28 September 2017

A journey to the origins of a presence

In the first part of the series "Journey to the origins of a Presence": the Overseas Mission with the arrival of the first friars in the Holy Land. The meeting of Francis of Assisi with the Sultan of Egypt at the time of the fifth crusade. 800 years of Franciscan presence in the Holy Land, documented over the centuries through exceptional manuscripts.

Actuality and events

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With the 2017 Pentecost Chapter, the missionary adventure of the nascent Franciscan Order and the presence of the first friars in the Holy Land began.
An 'overseas' mission that arose to found a new Franciscan Province. The Order consequently blossomed to their missionary and universal dimension.

The first friars, led by Fr. Elias of Cortona, arrived in northern Israel, at Acre. In those months, St. John of Acre, already the capital of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, was probably the busiest port in the world, a true crossroads of peoples. Military contingents and pilgrims landed there continually to take part in the Fifth Crusade proclaimed by Pope Innocent III.

Fr. NARCISO KLIMAS, ofm
Director of the Archives of the Custody of the Holy Land
"We know that Elia of Cortona, (aka) Elia Buonbarone, was a lawyer, a very efficient legal counselor at administrative matters, therefore he was truly prepared to be the head of this mission. Chosen because he was the most capable person for this assignment, he stayed here for 2 years and later when Saint Francis returned from Egypt, after the crusades, Elia of Cortona returned with him to Italy; at that time the first problems arose in the order.”

Two years later, in 1219, St. Francis himself, as a pilgrim and a missionary, departed from Ancona and, after crossing the Adriatic Sea, arrived at Acre, in the Holy Land. About that journey, we all remember the meeting with Sultan Malek-El-Kamel, in the context of the Fifth Crusade.

Over the centuries, many artists from all over the world, especially Cimabue and Giotto, depicted Francis, 'the servant of the Most High', in the most significant episodes of the story of his rich life.

Fr. FRANCESCO PATTON, ofm
Custos of the Holy Land
"It was a very courageous meeting. Francis came to this land because he desired to talk (to the sultan) about Jesus, so he arrived in Acre first and then from Acre, he went down to Damietta, in Egypt.
Naturally, he had to get a permit to cross the lines, and he also had to get permission from the papal legate. There was a lot of uncertainty, but in the end, Francis asked to be allowed to cross the lines of war and get to meet the Sultan.”

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Francis decided to go with another friar and when he met with the sultan, he indeed had the opportunity to talk to him about Jesus, despite the contrary opinion of the sultan's consultants and experts.

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Perhaps that meeting made him realize that there was a chance to meet even among people of different faiths and religions in the name of the Most High.

Father Francesco Patton believes that Francis' journey to the Holy Land was extremely important and significant to the Saint of Assisi as it is for the entire Order, because traces and echoes of this journey can be found everywhere in his writings dated after 1220.

Fr. FRANCESCO PATTON, ofm
Custos of the Holy Land
"This meeting is documented both in the Franciscan records within our order and in external sources, especially in the chronicles of the crusaders. In a special way, that journey and that meeting and dialogue experience contributed to the elaboration of a real missionary methodology that we find summarized in Chapter XVI of the Unbound Rule. "

800 years of history have been preserved, annotated and witnessed for centuries within these walls of the Custody of the Holy Land in Jerusalem and with the help of modern technology. According to Brother Narcissus Klimas, “the heart of the Custody beats here.”

Fr. NARCISO KLIMAS, ofm
Director of the Archives of the Custody of the Holy Land
"This is the oldest document we have: it is the bull of Pope Gregory IX of 1230, which dates back to the full time of the crusades. Although the friars were not present or cared for in the shrines, they were present in the Holy Land, in fact in his bull, the Pope asks the bishops to help the friars present in the Holy Land. Is is also stated, between the lines, that the Pope wanted to protect the friars, for at the beginning they were dedicated to the pastoral and the preaching activities.”

Fr. NARCISO KLIMAS, ofm
Director of the Archives of the Custody of the Holy Land
"The defense and protection of the sanctuaries that took place later, was recorded on this other document, on this bull which we know well, issued in 1342 by Clement VI, the 'Gratias Agimus' Bull with which the Pope entrusts the protection of the holy places to the friars. This was already a clear reference: to protect and care for the shrines, especially those that already were in our possession.”

From the oldest document to one of the most beautiful ones.

Fr. NARCISO KLIMAS, ofm
Director of the Archives of the Custody of the Holy Land
"This document is the most precious among those we have archived: the famous decree, written in Turkish with Arabic characters, dating from the 18th century, deals precisely with the issue of sanctuaries, and therefore with the long battle for the Statu Quo. If you observe attentively, you may notice that it is painted with gold plates and that the colors used are fabulous; these colors are no longer available nowadays. For this reason, this is not just a historically important document, but it is also a work of art ... it is priceless!"

Another precious piece is represented by the daily chronicles written by the guardians of the shrines, especially those written by the sacristans: they reveal each detail of their daily routine, especially during their journey at the Holy Sepulcher.

Fr. NARCISO KLIMAS, ofm
Director of the Archives of the Custody of the Holy Land
"These documents summarize the chronicles of the story of the first friars, a story never transcribed before, the story of the beginning of the Custody of the Holy Land. Obviously, they were handwritten at a later time, not during the same century, but they still have a great value because it was recorded not far from the foundation of the Custody. It contains the chronicle of the Holy Land from 1304 to 1636.”

Bookkeeping records, such as those that document the reconstruction and restoration of the dome of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, at risk of collapse in 1919, are also available.

In this other document all accounts and expenses are recorded, including the number of donkeys that were used to transport the timber and wood beams needed to support the great dome of the Holy Sepulcher.

In the archives, the famous wood treasure chest, with its particular story, is also preserved.

Fr. NARCISO KLIMAS, ofm
Director of the Archives of the Custody of the Holy Land
"Here are also the records that give evidence that the Custos always guarded the famous wooden chest closely. Someone said - in a joking manner - that he used to hide it under the pillow when he slept, to avoid being robbed, because the chest contained the confirmation of all the bulls we received from the Popes attesting our presence in the Holy Land. He took it wherever he went. At the beginning, the chest was at Mount Zion, at the Cenacle. Later, when the friars were driven away from Mount Zion, from the Cenacle, they brought it here, to St. Savior.”

On Sunday, June 11, the friars of the Custody of the Holy Land began the eighteenth centennial celebrations of their presence in the places of Jesus' earthly life.

They decided to start moving to northern Israel, to Acco, the ancient St. John of Acre, in whose port the first confreres from Europe disembarked in 1217.

The Franciscan Day began with a Mass presided by Custos Father Francesco Patton, in the church located in the beautiful old town, which directly overlooks the Mediterranean Sea.

In the afternoon, Father Eugene Alliata guided an excursion to the streets of the ancient city of Acre. The participants were holding the map, but above all, they had a great curiosity to discover the ancient city.

All gathered to commemorate the arrival of the first Franciscans and all those who have remained (in the Holy Land) so far, who have contributed to guiding the Franciscan experience during these eight centuries among people of different cultures, faiths and nations.

Fr. FRANCESCO PATTON, ofm
Custos of the Holy Land
"Here are two words that are widely used: one is 'NushkurAllah' which means 'Thanks be to God', so we thank God for these 800 years and for everything that will happen from here on. The other word is 'Inshallah' which means 'If God wants-pleasing God'; so it is important that we try to do what God wants and what He likes.”

In the next episode we will analize the life of the friars in the sanctuaries, the pilgrims' visits, the care of the living stones, the local Christians and the mystery that surrounds the celebrations in the Holy Land.