a mission ﬁeld, the jewel of all the missions founded by the Order around the world. It was visited by St. Francis himself who, during his voyages among Egypt, Syria and Palestine, stayed here for several months during 1219-1220.
In 1291, the city of Saint-Jean-d’Acre, the last remaining Crusader stronghold, fell into Muslim hands. The Franciscans found refuge on Cyprus, where the Province of the Orient had its seat, and continued to assure a presence in Jerusalem and the other Palestinian sanctuaries. at that time, Pope John XXII permitted the Provincial Minister of the Holy Land to send two friars to the Holy Places every year. in spite of the difficulties, the Friars Minor continued to exercise all possible forms of apostolate. Their presence in the service of the Holy Sepulchre is attested for the period of 1322 to 1327.
The definitive return of the Friars Minor to the Holy Land, with legal possession of certain Holy Places and right of use for others, can be attributed to the generosity of the King of Naples, Robert d’Anjou, and of Queen Sanche of Majorca. In 1333, through the mediation of the Franciscan Roger Guérin, they obtained from the sultan of Egypt the site of the Cenacle and the right to officiate at liturgies in the Holy Sepulchre. Among other provisions, it was established that the Friars Minor would exercise these rights on behalf of the Christian world. In 1342, Pope Clement VI approved this project of the neapolitan royalty, and with the bulls Gratias Agimus and Nuper Carissimæ he determined the details of the new entity. The friars assigned to the Holy Land could come from any province of the Order and once in service of the Holy Land, they would be under the jurisdiction of the Father Custos, the «Guardian of Mount Zion in Jerusalem».
The continuous Franciscan presence in the Holy Land and their commitment to evangelisation and to the promotion of Christian values was a determining factor in the development of the local church, even to the point of making possible the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate in 1847. Since then, the Custody and the Patriarchate work together in a spirit of fraternal collaboration in accomplishing their respective mandates.
Today, the Custody of the Holy Land is the only Province of the Order with an international character, composed as it is of friars from all around the world. Some choose to enter the Custody at the beginning of their religious life and formation, while others choose to come and serve here for varying periods of time.
The Friars Minor, then, are the official guardians of the Holy Places by the desire and at the request of the Universal Church. Pope Paul VI, the first pope since saint Peter to visit the Holy Land, recalled this fact and it was confirmed by John Paul II during his pilgrimage during the Great Jubilee year, 2000 AD.
Today, the Custody’s apostolate is carried out in the following countries: Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and the islands of Cyprus and Rhodes. Some 300 friars are present in these countries, working in collaboration with about 100 sisters from various congregations. The Franciscans serve the principal shrines of the Redemption, among which the Holy Sepulchre, the Nativity at Bethlehem and the Annunciation at Nazareth hold pride of place.
The Franciscans exercise their pastoral ministry in 29 parishes, as well as in numerous other churches, chapels and chapels of ease. it should be noted in this regard that the Custody is responsible for the three largest (latin rite) parishes in the Holy Land: Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth. The friars also have strong roots in both big-city and village parishes of the region, including in Syria and Lebanon. Arab parishes, then, are one of the Custody’s major commitments in the Holy Land. For centuries the friars were their only priests. Today, however, the friars share the responsibility with the parish priests of the Latin Patriarchate.
In the Middle east, the Latin Catholics have always been a small minority. The majority of local Christians are Greek orthodox, and the Catholic minority includes many faithful of the oriental rites. Furthermore, in virtually all the Middle eastern countries where the Custody is present, the Christian communities are a statistical minority among Muslim or Jewish majorities. This creates unique problems to which the Franciscans try to respond in the best possible manner, always aiming at developing well-formed, vibrant Christian communities.
Alongside the unflagging, centuries-long pastoral care of arab Christians, two new challenges have appeared in recent years: the existence of Hebrew-speaking Catholics and of Catholic immigrants from a number of different countries. The Custody has responded to these new challenges by investing new energies.
