HOLY LAND – On October 16-18, 2017, and in presence of Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, the Franciscans friars continued to celebrate their 800th anniversary of being guardians of the Holy Places and servants of the local Christian community in the Holy Land.
St. Francis meets Sultan Malik Al-Kamil: a notion of interreligious dialogue
The year was 1217. The first Franciscan friars set sail under the care of Fr. Elia of Cortona for the Holy Land where they arrived in the city of Acre. Meanwhile, the fifth Crusade was underway in an attempt to recapture Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land from the control of the Ayyubid Sultan Malik Al-Kamil, who St. Francis ventured to meet in Damietta, Egypt.
In his “Historia Orientalis”, Bishop Jacques de Vitry recounts the events surrounding St. Francis’s risky decision to meet the Sultan; a meeting which lasted for some days, and during which “the Sultan and his followers listened attentively to the preaching of Christ”. Although risky, it shows the saint’s openness to dialogue and courage. At the same time, it depicts readiness to listen on the part of the Sultan.
800 years later, one can draw a parallel between this encounter and Pope Francis’s visit to Egypt. During his address at Al-Azhar Conference center in April 2017, the Pope, who chose Francis as his papal name, asked the intercession of the saint of Assisi for a renewed “civilization of peace and encounter”.
Mission of Franciscan friars: beyond guardianship of Holy Places
Pastoral ministry and social support have always been pivotal dimensions in the mission of the Church. Today, the Franciscan friars and the Custody of the Holy Land oversee 25 parishes and manage parish associations, homes for the elderly, student residences and other Christian associations. Moreover, and as part of this ministry, 15 Franciscans Terra Santa schools serve more than 10,000 students from different Christian denominations and religions in the Holy Land as well as Lebanon.
In August 2016, the Israeli Ministry of Education ranked Christian schools among the best in the country. Based upon educational and social excellence, two Franciscan schools, Terra Santa School in Acre and the Franciscan Sisters in Nazareth, were in the first and second ranking.
“I encourage you to persevere gladly in the education of young people, who often risk losing hope in a context that is still without peace”, said Pope Francis in a letter to Fr. Francesco Patton, the Custos of the Holy Land, on the occasion of this anniversary.
Cardinal Sandri: “restoration works encourage prophetic steps on the path of communion”
As guardian of the Holy Places since 1342, the Franciscans’ Custody currently safeguards 50 shrines in the Holy Land. Since the Status Quo was put into place in 1852, the Franciscans have been the main representative of the Latin rite community within this agreement. The agreement, which governs the sharing of the holy places in order to regulate disputes of use and ownership, had often delayed needed repairs to the fragile conditions of the churches.
Among some of the shrines implicated in the Status Quo, and which the Custody jointly administers with other Christian Churches, are the Holy Sepulcher and the Church of the Nativity.
But for the last 5 years, the Franciscans, alongside the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Churches, had come together once again in an unprecedented collaboration and restorations of Christianity’s most important holy sites. While restorations are still under way in the Nativity Church, the renovated tomb of Jesus was inaugurated in March 2017, during an ecumenical ceremony that brought together the different Churches of Jerusalem in addition to Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew.
In his opening speech during the 800th anniversary celebrations, Cardinal Sandri described the impressive restoration works of both churches as “encouraging further prophetic steps on the path of communion, as was the prayer shared by Pope Francis with the Orthodox Patriarchs during his 2014 visit”.
The next 800 years
Throughout the 800 years of their presence, the Franciscans tackled various challenges that arose from different political and social circumstances. Nowadays, the Custody, alongside other Christian churches and institutions, are faced with diminishing numbers of faithful that are leaving and mostly forced out of their ancestral lands in the Middle East as a result of wars, persecution and financial difficulty.
Moreover, a different set of challenges and negative mentalities, although not as visible, still prevail today in the Christian community in the Holy Land. One example is the perception that the Church has unlimited material and financial resources, where people feel entitled to the help that the Church extends to them, for the sole reason of being affiliated to a certain denomination.
Facing these challenges, Cardinal Sandri encouraged the Franciscans to continue their mission as “disciples of Christ living in brotherhood, who with their simple, poor, Franciscan life can be witnesses to the Gospel”.
As celebrations this year mark the journey of these friars, who gave and still give their lives for the living stones and pilgrims as well as the guardianship of the places where the Word of God had dwelt, one can only look forward for the next 800 years when Franciscans will continue to be witnesses of faith, fraternity and peace.