The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem has an ancient and complex history, which is intertwined with that yet more ancient and complex one of Jerusalem. We will content ourselves here with illustrating more the significant historical passages to understand the origin and characteristics of this Catholic Institution of the Holy Land.
Jerusalem and the Ottoman Palestine at the beginning of 1800
Since the end of the Crusades (1270), Jerusalem lived in a state of relative isolation, which lasted until 1800, although the presence of Christians was uninterrupted.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Jerusalem was still isolated, both for political and geographic reasons (including the fear of urging in some way the return of the “Latins” – a name given to the Europeans in general by their use of the Latin Language) and only until the mid-19th century with the invention of the steamship that could come more quickly from Europe and land at the port of Jaffa, it became easier to reach it. The presence of the Latins in the Holy Land since the time of the Crusades was preserved thanks to the Friars Minor, Franciscans to whom the Pope later gave the task of becoming “custodians” of the Holy Places, from which the title “Custody of the Holy Land” derives (and “Custos” is the title given, till now, to the superior of these Middle Eastern regions, that make up the Holy Places). Little by little, France, which, since the 12th century, obtained from the Caliph of Baghdad Haroun Al-Rashid, the protectorate of Catholics in the Holy Land (lost after the French Revolution), regained the right of protection over the Holy Places and the Christians who lived within the Ottoman Empire.
Besides the Latins, the Greek Orthodox also intensified their presence in the Holy Places, which began after the fall of Constantinople (1253) and advanced their claims on them. To this must be added the claims of the emerging Russian Empire. Before long, during the 19th century, the Greek and Russian Orthodox joined forces to gain supremacy over the Holy Places.
Three events particularly contributed to the opening of Palestine to the West during the 1800s. The first was the campaign of Napoleon Bonaparte in Syria in 1799 (in continuity with that of Egypt), which, despite being a military failure, had the effect of reawakening the greedy European Powers towards Palestine. The second event was the invasion of Palestine by Mohammed Ali, an ambitious Egyptian Viceroy, which allowed the opening of the region to Western influences, the establishment of Christian Missionary Societies and the end of discrimination against non-Muslims. Finally, the third event was the Crimean War (1853-56) of which the Holy Places became the pretext: it ended with the Treaty of Paris (1856) and sanctioned the defeat of Russia, leaving the question of the Holy Places unresolved.
The restoration of the Latin Patriarchate
Jerusalem was the first “Episcopal” See in the history of the Christian world, with St. James the Lesser, and after his martyrdom, with his successors. But other episcopal sees that had preeminence in the ancient world (Antioch, Alexandria of Egypt, Rome) and Jerusalem became the see of the Patriarchate only in 451, together with Constantinople. Since then, there were many successive Patriarchs in Jerusalem, until the end of the Crusades era (1099-1291), when the Crusaders elected a Patriarch of the Latin Rite for both Greeks and Latins, contrary to the desire of Pope Urban II, who wanted the authority of the Greek Patriarch respected. The Latinization of the Patriarchal See was considered legitimate by the Latin, but not by the Greeks whose Patriarch went into exile. After the fall of St. John of Acre (1291) there was no longer any Patriarch in Jerusalem, and the title was attributed to some prelate of the Papal Court of Rome (called in partibus infidelium = “in the lands of unbelievers, an expression used also in the abbreviated form in partibus) to indicate the bishops, today called titular bishops, whose dioceses, purely honorific, are found in countries occupied by the Turks.
This ancient dream of restoration will be brought forward by the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide). Since its inception, in the 17th century, Propaganda Fide devoted a lot of energy to the Middle East, but its efforts were blocked, particularly by the French Revolution (1789) and its consequences in Italy. It was only at the beginning of the 1800s that Propaganda Fide tried to apply new missionary methods, with the introduction of other Religious Orders, with the formation of indigenous clergy, the creation of schools, etc. All this became possible due to the facilitations granted directly to Christians, first by the Egyptian Authority and then by the Ottomans.
Propaganda Fide began to seriously consider the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate when it saw the success of the missionary word of the Russian Orthodox and the Protestants in the Holy Land. The opposition of the Franciscans and France and the weakness of the pontificate of Pope Gregory XVI, however, rendered this question only a subject for discussion. It was the election of Pius IX in 1847 that the project took shape. A harmony of favorable events gave the young pope the possibility of realizing the project. The Sublime Gate (a name of the executive organ of the Ottoman Governate) sent its Ambassador Chebib Effendi, in February of 1847, who proposed to the Holy See a direct agreement for the protection of Christians, to overcome the repeated interference of Western nations in the Ottoman Empire. The project was favorably welcomed by Pope Pius IX, who had already in mind an ambition program for the Christians and Oriental Churches, and who also wanted to affirm the autonomy of the Holy See vis-à-vis the European Powers. The times were ripe at the international level, the numerous local constraints were overcome, so the word of Propaganda Fide resumed with the drafting of the practical questions, connected with the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate and put in writing by the English Cardinal Charles Acton. The latter listed the different reasons for the establishment of a Latin diocese in Jerusalem and the issues inherent in this restoration (the title of the new bishop, borders of the diocese, resources, etc.). Propaganda Fide defined these aspects and the Pope announced to the world with the apostolic letter Nulla celebrior of July 23, 1847, the successful restoration of the Patriarchate and, on October 4, 1847, the name of the new Patriarch.
