Holy Land Custody History

The association of the Franciscans with the Holy Land is one that began many years ago and has particular significance.
Having reached Egypt, St. Francis himself embarked for St. John of Acre in 1219, intending to reach Jerusalem. Although he did not succeed in this, he was able to lay the foundations for a Franciscan presence which turned out to be providential, leaving his friars with a special fondness for the land in which Christ spent his earthly life. 

A general chapter of the order, held at the Portiuncola near Assisi in 1217, had already established a province of the Holy Land which initially comprised all countries in the eastern Mediterranean, from Greece to Egypt.

In 1291, the city of St. John of Acre, the last Crusader stronghold in the Holy Land, fell to the Muslims. Nevertheless, the Franciscans, who had taken refuge in Cyprus, the seat of the order's eastern province, continued to program and carry out by all possible means an apostolate in Jerusalem and at other sanctuaries in Palestine. In spite of many obstacles and difficulties, a Franciscan presence at the Holy Sepulcher between 1322 and 1327 was recorded in history, a presence which was specifically requested by Pope John XXII.

Following a period of uncertainty, the Franciscans were helped to make a definitive return to the Holy Land with legal possession of certain sanctuaries, where there was also a right of use by others. This was made possible by the rulers of Naples, Roberto d’Angiò and Sancia di Maiorca. In 1333, through the good offices of Fr. Ruggero Garini, the order acquired from the Sultan of Egypt the Cenacle as well as the right to liturgical celebrations in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. And so the Friars minor were able to enjoy these rights in the name of and on the behalf of Christianity.

In 1342, Pope Clement VI, through the bulls Gratias Agimus and Nuper Carissimae, confirmed the rulings of Naples and made possible the creation of a new entity: the Custody of the Holy Land.
The events of 1342 were decisive in the development of the local church, making possible the eventual reestablishment in 1847 of the Latin Patriarchate which has since worked in a spirit of cooperation with the custody.The Custody of the Holy Land had its seat at the convent of Mount Zion, next to the Cenacle, until 1551, in which year the Friars were expelled by the Turks. However, from 1560 until today, the seat of the custody of the Holy Land has been at the convent of St. Savior in Jerusalem.

In the 16th century, the arrival in the Holy Land of the Greeks, supported by the sultans, gave rise to the painful issue of the "question of the holy places", which saw the Franciscans in a spirited defense of their continued possession of them. A period of unhappiness ended in 1852, when an edict from the Ottoman Empire established what has become known as the "status quo nunc", which still regulates today ownership and rights of the different Christian communities.
If, on the one hand, much has to be done in order to remain in possession of the holy places, on the other hand, the Friars are obliged to spend considerable sums for the partial or total reconstruction of the sanctuaries and for the preservation of ancient Christian sites, both of which demand intensive construction work. 
650 years after the bulls of Clement VI, Pope John Paul II sent a handwritten letter on November 30, 1992 to the Minister General of the Friars minor in which he recalled that entrusting of the holy places to the order, the custody's prime location, which has always involved the welcome that is accorded to pilgrims.

The Friars are therefore willing custodians of the Holy Land on behalf of the universal Church, a fact also noted by Paul VI, the first pilgrim pope in this land. 
The special task of the custody of the Holy Land was also acknowledged by Pope Benedict XVI during his pilgrimage of 2009, when the Holy Father expressed his heartfelt thanks to the friars for their centuries of presence at the holy places.

Today, the custody is present in Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, as well as on the islands of Cyprus and Rhodes, involving about 300 friars. The Franciscans care in particular for the sites connected with our redemption, notably the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher and that of the Nativity in Bethlehem, as well as the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.
Here, the language of prayer and the celebration of the liturgy have represented over the centuries the basic dimension of the calling of the Custody, whose ministry is also expressed in pastoral activities and various social and educational work, such as that in schools, which today welcome about 10,000 students, irrespective of religious affiliation, race, or nationality. 
“To be custodians means above all to love and to take care of others from the heart.” With these words, Pierbattista Pizzaballa defines the meaning of the Franciscan presence in the Holy Land, at the heart of the life of the Church and of the world.