As the Church marked Advent and looked to Christmas, attention turned once again to the sacred places of the Holy Land and the immense challenges facing the Christian population of the region. Not only do the Christians — the “living stones,” as they are called — continue to endure persecution, economic problems and political and social disabilities, the churches, missions, shrines and buildings of the Christians are also under constant threat.
Inspired by the example of St. Francis, Franciscans arrived in the Holy Land in 1217 and established what is now called the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. As Pope Blessed Paul VI said of their mission, “It was not without a Providential design that the historical events of the 13th century took the Order of Friars Minor to the Holy Land. Since then, the sons of St. Francis have remained in the Land of Jesus, to serve the local Church and to look after, restore and protect the holy places of Christianity” (Nobis in Animo, 1974).
To mark the 800th anniversary, Father Francesco Patton, the custos of the Holy Land, and Father Ramzi Sidawi, the economo (or treasurer) for the Custody of the Holy Land, visited the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C.
Father Patton was born in Trent, Italy, and made his first religious profession for the Franciscans in 1983 and his solemn profession in 1986. Ordained a priest in 1989, he studied in Rome, where he earned a licentiate in communication sciences at the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome. After holding a number of posts within the Franciscan Order, he was named custos of the Holy Land in 2016, succeeding Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, when he was appointed apostolic administrator of the Latian Patriarchate Jerusalem by Pope Francis.
Father Ramzi Sidawi is a native of Jerusalem. He made his first profession for the Franciscans in 1996 and was ordained a priest in 2002. He also served as director of one of the custody’s Terra Sancta schools in Israel and is a professor of dogmatic theology for the custody.
They spoke Nov. 9 with Register Senior Editor Matthew Bunson.
The presence of the Franciscans as custodians in the Holy Land dates back eight centuries — to the time of the Crusades. Could you describe a little bit of what that entails?
Father Patton: Yes, our presence began in 1217, as more groups of friars were sent by St. Francis, and two years later, St. Francis came to the Holy Land in 1219. A few decades later, Pope Clement VI in 1342 officially entrusted our order to be “Custodian of the Holy Places.” This was, at the beginning, we can say, a small thing, because there were just three or four holy places.
During the centuries, the places became more and more, and all around these places there were small Latin communities — that means Roman Catholic communities — and so in this way Catholic parishes started to grow up in the Holy Land. Inside the parishes, the friars were looking for what was important and necessary — not only the pastoral work, not only the evangelization, but at the same time, other important works; for example, in the 16th century, the friars understood how it was important to have Christian schools in the Holy Land. And so, the first school began in Bethlehem in the second half of the 16th century. At the same time, they were aware that to live with dignity, it is necessary to have some job, so they started to create jobs. And all these initiatives grew up during these centuries. Father Ramzi — he is from Jerusalem, he is part of the local Church, and at the same time, he is part of the Catholic community — may say something more than me.
Father Ramzi: Yes, as Father Custos and the friars started to work around the shrines, in the shrines, but even with the people who were living around the shrines, they prepared the parishes and schools to help teach the children of the parishes — but not only the children of the parishes; the schools were open, and still they are open, for everybody who lives there. And it is a very big contribution for the whole society, that the friars gave not only in the parish and pastoral work, educational work, but even for jobs. The handicrafts, especially in Bethlehem, which are very famous, were introduced by the friars to Bethlehem to help the people to work with their hands and to earn their living by their hands.
How would you describe the situation today? I know it’s very complicated.
Father Patton: Yes, today is complex and complicated, particularly because we are living in many different countries. When we are talking about the Custody of the Holy Land, we are talking not only about Israel — we are talking about Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus, Rhodes, Egypt. Even here in the United States, we have a monastery in Washington, we have three communities in Italy, so the complexity is very big. At the same time, there is another complexity: That is the fact that the custody is an international province, a Franciscan missionary province, so we are from 42 different countries. And this is, of course, complex; but at the same time, it’s wonderful. As Cardinal Sandri told us recently, this is the spirit of Pentecost. And so, we are living in a complex world, we are living in a complex context — that is the context of the Middle East; but at the same time, I think that because of our internationality, we can live in this complexity without fear, trusting in God and at the same time trying to have relationships with all the people. This is a specific yes, inside of Palestine, but it is the same, for example, for our friars living in Syria in these last years. Although difficult because of the war, they stayed always very close to the Christian — and not only the Christian — population. And they helped everybody. And they tried to be witnesses of reconciliation and peace, and I think that it was possible because we are so international. So complex, but the complexity of the Spirit, not the complexity of David [is present].
How important are the pilgrims who come to that region, especially the Holy Land?
Father Patton: The pilgrimages are important, first of all, for the pilgrims. Because when pilgrims come to the Holy Land, they can see and touch the Holy Land, and you know that Blessed Pope Paul VI said that the Holy Land is the “fifth Gospel.” It means that the pilgrim can understand that our faith is based on a fact, the fact of the Incarnation. The stones, the places, are testimony of the reality of our Incarnation and of our earthly mission.
The pilgrimages are important also because of the economy of the Holy Land. All around the shrines there is also a kind of economy, and so many people can find some work, some job, because of pilgrimages.
