The Custodians of the Holy Land
The Franciscan Presence in the Holy Land, has been prepared by the current Custodian, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, OFM. 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, and by being appointed to both offices until 1905. The office of Grand Master remained vested in the papacy until 1949.] On 29 August 2011, Archbishop Edwin Frederick O’Brien was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI Grand Master to succeed Cardinal John Patrick Foley, who resigned the office on 24 February 2011 due to ill health. The Order is a member of many international bodies and has observer status at others (such as the United Nations). The Grand Master is a papal viceroy who assists Vatican diplomacy with procedural support for making motions, proposing amendments and requiring votes in the sphere of international diplomacy. 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 1937, Alberto Gori was appointed Custodian of the Holy Land, an office he would occupy until 1949, when he was appointed Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, an office he held until 1970. In Gori’s reports to the Vatican in the 1940s, he was critical of Jewish and later Israeli forces, whom he accused of destruction of holy places. Despite repeated Israeli assurances that Israel will guarantee freedom of religion and safeguard the Holy Places of all religions, Pius XII issued several encyclicals expressing concerns about the holy places as well as access. In 1949, at the time of appointing Gori to the office of Latin Patriarch, Pope Pius XII also relinquished the title of Grand Master.
The Custos of the Holy Land is the Minister Provincial (i.e. the major superior) of the Friars Minor living throughout the Middle East. He has jurisdiction over the territories of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt (in part), Cyprus and Rhodes without counting the numerous houses or Commissariats in various parts of the world (worth mentioning are those in Rome and Washington).
The main task of the Custos, in addition to animating the life of the friars, is to coordinate and direct the reception of pilgrims who come to the Holy Land for pilgrimage and pray at the shrines of our Redemption. This task was bestowed by the Holy See over 600 years ago. The term used at those times to designate this task was “custody” of the holy places, from which derived the terms still in use “Custody” and “Custos “.
The most important role of the Custos, is to receive the pilgrims at the Holy Shrines, offering them spaces of prayer and making available hostels for those who cannot afford expensive hotels.
The Custos ensures that friars are available to receive and talk with pilgrims at the holy places. His jurisdiction includes all the Catholic Christian sanctuaries. He ensures their economic support in order that this important function is fulfilled.
Another mission is to coordinate information about the Holy Land and instill in the Christians of the world the “loving care” for these sites: archaeological excavations at the holy places, publication of ancient pilgrimages and above all, the study of the Bible through geography and history of these same sites where the events took place. These activities depend mainly on the Custos who sponsors such initiatives.
Another important task is to care for and sustain, in agreement with the local church, the Christian presence in the Holy Land through various initiatives. This includes ministry to schools and parishes and is done in conjunction with the local church.
In the Holy Land, the Custos is looked upon as one of the main Christian religious authorities. Together with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch, he is responsible of the status quo, the code that regulates life at the Holy Sepulchre in the Nativity Church in Bethlehem. By right, he forms part of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land (the Bishops of the local Catholic Church).
This is what the various Popes mean, when they say that the friars’ mission has been to work so that the Biblical Places become centres of spirituality, each sanctuary preserving and handing on the evangelical message and also nurturing the piety of the faithful.
In 1947, Pius XII told the Franciscans of the Holy Land: “We know that you too, as your predecessors did, work diligently so that in the holy places entrusted to your care, everything possible is done to best satisfy the piety of the faithful.”
The friars have not only been the “guardians” of the stones and of those places in order to preserve their value, but their mission has also been to make them living stones, so that they speak to the heart and to the mind of all those who set off on a pilgrimage in the Holy Land, to be able to see the “simple stones” as “beloved stones” through their faith.
The sons of Francis of Assisi – in the words of John Paul II – have been able to interpret “in a genuinely evangelical way that legitimate desire to look after the places of our Christian roots