As part of the response to God’s call to St. Francis to “rebuild my Church”, the Franciscans preserve some of the most important churches in all of Christendom. In fact, for over 800 years the Franciscans have been the official custodians of the Holy Land.
Drawn by love of the poor and crucified Christ, Saint Francis of Assisi went to the Middle East in 1217, in order to touch the places which, even today, offer an irreplaceable testimony to God’s revelation and to God’s love for the human person.
During his pilgrimage, and despite the Crusades, Saint Francis encountered and dialogued with the sultan Melek al-Kamel, who was governing the Holy Land at the time. The sultan was so impressed with Francis that he granted him rights to operate in the Holy Land.
By 1229, the friars had a small house near the fifth station of the Via Dolorosa. In 1272, the Sultan Baibars allowed the Franciscans to settle in the Cenacle (also called the Upper Room) on Mount Sion. Later on, in 1309, they also settled in the Holy Sepulchre and in Bethlehem.
In 1333, King Robert d’Angiò of Naples, and his wife, Sancia di Maiorca, bought the Cenacle from the Sultan of Egypt and gave it to the Franciscans. In 1342, Pope Clement VI, by the Papal bulls “Gratiam Agimus” and “Nuper charissimae” declared the Franciscans as the official custodians of the Holy Places in the name of the Catholic Church.
In addition to the major shrines of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which the Franciscans own and administer in common with the Jerusalem Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox patriarchates, the Custodian also cares for 74 shrines and sanctuaries throughout the Holy Land, including properties in Syria and Jordan. Some of the most famous include the Via Delarosa, The Basilica of the Annunciation, The Church of the Transfiguration, and more.
As the Triduum approaches and we turn our hearts towards Jesus’ last moments of life in the Holy Land, we each have the opportunity to ask the Lord how He is calling us to rebuild His Church.