Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land
After an intense apostolic activity in Italy, in 1219 Francis went to Egypt with the Fifth Crusade, to announce the Gospel to the Saracens. He met with the Sultan Malek-al-Kamel, marking the beginning of a spirit of dialogue and understanding between Christianity and Islam. The Franciscan presence in the Holy Land started in 1217, when the province of Syria was established, with Brother Elias as Minister. By 1229, the friars had a small house near the fifth station of the Via Dolorosa. In 1272 the sultan Baibars allowed the Franciscans to settle in the Cenacle on Mount Sion. Later on, in 1309, they also settled in the Holy Sepulchre and in Bethlehem. In 1335 King Robert d’Angiò of Naples, and his wife, Sancia di Maiorca, bought the Cenacle and gave it to the Franciscans. Pope Clement VI, by the Bulls “Gratias agimus” and “Nuper charissimae” (1342), declared the Franciscans as the official custodians of the Holy Places in the name of the Catholic Church. The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land is still in force today.
Custodian of the Holy Land
The Custodian of the Holy Land (also called the International Custodian of the Holy Land) is an officer of the Franciscan Order, appointed by the General Definitorium of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, with the approval of the Vatican. The Custodian, or Custos, is the head of all Franciscans in the Holy Land. The office is part of the Order of Friars Minor, and works closely with the Order in the Holy Land.
The General Definitory of the Friars Minor, with the consent of the Holy See, on May 20, 2016, announced Friar Francesco Patton as the new Custos of the Holy Land, who succeeds Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who has held the assignment for twelve years. He is the 168th member to hold this office.
Father Francesco Patton was born in Vigo Meano, in the Diocese of Trento, on December 23 1963 and belongs to the Province of St. Anthony of the Friars Minor in Italy. He made his first religious profession in 1983 and took his solemn vows on October 4, 1986. He was ordained a priest on May 26 1989. He is also trained in Communication Sciences at the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome.
He held different duties within his province of origin and also within the Order, including the President of the Conference of Ministers Provincial of Italy and of Albania; he is also Member of the Presbyteral Council of the Archdiocese of Trento and he is Professor of Social Communication Science at the Theological Academy of Trento. Besides being at the helm of the Custody, considered the first mission of the Order of Friars Minor, the Custos also forms part of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, which brings together all the bishops and the Catholic Episcopal Vicars of the Latin and the Eastern rites.
Today, the jurisdiction of the Custodian covers Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and the islands of Cyprus and Rhodes. The Custody has about 300 friars and about 100 sisters in these countries. The Franciscans serve the principal Christian shrines, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Basilica of the Annunciation at Nazareth.
The custodian’s offices are at the St. Savior’s monastery, a 16th century Franciscan monastery near New Gate.
The Franciscan Order owns a great deal of property in the Holy Land, second only to the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. In addition to the major shrines of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem (which the Franciscans own and administer in common with the Jerusalem Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox patriarchates), the Custodian also cares for 74 shrines and sanctuaries throughout the Holy Land, including properties in Syria and Jordan. In 1909, in the territory of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem the Franciscans had 24 convents, and 15 parishes, including numerous schools.
The Franciscan presence in the Holy Land started in 1217, when the province of Syria was established, with Brother Elias as Minister. By 1229, the friars had a small house near the fifth station of the Via Dolorosa. In 1272 the sultan Baibars allowed the Franciscans to settle in the Cenacle (also called the Upper Room) on Mount Sion. Later on, in 1309, they also settled in the Holy Sepulchre and in Bethlehem.
In 1333, King Robert d’Angiò of Naples, and his wife, Sancia di Maiorca, bought the Cenacle from the Sultan of Egypt and gave it to the Franciscans. In 1342, Pope Clement VI, by the Papal bulls Gratiam agimus and “Nuper charissimae” declared the Franciscans as the official custodians of the Holy Places in the name of the Catholic Church. A portion reads:
A short time ago good news from the king and queen reached our Apostolic See relating that, at great cost and following difficult negotiations, they had obtained a concession from the Sultan of Babylon (that is, Cairo), who to the intense shame of Christians occupies the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord and the other Holy Places beyond the sea that were sanctified by the blood of this same Redeemer, to wit that friars of your Order may reside continuously in the church known as the Sepulchre and celebrate there Solemn Sung Masses and the Divine Office in the manner of the several friars of this Order who are already present in this place; moreover, this same Sultan has also conceded to the King and Queen the Cenacle of the Lord, the chapel where the Holy Spirit was manifested to the Apostles and the other chapel in which Christ appeared to the Apostles after his resurrection, in the presence of Blessed Thomas; and also the news of how the Queen built a convent on Mount Zion where, as is known, the Cenacle and the said chapels are located; where for some time she has had the intention of supporting twelve friars of your Order to assure the divine Liturgy in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, along with three laymen charged with serving the friars and seeing to their needs.
The Custodian was described as the “Guardian of Mount Zion in Jerusalem”. Between 1342 and 1489, the Custodian was the head of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and held the ex officio title of Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. From 1374, he was based at the Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura in Rome.
In 1489, Pope Innocent VIII suppressed the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and ruled that it was to be merged with the Knights Hospitaller. In 1496, Pope Alexander VI, restored the Order of Holy Sepulchre to independent status, but the Custodian ceased to be the head of the Order. Instead, a Grand Master of the Order was created, and the office vested in the papacy. The Custodian continued to act as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem ex officio until 1830.
Franciscan friars cared for the Cenacle, restoring also the building with Gothic vaults, until 1552 when the Turks captured Jerusalem and banished all Christians. After the Franciscan friars’ eviction, the Cenacle was transformed into a mosque. Christians were not allowed to use the room for prayer until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
In 1623, the Latin Province of the Holy Land was split into a number of smaller entities, called Custodies – creating Custodies of Cyprus, Syria, and the Holy Land proper. The Custody of the Holy Land included the monasteries of Saint-Jean-d’Acre, Antioch, Sidon, Tyre, Jerusalem and Jaffa.
In 1847, a resident Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was restored in the Holy Land, together with the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem became the ecclesiastical superior of the Order, and eventually assumed the title Grand Prior, supplanting the Custodian. The office of Grand Master still remained vested in the papacy. In 1949, Pope Pius XII relinquished the title of Grand Master.
Covid and Pilgrimages:
In March 2021 the Custos said:
“I personally believe that it will take two or three years before we will see a return to some normality. In this respect, I expect to see some first positive developments after the end of the summer. I am thinking, for example, of the American pilgrims, who were always the most numerous group visiting the Holy Land, returning to travel as a result of vaccinations in their homeland. As vaccinations continue to increase in European countries, we will also start receiving pilgrims from the Old Continent. We must be patient and cautious, but it’s important to restart.”
List of Custodians
Francesco Patton (2016 – present)
Pierbattista Pizzaballa (2004-2016)
Giovanni Battistelli (1998-2004)
Giuseppe Nazzaro (1992-1998)
Carlo Ceccitelli (?-1992)