The first steps of the new Patriarch
Giuseppe Valerga was born in Loano in 1813 to a modest family. He entered the seminary of Albenga, then continued his studies in Rome, where he obtained the title of Doctor of Law and Theology and a solid knowledge of Eastern languages. He entered Propaganda Fide in 1836: here he stood out for his skills and, having become assistant to the Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo, from 1842 to 1847 he was in Mosul to help the Dominican Fathers return to their mission. His apostolic work, his serenity in facing situations that could lead to martyrdom several times, his academic work (such as the drafting of a Chaldean-Italian dictionary) made him an exemplary missionary. In May 1847 he was called to Rome and consecrated Patriarch by Pius IX himself on October 10, 1847. He was 34 years old.
In January 1848 he arrived in Jerusalem where he was received enthusiastically. He immediately started to train a native clergy, developing a network of missions in Palestine and securing economic aid from Europe. In facing the numerous difficulties that arose with local political and religious authorities, Patriarch Valerga remained faithful to his role. Ten years later, the Holy See entrusted him with further responsibilities by appointing him Apostolic Delegate for Syria and Lebanon. Then “the right arm of Pius IX in the East” was called to Vatican Council I to support the Pope on the question of infallibility. Valerga would die immediately after the Council, following a fever contracted on a mission. At the news of his death, Pius IX declared: “We cannot replace Valerga.
One of Archbishop Valerga's initiatives was the revival of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem. Upon his arrival in the Holy Land, he became a very good judge of this ancient Order, which had been entrusted to him as Latin Patriarch. Since the end of the Crusades, the Franciscans were at the service of the Holy Sepulcher and welcomed pilgrims. Some of these came to Jerusalem to receive the investiture as a Knight at the Tomb of Christ. These investitures were first entrusted to a lay knight, then the pope granted only to the Custos of the Holy Land the right to perform the investiture of Knights of the Holy Sepulcher who had put themselves in service and proved to be fearless pilgrims in facing the extreme trials of a journey to the Holy Land. Historian Alphonse Dupront speaks of “a semi-solitary rite that the Church and the East will accept almost against their will, for the audacity of some isolated, wanderers or survivors of the Crusades campaigns.”
The Custos and his successors exercised this right continuously from 1500 to 1848, thus granting the investiture to 1,835 knights.
Valerga quickly understood the usefulness that could derive from this ancient Order and gave it as a new task that of materially and spiritually supporting the Latin Patriarchate, just restored. It was with the publication of the Apostolic Letter Cum multa sapienter of 1868 that Pius IX officially sanctioned the rebirth of the Equestrian Order proposed by Bishop Valerga (the distance of twenty years between the project presented by Valerga to the Pope and the approval by the Pontiff shows the caution used by the Holy See towards the matter). This Order is still active today and faithful to its mission and continues to offer its support to the Patriarchal clergy, the Seminary, Religious houses, schools, etc.).
The brief historical coordinates traced so far have shown that it is possible to date the beginning of the Patriarchate in Jerusalem around 451, as for Constantinople.
As we have seen, however, only in the Crusades period (1099-1291), Jerusalem will be the seat of a Latin Patriarchate though not by the decision of the then Sovereign Pontiff.
The nineteenth-century restoration of the Latin Patriarchate can instead be considered a pastoral response of the Holy See to the multiple geopolitical and religious interests born in the mid-1800s.
Latin Patriarchs from 1847 to the present:
Patriarch Giuseppe Valerga (1847-1872)
Patriarch Vincenzo Bracco (1873-1889)
Patriarch Luigi Piavi (1889-1905)
Patriarch Filippo Camassei (1906-1919)
Patriarch Luigi Barlassina (1920-1947)
Patriarch Alberto Gori (1949-1970)
Patriarch Giacomo Beltritti (1970-1987)
Patriarch Michel Sabbah (1987-2008)
Patriarch Fouad Twal (2008-2016).
Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa (2020- present). He was Apostolic Administrator sede vacante from 2016- 2020.