The social apostolates of the Custody are part of its pastoral ministry: schools, colleges, student residences, skilled craftsmen’s workshops, parish associations, homes for the aged, after-school programmes, summer camps and outpatient clinics.
Beyond their responsibility for the protection of the Holy Places and for the activities that take place there, the Franciscans have a wide-ranging, highly significant pastoral ministry.
Several centuries ago, the Custody instituted and supported the Housing and Lodging Ministry as a means of providing aid and relief to the poorest of the poor, thus doing its utmost to contribute to a solution of the thorny problem of living space. Given the special conditions of the Holy Land, this ministry seeks to consolidate the Christian presence around the Holy Places.
The Custody extends its «choice for the poor» to the cultural formation of young Christians. Custody scholarships are awarded to young men and women who demonstrate the ability and the desire to pursue a university education. True to its history of activity in the field of education, the Custody today also maintains successful primary and secondary schools of high repute open to children of all religions, nationalities and races.
This enterprise implies, of course, a huge administrative and financial commitment. The students’ financial resources are always quite reduced; many come from indigent families and so tuition fees are waived. Nevertheless, despite the difficulties, the Custody remains faithful to its choice for the poor in continuing its long tradition.
The schools are located in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Cyprus, and Lebanon, and serve more than 10,000 students: Catholics (of the Latin, Greek, Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, Maronite and Chaldean rites), non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians. Christians comprise about 60 per cent of all the students. The presence of different Christian denominations and of non-Christians helps to explain the complexity of the Custody’s work of evangelisation and commitment to the «new evangelisation».
Also worthy of attention is the Magnificat Institute. Founded in 1995 to train experienced musicians and singers for the sanctuaries and churches of the Holy Land, it very quickly proved itself a school that produces graduates at a very high level. It has also become a place of encounter for people from different ethnic and religious communities: among the pupils and teachers are Jews, Moslems and Christians of all denominations, united by a common passion for music and singing.
Pope Paul VI described the Holy Land as the Fifth Gospel. Being familiar with this Land, its history and its human and geographical environment is an excellent way to attain a fuller, living understanding of the message of Holy scripture. This is why the Franciscans promote love for the gospel by extending the message of the Holy Places.
The message of the Holy Places is transmitted throughout the world in different ways: first of all, through the Franciscan Printing Press, the publishing arm of the Custody. The publishing house includes a scientific section that publicizes the research of Studium Biblicum Franciscanum scholars, which will be discussed below, as well as a section for more popular publications, in particular Holy Land, a magazine founded in 1930 that appears in five languages: French, Italian, Spanish, English and Arabic. Holy Land seeks to make known the history, the biblical and archaeological riches, the spirituality and the activities of the Holy Places.
The magazine’s popular nature does not detract from its high standard of material, and it is a very useful tool for becoming familiar with the Holy Places. The Custody also periodically re-edits its Guide to the Holy Land, keeping it up to date.
Transmitting the message of the Holy Places is also the task of the Holy Land Commissaries. These are friars stationed all over the world, who are specially assigned to publicize the activities and the problems of the Custody, and to fan the flame of interest in the Holy Places that is characteristic of the Christian faith and that is expressed above all through pilgrimage.
To more efficiently meet the need for accessible information regarding the activities of the custody, a website in Italian, English, Spanish, and French has been opened.
To better assist the pilgrims, the Custody continues its traditional activity of Casa Nova centres, visitors’ centres and hostels in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and nazareth, and on Mount Tabor. These Franciscan guesthouses have all been refurbished to offer a good, basic level of comfort.
The Custody also organizes its own pilgrimages from all over the world, assisted by the best professional organizations and offering abundant, qualified spiritual assistance.
For those pilgrims particularly interested in an intense time of prayer and reflection, the sanctuary of Gethsemane, near the olive Garden, offers the possibility of spending time in a Gethsemane Hermitage. The same service is offered at the sanctuary of saint John in the Desert, near Ein Kerem, recently restored. Here, not only Catholic pilgrims, but also orthodox pilgrims from different rites can meet.
