II Custody of the Holy Sepulchre

John Paul II, remembering the 650th anniversary of the Bull Gratias agimus, by which Pope Clement VI entrusted the custody of the Places that remember the mysteries of the Redemption, to the followers of Saint Francis, who had already been there since the times of his Founder and Father, he sums up his mission in the Holy Land thus: «Since then the Franciscans have not interrupted their beneficent presence, despite many difficulties, generously endeavouring to preserve old memories, erecting new Shrines, animating liturgical and the reception of pilgrims”. “The followers of Saint Francis – Paul VI had said earlier – have remained in the Land of Jesus to guard, restore and protect the Holy Christian Places” (Nobis in animo). “They have thus done a service to all Christendom, by safeguarding that inestimable heritage, common to all Christians,” recalled John XXIII. It has been a long and difficult story, with a happy ending. At the end of the 13th century the crusade adventure ended, which wanted to conquer, by force, the Holy Sepulchre. The missionary work of the Franciscans begins there, supported by their charism of “Peace and Good.”

1. The Franciscans receive the mission to take care of the Holy Sepulchre. The first step will consist of recovering the Holy Places, the “memories” of the Lord’s passage through this Earth. This was consolidated around 1350, when the followers of Saint Francis were already present in these four Holy Places and the only ones that existed: The Holy Sepulchre, the Cenacle, the Nativity of Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Virgin. This was possible thanks to the help, political and economic, of the Kings of Naples and Aragon. The first Shrine served by the Franciscans on behalf of the Catholic Church is the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. They were already there before, but they will be established in 1327 by the intervention of Jaime II of Aragon. Their situation in the Holy Sepulchre was strengthened thanks to the efforts of the Kings of Naples, in 1333, who, paying huge sums of money, obtained from the Sultan to Malik not only the Cenacle – and they give them to the Franciscans in perpetuum -, but above all, they obtain for the friars the faculty to dwell continuously in the Holy Sepulchre and to celebrate the Masses and the Divine Offices. The bulls Gratias Agimus and Nuper carissimae of Pope Clement VI, from 1342, by which he entrusted the custody of the Holy Places to the Franciscans, give legal and institutional value to the Custody of the Holy Land.

At the beginning of the 14th century, the Franciscans officiated only in the current Chapel of the Apparition. At the end of that century they celebrate the Eucharist at the Tomb of the Lord and on Calvary. For centuries, the Franciscans were not only the guardians of the Holy Sepulchre, but also the only ones who could celebrate inside the Empty Tomb of our Lord. This situation changed radically after the fire and subsequent repair of the Holy Sepulchre carried out by the Greeks in the early years of the 19th century: The Orthodox Greeks will get the power to celebrate the Eucharist at the Lord’s Tomb on January 9, 1818, December 28 of the Julian calendar – and the Armenians only in 1821, with two signatures of the Sultan.

The incontestable ownership of the Holy Sepulchre by the Franciscans can be seen in the repairs they make to the Basilica. Let us remember, due to its symbolic value, the one made by the Custodian P. Boniface of Ragusa: in 1555 he restored some parts of the Basilica and completely renewed the Aedicule. On December 9, 1554, as he says, the bedrock on which the body of Our Lord lay was discovered. He tells it like this in the Liber de perenni cultu Terrae Sanctae (1577):

«Extracting the existing structure, the tomb of the Lord clearly carved out of the rock appeared before our eyes …, that ineffable place where the Son of Man lay for three days … We contemplated it, we kissed it and we venerated it with groans of devotion, with spiritual joy and with tears with those who were present (there were actually quite a few Christians, both from the West and the East), who filled with heavenly devotion, some shed tears, others were deeply excited, all were astonished and were prey of a kind of ecstasy. ‘

The object of his love was before his eyes and his heart: the stone where the lifeless Body of Christ rested. It was not a dominion over the Sepulchre: it was an act of love and devotion.

2. Preserving the Holy Grave: A difficult mission. Preserving the Places of our Redemption, especially the Holy Sepulchre, was not an easy mission for the Franciscans. They had to fight on many fronts and draw on many supporters. On the one hand there were the Muslims, Mamelukes first and Ottomans later, who wanted to take advantage of the situation to get money and whose voracity was never satisfied with the flows from the Catholics, especially those who came from Spain and its Empire. They also had many legal difficulties. Yes, the owners of the Sanctuaries were the Franciscans, as they had bought them, cared for them and officiated in them; but the masters were always the venal Muslim governments, who used the Shrines to extract money from the Christians. The Sanctuaries are of the Sultan, who grants them to whom he pleases.

Political support plays an important role in this dispute of the Churches. It went until well into the sixteenth century Naples, Aragon, Castile help the Franciscans a lot, after the Battle of Lepanto (1573), Spain is practically on the fringes of politics in the Middle East and its influence in the Holy Land will be nil. France and Venice will be more active, but that relationship that had existed in previous centuries between the Franciscans and the Christian kings will be lacking. The followers of St Francis find themselves without international support. To this must be added – as a reaction to the above – the closer rapprochement between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, with which the interests of Catholics were far from the margin. There are difficulties for Franciscans coming from the same Church, when other Catholic institutions try to break that favourable treatment that the Holy See had given to the Franciscan Custody on the Holy Places; it all ended with the so-called “Sentencia de Mantua” (1420), in which the Church agrees with the Franciscans. Finally, there are the other Christian churches, especially the Greek-Orthodox, who, especially from 1757, managed to eliminate the almost monopoly that the Franciscans had on the Holy Sepulchre and change it in their favour.

