Drawn by love of the poor and crucified Christ, Saint Francis of Assisi, went to the Middle East at the beginning of the 13th century, in order to “touch” the places which, up to our day, 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. It was a peaceful encounter, which marked the beginning of the Franciscans’ presence in the Holy Land.
2019 marks the 800 years anniversary of Saint Francis meeting with the Sultan Malek el Kamel
The year 2019 is particularly significant for the Franciscans, because precisely 800 years ago Saint Francis came as a pilgrim and a witness of peace in the Holy Land, and stayed there until 1220, before returning back to Italy.
While the Fifth Crusade was in a furious stage, and it seemed that the only language possible was the language of arms, Francis of Assisi crossed over the firing lines of war and won over the logic of the clash of civilisations that was taking place. In all simplicity he followed the divine inspiration which led him to believe in the possiblity of a fraternal encounter with every creature.
It was thanks to his meeting with the Sultan Malek el Kamel and his lengthy stay in the Holy Land that he could elaborate that method of evangelisation, consisting of the witness of life and the announcing of the Word, which for these last eight centuries has inspired and which guides even today our Franciscan presence in the Middle East, through the work of the Custody of the Holy Land.
Over the course of time, this province of the Franciscan Order took the name “Custody of the Holy Land”.
Saint Francis and the Franciscans always had at heart the love of the Incarnation of Jesus, and that is why they have loved the Holy Land since the beginning. For there is no Incarnation without a place. For the Franciscans, loving this land means to love Jesus. And we cannot think of Jesus without loving His land. Because of the Franciscans’ special attachment to the Gospel of Jesus and to his Incarnation, our Catholic Church entrusted to the Franciscans the mission of preserving the places of our salvation.
The Holy Places, however much their beauty can be admired, are not just stones. They are the manifestation, the footprints of the passage of God in this world and the echo of the words of the Lord who spoke to us through prophets and apostles and became “flesh”, a man like us, living in our midst. They are stones which heard the words and drank the blood of our Saviour. That word of God and that blood that was spilt now have to be collected and preserved because they are part of the life of every Christian.
Listening to the voice that springs from those stones and understanding their message has always been the work of the sons of St. Francis in the Holy Land.
This is what the various Popes mean, when they say that the friars’ mission has been to work so that the Biblical Places become centres of spirituality, each sanctuary preserving and handing on the evangelical message and also nurturing the piety of the faithful.
The Cross of the Holy Land
The cross of the Holy Land, a Greek cross in red on a white background with four smaller crosses, one in each quadrant, also known as the “Jerusalem cross”, is the symbol of the Custody of the Holy Land.
Origins and History
There is no reliable information on the origins of the famous symbol. The sign that many have been associated with the kingdom founded by the Crusaders in 1099, actually appears on coins, seals and flags, which have nothing to do with the world of the Crusades. However, it is true that with the Crusades, the Jerusalem cross took on a political meaning, alongside its religious meaning, as well as one of territorial identity.
It is more probable that the Jerusalem cross evolved from a Greek cross with dots in place of the small crosses used by the very first Christian community in the Middle East in Roman times, a thousand years before the Crusades. Indeed, many of the signs found in different places in the Holy Land are reminiscent of the Jerusalem cross, including some mosaics where it is identical to the current one. This is the link underlying the basis for the adoption of the symbol by the Franciscans of the Holy Land.
The meaning for which the Franciscan Custody adopted it lies in its evocation of the Passion of Christ and his universal supremacy. For many, the number of crosses (four small ones plus a large one) symbolizes the five wounds of Jesus on the cross. The cross, which has always been a cosmic symbol of the number four referring to the four cardinal points and to the infinite, represents the cosmic presence of the Divine Power.