Celebrating 800 Years of the Custody of the Holy Land

Recently the Franciscans held a great celebration of their 800th year of the Custody of the Holy Land.  The celebration was kicked off on October 16th at St. Savior’s Church by Minister General, Fr. Michael Perry OFM, the 120th successor to St. Francis, who was thanked by the Custos, Fr. Francesco Patton OFM, for joining the events. The three-days celebration was highlighted by liturgical celebrations, speakers, time for social gathering and a special message from Pope Francis in support of the Franciscan mission in the Holy Land.   

In response to the Pope’s support of the mission Fr. Perry said, "Somehow, I believe, this is the same call Francis progressively discovered in his life, alongside the friars. These feelings lead him to go among the people, to be present and to accompany the people who were already guided by God, throughout history. But the purpose of history is not just to remember what has been done, or to recall what we have done as friars in these last 800 years, but it is rather an invitation to look ahead, which is very important in today's context."

The biggest challenge that Christians and the Franciscans face in the Holy Land today is “stepping outside the boundaries, to go to the outskirts - as Pope Francis has often pointed out - where people need support,” added Fr. Perry.  “We visited the Christians in Syria. The week after Easter we traveled to tell them that they are in our hearts and prayers.”

The second day began a Mass presided by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches. With him were Archbishop Pizzaballa, Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem; Monsignor Adriano Tomasi, Auxiliary Bishop of Lima; Fr. Michael Perry, Minister General of the Franciscans; and Fr. Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land.

At the end of this Mass, the Cardinal delivered the Custos a message from Pope Francis, read by the Secretary of the Apostolic Delegation, Archbishop Marco Formica: "Joining together with my venerable predecessors, starting with Clement VI, that with Bolla Gratias Agimus entrusted you the custody of the holy places, I wish to renew this mandate encouraging you to be joyful witnesses of the Risen Lord in the Holy Land. "  He continued, "The mission of the Custody of the Holy Land is to allow these places, living stones that have seen the passage of Jesus and that have heard His words, to continue to be alive, together with the Christian community of Christ's disciples who live and work in the Holy Land.”

Fr. Patton expressed his thanks for Pope Francis’s message saying, “I would use two words: the first word is "gratitude". We are also grateful for the trust that the Church gave us then, then formally in 1342, and again now, through Pope Francis. The letter he sent us through the Prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, Cardinal Sandri, is a very beautiful letter and I dare say it means a lot to us, friars of the Holy Land. The words he uses when he recalls the Gratias Agimus saying "I confirm" is the confirmation on behalf of the Church of our calling, of our mission to stay here.”

The cycle of workshops was begun by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri. The Prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches offered a passionate reflection on the charism of the Order and on the origins of the Franciscan missions overseas. He addressed the representatives of the various Churches, as well as civil authorities, and the diplomatic corps, saying: "I am pleased to be here with you on these days of celebration and affirmation [of our mission] and of the future of the Franciscan presence in the Holy Land."  The day continued with many prestigious speakers addressing many different topics.

Professor Philip Sedda, from the Antonianum Pontifical University, shared an in-depth reflection on the Order in 1217 and Br. Elias of Cortona, appointed by St. Francis as the first minister for the overseas province in the Holy Land. 

Professor Giuseppe Ligato, historian of the Crusades, addressed the same historical period, focusing on the city of Acre, which became the 'capital' of the Crusaders. The pastoral activity of the Franciscans was crucial to such multicultural and complex environment. 

The evening ended with a virtual trip to Syria, thanks to the assistance of Professor Emmanuelle Main, Historian of the Hellenistic and Roman Period. She presented the fruits of a painstaking work of cataloguing over 10,000 photographs from over 300 sites as gathered by friars of the Custody.

Wednesday began with mass celebrated by the Vicar General of the Order, Brother Julio César Bunader. Professor Don Lorenzo Cappelletti, from the Antonianum Pontifical University, gave an impressive presentation on Giotto's frescoes from the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisil; a reproduction exhibit is in the Custodial Curia. Fr. Eugenio Alliata, Director of the Archaeological Museum of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, spoke of the remains of the ancient Franciscan convent of Zion, located next to the Cenacle. Professor Narcyz Klimas gave a history of the first Franciscan Convents in the Middle East. 

Also in attendance was Monsignor Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, who has lived in the Holy Land for 28 years (12 as Custos), emphasized how local social reality has changed over time.  
"As for the Franciscans, I have seen the passage of several generations: I accompanied some of them and I trained others. I see so much enthusiasm and desire to serve these lands, always accompanied by the same passion. Their service to the identity of this Church is important. This is the Church where all Christians, as such, were born. Their assistance to the local believers, their work in parishes and schools, as well as the various activities and pilgrimage services [they offer] are part of the identity of this Church. I believe that, without the Franciscan presence, this Church would be far much poorer: we owe the Franciscans much of what we see. We are all at the service of the Church and we are where the Church has placed us. Serving the Church in Jerusalem is always a blessing.”

Cardinal Leonardo Sandrip added, 
"My words of gratitude are first and foremost addressed to all the friars who have been part [of the Custody], witnesses of Christ, some even with their own lives and with their own blood. I would like to offer a word of encouragement so that in the future they will continue their mission as disciples of Christ."

Father Julio Cesar Bunader said, 
"We have to thank the Lord because from the very beginning, we have received abundant blessings. It is the Lord who sends us. Today, we bring to life the same gospel of the first Friars Minor who came here to the Holy Land. We are guardians of very holy places, like the Holy Sepulcher, which is the source, the root of our faith. "

Fr. Francesco Patton concluded, "We must be deeply grateful, not so much for what we were able to achieve in these 800 years, but for what God has done through a simple, poor instrument [like the friars]. By remembering the origins, eight centuries ago, we are also recalling the seed from which everything started. It is not so much what the Friars have done or will do, but what God did and will continue to do through the Friars."

The three day celebration concluded with solemn Vespers in St. Savior Church, followed by a classical music concert organized by the Magnificat Institute, filling the church with sounds of Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi. Everyone there with a connection to the Custody gave thanks for all of God’s great works.