I. Holy Sepulchre: Heart of Christianity
For a Christian, the heart of Jerusalem is the Holy Sepulchre: in this place the saving presence of God is manifested, His love for men. It is the place of the paschal mystery of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ the Lord, our Saviour. The Holy Sepulchre is like a magnet that draws believers to “the roots of their faith and of the Church” (John Paul II).
Without a doubt, it was the objective that guided Saint Francis to meet the Sultan and thus obtain permission for himself and his followers to visit and serve forever on Calvary and in the Sepulchre of the Lord. In the history that goes from the Crusades to the total Muslim domination of Jerusalem, another “history” is placed: the Franciscan presence in the Holy Land. John Paul II, in the Letter announcing his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, presents the meaning of the mission of the Franciscans:
«And Providence wanted that, together with the brothers of the Eastern Churches, were above all the followers of Francis of Assisi, saint of poverty, meekness and peace, who, on behalf of Western Christianity, would interpret as in a genuinely evangelical way, the legitimate Christian desire to protect the places where our Christian roots are ».
While the crossed arms had shown themselves powerless, the followers of Saint Francis peacefully took possession of the Holy Places, and for long centuries, at the cost of unspeakable suffering, stood guard over them, to this day, on behalf of the Catholic world.
a) Francis wants direct contact with Christ. Jesus Christ is not only the Son of God, but also the model that men must imitate: knowing Him, man knows who He is and how to behave in life. Now, Jesus is not an abstract being; He is a living and concrete person. Francis of Assis is in love with that Person. All his writings exude infinite love and immense tenderness towards Jesus Christ, whom he wants to know and imitate to the fullest in his life. The Saint had “Jesus in his heart, Jesus on his lips, Jesus in his ears, Jesus in his eyes, Jesus in his hands; Jesus always present in all His members “(1 Cel 115).
Celano himself affirms that “the humility of the incarnation and the love of passion were so present in his memory that he hardly wanted to think of anything else “(1 Cel 84 According to Saint Bonaventure, his prayer was the “Our Father” and also “We adore you, Christ, in all the churches throughout the world, and we bless you because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world” (LM 4,3) Francis always preached “the cross of Christ.”
b) The Holy Land, center of Francis’ spirituality. Although we do not know for sure, it is probably that Saint Francis visited the Holy Sepulchre, as recounted in ancient Franciscan chronicles, according to which, in his meeting with the Sultan in 1219, the latter gave him all the facilities to be able to visit the Holy Sepulchre.: “The Sultan … gave order that he and all his friars could go freely to visit the Holy Sepulchre, without paying any tribute.” They also say that Francis returns to Italy after having been in Jerusalem: “Having visited the Tomb of Christ, he hurriedly returned to the land of the Christians” (Ángelo Clareno, Chronicle of the Seven Tribulations, II, 1). Not visiting the Holy Sepulchre would be in contradiction with the spirit of the Holy. Francis needed to feel in his heart the same emotions and vibrations that Christ had felt and experienced. It is not unimaginable to suspect that Francis, in his desire to radically imitate Christ to the point of martyrdom, wanted to end his life on the very earth where the Son of God had consummated His sacrifice of love.
It is also understood in this way that the memories of the Holy Land were imprinted in his heart and became an experience of life. The impression of the wounds in La Verna is the imitation of the crucifixion of Christ on Calvary, and the Canticle of the Creatures is the hymn to the world renewed by the resurrection of Christ and which has now been reconciled to God thanks to the Redemption of Christ. Greccio and La Verna, Bethlehem and Jerusalem form an inseparable unity in Francis: the radical imitation of Christ. The life of Saint Francis is not understood outside of Christ and the Holy Land, as Benedict XVI affirms:
«His tender embrace of the divine Child in Greccio, his contemplation of the Passion in La Verna, his living, according to the form of the holy Gospel, his option for poverty and his search for Christ in the face of the poor, all are based on a total love for Jesus ».
c) Open to all men the way to Christ. And, as a consequence of the foregoing, all the missionary action of Francis and his friars will consist of other men, even Muslims, being able to see also Christ who has become man through our love, and they can find Him by going through the “memories” that testify to their passage through this Earth that, therefore, is Holy. The purpose of the pilgrimage to the Holy Land is, therefore, to meet Christ and His Gospel in the places where it has been manifested. How was all this possible? Perhaps Francis, in Jerusalem, asked the Lord, before the doors of the Holy Sepulchre – one closed and the other bricked up -, the same thing that he had asked the Christ of Saint Damien in Assisi a few years before: «Lord, what do you want me to do?». And the Lord would have given him the same answer: “Repair my Church which, as you see, threatens ruin” (2 Cel 10s). It was about the Church of Christ. This is what happened in the Holy Land: the People of God that the Lord redeemed with His Blood, here on Calvary, has disappeared; Sanctuaries, memories of the presence of Christ and roots of the Christian faith, do not exist; Even the bells of the Holy Sepulchre are missing, “that voice of God” that enlivens the stones. The mission of the Franciscans of the Holy Land will be to recover and repair what was in ruins.