Everything that the followers of Saint Francis had managed to recover and preserve for centuries was lost in one night. The catastrophe took place on the eve of Palm Sunday, April 2, 1757. Things were complicated by the “mysterious” fire of the Holy Sepulchre on October 12, 1808 that destroyed almost the entire Holy Sepulchre. The dome of the Basilica collapsed, although the interior of the Tomb of Christ prevailed (which was considered by all a miracle). On Calvary the altar of the Crucifixion and the altar of the Dolorosa were burned; the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows was saved thanks to the courage of the Franciscan Sacristan Fr. Manuel Sabater, who kept hugging her amid the flames. After the expulsion from the Cenacle in 1551, the loss of a large part of the Sepulchre, of Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Virgin, was the hardest blow in the history, always difficult, of the conservation of the Holy Places by the followers from San Francisco. The situation was crystallized in what is called “Status quo”, with the signing of Sultan Abdul Majid of 1852, in which all the requests of the Franciscans are blocked and things must be “in the state in which they are”, is say, as they are at the time, without changing. The Catholic Church lost much of the Holy Sepulchre for which the followers of St Francis had served and suffered so much in recent centuries.

3. Franciscans’ generous service in the Holy Sepulchre. The Pope, in 1342, insisted the General of the Order to send to the Holy Sepulchre “suitable and devout friars taken from the entire Order.” The friars did not come on vacation. It was a difficult mission. They did not have many economic possibilities and they also gave free accommodation to the pilgrims. And, above all, they had to pay the Muslims, even though they received great benefits for the service provided by the followers of St Francis. Despite the economic collaboration of the Christian Monarchs, the aid has never been enough.

a) The life of the Franciscans in the Holy Sepulchre. Many times in history the Franciscan has limited himself to “being here” and “not leaving” the marvellous place illuminated by the presence of Christ, “to be witnesses” of the history of revelation, “to render a service” to God. and to the Church, to fulfil “with vigilance the mission that had been entrusted to them”, as John XXIII recalled. Chateaubriand, on his pilgrimage in 1806, describes the life of the Franciscans:

«Among the ruins of Jerusalem … live some Christian religious, and nothing has been able to force them to leave the Sepulchre of Jesus Christ, neither robbery, nor mistreatment, nor death threats. Their songs resound night and day in front of the Holy Sepulchre … Turks, Arabs, Greeks and schismatic Christians, all seek the shelter of some poor religious who cannot defend themselves, and here we must recognize with Bossuet, “that the raised hands to heaven, they overthrow more battalions than hands armed with spears”»

The service to the Holy Sepulchre has meant for the friars who live there – day and night – to be “voluntarily buried” in a narrow and unhealthy place. They lived in the cold and damp cellars of the Patriarchate, lived and slept under the houses of Muslim families and were subjected to the clamour of the mosque. For centuries, the friars, locked inside the Basilica, have not had a cloister where they can walk, nor a window through which to see the city, nor a garden or a terrace where they can breathe a little air. Life in the Holy Sepulchre was so difficult that the superiors had to change the friars who were inside the Basilica every four months to avoid their deaths. In 1869, Francisco José, Emperor of Austria, obtained from the Sultan a small piece of land to be able to enlarge the space of the Franciscan convent and make a terrace, from which the friars could finally see the sky and breathe a little fresh air. The Emperor replied: “My condemned to the harshest jail are better off than the Franciscans in the Holy Sepulchre!”

Francesco Suriano, a Franciscan chronicler, considers that the privilege of being at the service of the Holy Sepulchre is a gift of Divine Providence and a grace that the Holy Spirit has granted to the Franciscans, through the intercession and through the merits of Father Saint Francis, for having been so in love with the Passion of Christ that happened in this place. Hence the duty of the friars to be worthy of such immense grace granted by the Lord.

b) Serve the Holy Sepulchre with the other Christian communities. The Franciscans have lived and live with the separated brothers in the Holy Sepulchre and in other places subject to the Status quo, where not only do they live together, but they also share the same places and even the same altars. Knowing how to live is a Christian witness. The coexistence between the Franciscans and the separated brothers, especially the Greek-Orthodox, is marked daily by gestures of friendship and good neighbourliness, which are a clear sign of trust. What greater unity than sharing everything you have, even the altar of the Sepulchre?

The presence of so many communities brings many limitations for everyone, including the Franciscans, and more than once tensions that are not easy to overcome. Until the end of the 16th century there was harmony between the communities present in the Holy Sepulchre, which found a way to live together and in peace. The strongest tensions will come from 1630, and will reach their peak in 1757, with the storming of the Basilica by the Orthodox Greeks and the burning of the Holy Sepulchre, which occurred in 1808. Thanks be to God, and the collaboration of all, today the situation is much more fraternal. Evident proof of this is the restoration of the Holy Sepulchre by the three major communities, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate.

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