Father Ramzi: I agree fully with Father Custos about the importance of the pilgrimage to the pilgrim himself, because really he can touch and see and live exactly where Jesus himself lived, which is one of the most important things, where they can live exactly the mysteries of our faith in the places [where they happened]. And many pilgrims admit that their way of thinking changes after the pilgrimage because they better understood the Gospel itself.
Around the shrines we have a lot of commercial activities, not for the Franciscans, but for the people, like handicrafts, shops, hotels, guides, bus drivers: It’s a big mechanism that works together, and in certain regions like Bethlehem, it’s a very big sector for the daily living for the people.
I’ve been there, so I can appreciate how significant it is. Are you concerned about maintaining full access to all of the sites that you are custodians over?
Father Patton: Yes. To maintain full access, it is important to take care of the places. And this is also an expensive task. If we are talking about 70 places, you can well understand what it means — that ordinary maintaining, not the extraordinary maintaining — and so we need support. One, I think the main support is from the Good Friday collection, because the Good Friday collection is the official tool of the Catholic Church to help the Holy Land, and in particular the Custody of the Holy Land. In fact, the Good Friday collection is helping us for many, many issues. The first issue is the issue of the schools. We are spending, from the Good Friday collection, more or less $8 million every year for the schools. But we understand that it is very important, because in this way we can provide a good education to young people, to the Christian young people, but at the same time to others, because our schools are open [to all], and the majority of our students are Muslims, not Christians. But this is a very important, I think, commitment, and a very important task, because living together in our schools, with our education system, young people can understand what it means not only to coexist, but live together. I think that it is one of the most important tasks. And [we] also [have] many other social activities — we are trying to help local Christians with housing projects, so in Jerusalem, in the Old City, there is a continuous work of renewing apartments and houses in the surroundings of Jerusalem, of Bethlehem [and other cities and towns]. We are building, also, houses for the local Christian communities, and so these are all tools to help the Christians to stay in the Holy Land.
You’ve touched briefly on that, but one of my next questions is what can be done? What are the most important steps to be taken to preserve and grow that Christian presence?
Father Patton: I think that the first and the most important thing is not something practical, but something spiritual and pastoral. I think that to help the Christians to stay in the Holy Land, it is important that the Christians living in the Holy Land be aware that to be Christian in the Holy Land is a vocation and a mission. So, when you have this kind of deep motivation, you stay, and you stay even when it is dangerous, and you stay even when you are poor, and you stay even when there are times of persecution, and so on.
The first thing is to evangelize our Christians living in the Holy Land. The second step is to help them and to help them with dignity. We don’t want to have a local Christian community of beggars. So, when we are talking about creating job opportunities, we are precisely doing something that is helping the local Christians to stay and to live with dignity. But first of all, the motivation is: “I understand that it is a vocation to be, and to stay, here as a minority. I understand that Jesus said we are a little flock, and we don’t have to be afraid to be a little flock. I understand that Jesus told us that we have to be salt, and we don’t need more salt than what is necessary for the food. I understand that Jesus told us we have to be light, and even a small light can lighten the darkness of the night.” This is very important.
What is it to serve, and to minister, in the very place where Our Lord was born, died and rose from the dead?
Father Patton: For me, it is also a vocation, and in some way, a privilege, because I understand how many people wanted to be in the Holy Land, live in the Holy Land, serve the Holy Land and also die in the Holy Land and be buried in the Holy Land. Without searching, I had the possibility to do my service in the Holy Land and to serve the people of God and to serve the local Christians and all the local persons; and so, I think that, for me, it is a vocation, but in some way, also a privilege.
Father Ramzi: For me, it’s a special grace to be in the Holy Land, to work in the Holy Land, and for myself even, to be born in the Holy Land. It’s a special grace for us to be exactly here in the places of our redemption, of our salvation, where Jesus was incarnated, he was born, he lived, and he was crucified, resurrected and ascended to heaven. It’s a special grace, and like all graces that we receive, we have to give back to the people. It’s our work there, and our being here is somehow to thank the Lord for this grace and to pass this grace to the others. Because the grace of the Holy Land, the grace of the shrines, is a special one, and we have the duty to receive this for ourselves first and to give it back to all pilgrims and to all people who come around.
And, finally, how can Christians and anyone else help your mission? Where can they send money? Where can they find more information?
Father Patton: I think that, first of all, what we ask is: Pray for us. We believe that the power of prayer is bigger than the power of money. Our predecessors did great things because of their faith, not because of their economic possibilities. At the same time, we need to be supported, and I say that we need to be supported particularly through the Good Friday collection — that is a pontifical collection; that means that, all around the world, in the Catholic churches on Good Friday, the faithful are also sharing with us some economic resources.
Another way is to help us through the commissariat. For example, here in Washington, there is the commissariat of the Holy Land. It is a wonderful place, and it is at the same time a place for pilgrimage, because when you visit the commissariat of the Holy Land here in Washington, you can see the exact reproduction of Bethlehem, the grotto and the Magi [at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America]. You can see the exact reproduction of Golgotha, of the stone of the anointing, and of the Holy Edicule. It is a very wonderful shrine here in Washington, D.C., and through our commissariat, it is possible also to give offerings and to support us, and at the same time to continue to be informed about the Holy Land. It is very important that the support be not only the economical support, but for the faithful to stay informed about what is happening in the Holy Land, about what is concerning the Holy Land and about what the Christians in the Holy Land are living.