The Custody’s commitment to inter-religious dialogue is facilitated, and even made obligatory, by the religious situation of the region: Christians account for barely 2% of the population, whereas the majority of the population are Muslims and Jews.
Throughout their 800-year presence in the Holy Land, the friars have always sought to be true to the exhortation of their father saint Francis to comport themselves in one of two manners when living among people of a different religious faith: The first is not to ask questions or seek out debate, but to meet every human being from within God’s love, testifying in this way to their Christian faith. The other manner is, when they see that this would be pleasing to God, to proclaim the Word openly. The Franciscans have always favoured silent testimony to their faith, living in solidarity with the people in the places they serve, seeking a deeper understanding of their religious and cultural traditions to benefit from their spiritual treasures. in these regions, it is frequently impossible to carry out an apostolate directly, but we always try to live our faith with integrity, so as perhaps to cause others to ask questions and start a sincere dialogue.
The scientific activity of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum (Sbf) is recognized throughout the biblical studies and archaeology world. Instruction began at the Flagellation Monastery during the 1923-1924 university year. In 1982, it was recognized as an associated faculty of the Faculty of Theology of the Pontificium Athenæum Antonianum of Rome. Its first course of studies was the Studium Theologicum Jerosolymitanum, which was carried out in close collaboration with the international seminary at Saint Saviour’s Monastery, where not only young friars of the Custody, but also selected friars from other provinces of the Franciscan order, prepare for the priesthood.
By decree of the Congregation for Catholic education the Studium was erected as a Faculty of Biblical science and archaeology in 2001.
As a research centre, it is dedicated to the pursuit of archaeological studies, in particular to rediscovering the Holy Places of the New Testament and the early church in the Holy Land; to the study of literary sources (Jewish and Christian written testimony, ancient Holy Land voyages); and to illustrating the history of the sanctuaries of the Redemption. It carries out biblical research in all its historical, exegetical, theological, linguistic and environmental aspects.
As an educational centre, the Sbf offers the pontifical academic degree of baccalaureate in Theology of the Studium Theologicum Jerosolymitanum and license and doctoral degrees in Biblical Science and Archaeology. Also offered are a superior diploma in Oriental-Biblical and Archaeological Sciences and a diploma in Biblical Formation. Since 1991, it also confers the diploma of Biblical Studies of the Catholic Biblical institute of Hong Kong. It organizes continuing Biblical education, conferences and formation courses for Holy Land guides. The program includes ancient oriental languages, as well as special introductions to the Old and New Testaments, to exegesis and Biblical theology, to the history and geography of the Biblical lands, to Biblical archaeology and ancient Christian archaeology and to the topography of Jerusalem, as well as guided excursions in the Holy Land, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.
The Sbf is open to students of any nationality, to religious and lay people, men and women. The students generally come from abroad, but there are also local students, even non-Catholics.
Also attached to the Sbf, is the archaeological museum (among whose collections are objects from the digs carried out by the members of the Sbf at Nazareth, Capernaum, Dominus Flevit, the Mount of Olives, the Jerusalem sanctuaries and their environs, the Judean Desert, Transjordan, the Galilee, and the two Herodian Fortresses: Herodium and Machaerous) and the specialized library, with more than 50,000 volumes and about 400 journals.
That part of the cultural world that is particularly interested in oriental studies is also familiar with the Custody’s Oriental Study Centre in Cairo. Its goal is to develop the oriental sciences with particular regard to the Christian communities of the Middle East and documentation of its life, as well as of the history of the Franciscans in the Holy Land. The Centre’s primary activity is publication. It boasts a unique library: in addition to more than 50,000 volumes and more than 400 journals, it is home to an excellent collection of oriental manuscripts in Arabic, Syrian, Coptic, Armenian, Turkish, Persian, etc.
For further information: www.custodia.org