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The Franciscan Friars of the Holy Land

Where Christian communities in the Holy Land are in need, the Franciscan Friars are there to help.

“Their fidelity to their Founder’s desire…has often been sealed with acts of extraordinary virtue and generosity.”
(Pope Paul VI)

On that day in 1219 when Saint Francis of Assisi first walked the stony streets of Jerusalem, he set a high ideal for his Friars.

The role he assigned his “sons” was an important but difficult one: to be guardians not only of places, but also of souls; to help pilgrims from all over the world to find the light of faith in the holy places, while dispensing Christian charity to those in their surrounding country.

During the past seven centuries the Franciscan Friars Minor of the Custody of the Holy Land have endured many hardships in order to fulfill their Founder’s ideal. They have survived the difficulties to become a fixed, and much-needed force in an ever-changing land.

As Pope Paul VI has said: “It was not outside of God’s plan that the historical events of the thirteenth century brought the Order of Friars Minor to the Holy Land.”

Saint Francis grew up in the zealous atmosphere of the Crusades. It was in this spirit that he brought twelve companion friars to the Holy Land in 1219. Although the saint himself was recalled to Italy in 1221, he left those Friars behind. With them remained “the beginnings of a work which was to defy the centuries,” (P.C. Aerts, O.F.M.)

As long as the Crusaders had a footing in the East, the fate of the Franciscans was linked to that of the Christian soldiers. When the latter were defeated at Acre in 1291, the Franciscans inherited their five-fold cross, which they fly to this day as a neutral international flag. From that time the Friars continued the defense of Christianity in the Holy Land, without any real weapons of warfare.

During the period between 1335 and 1517 – when the Mamluks of Egypt dominated the area – the Friars strove to establish themselves in the Shrines of the Holy Land. They began a task which is still an important part of their work today: that of excavating, restoring, and guarding Christian rights in, the holy places. At the same time, they began to offer guidance to the pilgrims whose numbers increased year by year.

As noble as this undertaking was and still is, the Friars knew that the missionary part of the ideal of Saint Francis had not yet been fulfilled. The opportunity for them to thus expand their apostolate came between 1517 and 1917.

In 1517 there were no native Catholics in the Middle East. Little by little converts increased and the need for parishes and schools arose. With parishes came orphanages, hospitals and trade schools.

Besides being custodians of the holy places, the Friars now became teachers, doctors and foster parents.

In fact, the needs of the community in the Holy Land became so great – while at the same time its internal problems left it no longer self-supporting – that the Supreme Pontiffs ordained the “Collection for the Holy Places.” At present, this collection is taken up on Good Friday each year.

The generosity of Christians throughout the world enables the Franciscan Friars to continue those pastoral, charitable, educational and social works which the Church supports in the Holy Land.

Today, more than ever before, the Friars serve a special need in the Middle East. Presently under the direction of Rt. Rev. Maurillio Sacchi, the Custos, the Province has been extended beyond the boundaries of the Holy Land proper. It now includes Cyprus, Rhodes, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.

In those areas, whose Christian communities have been weakened by internal strife and emigration, the Franciscans offer both moral and material help to all people in need.

Pope Paul VI praised the Friars with the following words: “They share daily in the sufferings of Christ, and live up to their name as Christians by the testimony of a lively faith, open-hearted love, and genuine poverty.”

True to their Founder’s wish, the Franciscan Friars Minor of the Custody serve daily as “instruments of Christ’s peace,” in a war-ravaged land.

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