The Holy Land… have you ever wondered why St. Francis of Assisi has such a tie to this holy and sacred place?
The Custody of the Holy Land is usually traced back to the year 1217, when the first General Chapter of the Friars Minor was celebrated at St. Mary of the Angels, near Assisi. In an act of inspiration, St. Francis of Assisi decided to send his Friars to all nations.
St. Francis and his friars divided the world at that time into 11 Mother Provinces. The Province of the Holy Land at that time included the Empire of Constantinople, Greece and the Greek Isles, Asia Minor, Antioch, Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, Egypt, and the rest of the Orient. It was a very important province, not just because of its size, but also due to the presence of the holy sites. St. Francis passed through part of the Holy Land in 1219 and 1220, demonstrating the humility and love needed to minister to the population of the land as well as living out the devotion and veneration of the holy sites that have been exemplified by the Franciscans in the Holy Land up to the present moment.
Though the presence of the Franciscans proved to be a marked contrast to the actions of the Crusaders, though the intent of the protection of the Holy Sites was a goal of both groups. Throughout the centuries, conflict and conquest have interrupted the settlement of the Franciscans, though the desire to live there never left, and visitations for worship and veneration continued. The Muslims did allow Franciscans custody of the Holy Sepulcher as early as the beginning of the 1300s, and the Holy See recognized the custody in 1342 and allowed for the permanent settlement of the Franciscans in the Holy Land.
In 1223, St. Francis created the first Nativity scene in Greccio, Italy. After preaching on the birth of Christ near a tableau of live animals and an empty manger filled with straw, St. Francis looked in the manger and picked up the Baby Jesus who had miraculously appeared there during his preaching. Due to this devotion to the Child Jesus and the birth of Our Savior, it is not surprising that the Franciscans settled permanently in Bethlehem near the Basilica of the Nativity of our Lord in 1347, and have been caring for the site ever since.