For 800 years, the Franciscan order has been present in the Holy Land, serving as “ambassadors of the entire People of God,” according to Pope Francis.
The pope commended the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land for their “willingness to accompany the steps of pilgrims from every part of the world through welcome and guidance,” in a message released on Tuesday.
The mission to the Holy Land was commissioned in 1217 by St. Francis of Assisi himself, and over 100 years later – in 1342 – the Holy Land province of the Franciscans were officially declared the custodians of the holy shrines by Pope Clement VI.
“Our presence is an event not only for all Christians but also for all of mankind. Yes, our presence is for all of humanity,” said Franciscan Father Michael Perry, the Minister General of the worldwide Franciscan order, who was in Jerusalem for the celebrations marking the anniversary.
“This was also the view of Francis of Assisi, who wanted to visit the Holy Land, reaching Damietta [a port in Egypt], in a situation where there was ongoing dehumanization. Even today, these dehumanizing movements still exist. The Custody’s vision is to promote dialogue and harmony among people and to promote humanity’s integral development,” Perry said in an interview published on the Custody’s website.
(Perry was referring to the 1218-1219 Siege of Damietta, when Christian knights took the port during the Fifth Crusade, a prolonged operation which took over a year. Near the end of the siege, Francis crossed over the lines and tried to convert the Sultan Al-Kamil before the Muslim leader surrendered the city.)
“Even today, the Franciscan presence has meaning, because it is not only important in order to welcome pilgrims, but also to accompany all of humanity in this area that has experienced horrible expressions of violence. But our presence continues to remember the dignity of every person and we have the vocation of promoting peace among all human beings,” Perry said.
The Custody serves in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, parts of Egypt, Cyprus and the Greek island of Rhodes. It controls dozens of shrines, and shares ownership of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem with the Orthodox and Armenian Churches.
The Franciscans also operate numerous parishes and schools in the Holy Land, and support the local Christian community, so they can stay in the land of Christ’s birth.
“I encourage you to persevere gladly in supporting these brothers of ours, especially the poorest and weakest; in the education of young people – who often risk losing hope in a context that is still without peace – in welcoming the elderly and the care for the sick, living out the works of mercy in a concrete way in daily life,” the pope wrote.
“Assiduous in contemplation and in prayer, simple and poor, obedient to the bishop of Rome, you are engaged also in the present in living in the Holy Land next to brothers of different cultures, ethnicities and religions, sowing peace, fraternity and respect,” the pontiff said, before renewing the mandate of Clement VI.
“You are ambassadors of the entire People of God, who with liberality you have always sustained, especially through the ‘Collection for the Holy Land’ [taken up in Catholic churches every Good Friday], which contributes to ensuring that in the Land of Jesus, faith is made visible in work.”