With Franciscan monks in Bethlehem caught in the middle of a confrontation at the Church of the Nativity, the Fides news service traced the long history of the Franciscan presence in the Holy Land.
Father Giacomo Bini, the minister general of the Franciscan order, reminded Fides: “The Franciscans have been in the Holy Land for 800 years. True to their founder, St. Francis Assisi – a man of peace, dialogue, and friendship with everyone – the friars have a mission of peace.” He went on to say that the Franciscan mission in the Middle East is “to bear witness to faith in Christ through their lives and to spread reconciliation and peace.”
The Franciscan Order comprises the Friars Minor, approved by Pope Innocent III in 1209, founded to live in poverty and to preach repentance; the Poor Clares for women, founded in 1212; and the Tertiaries for laymen approved in 1230. The rule for the Franciscan order was first written in 1221, revised in 1223, and approved by Pope Honorius II. The “Custody of the Holy Land” as it is called, is an autonomous province of the Franciscan order. In this province alone there are 300 friars, of 32 different nationalities.
The head of the province is the Custodian, or “Keeper of Mount Sion,” as laid down in the order’s constitution. The Custodian is elected by the general board of the order and approved by the Pope. Already in 1217 the disciples of St. Francis gave their presence in Palestine an official stamp with the institution of the Holy Land Province, which extended to all the regions of the south eastern Mediterranean basin. “This province, which included the birthplace and home of Jesus Christ, was, for the Franciscans, the pearl of all their provinces and, after the opening of Franciscan missions in various places, the pearl of all missions,” Father Bini told Fides. He also said, St. Francis spent several months in the Holy Land in 1219 and 1220. During that time he went to meet Sultan Melek el-Kamel; a gesture which caused great surprise in the Church of those days. In the following centuries, Franciscans became known for this ecumenical spirit in their missionary adventure in the Middle East and in the Far East, among non-Christians as well as between the ‘separated brethren,’ or non- Catholics.”
In 1263 the Holy Land Province was reduced, in order to provide for better organization of evangelization efforts in Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. The province was divided into three custodies, covering the Holy Land, Cyprus, and Syria. The Holy Land Custody included the Franciscan monasteries in Acri, Antioch, Sidon, Tripoli, Tyre, Jerusalem, and Jaffa. The constant presence of Franciscans in the Holy Places and their dedication to evangelization and promoting Christian values, has been of major importance for the formation and development of the local Church here, finally, making it possible to restore the Latin Patriarch in 1847.