Holy Land: 800 years of Franciscan presence. Patton: “Encounter is not only possible, it’s necessary”

2017 marks 800 years of Franciscan presence in the Holy Land. Like Saint Francis, who wished to meet and dialogue with the Sultan Melek-al-Kamel, while the V Crusade flared up, today, the Custody of the Holy Land continues crossing the firing lines that devastate the Middle East. A thriving, active presence committed to tolerance and peace. It’s the style of the 260 Friars Minor from 42 different Countries, serving in 50 shrines across the entire Middle East, mostly in the Holy Land.   Interview with the Custos of the Holy Land Father Francesco Patton

The current year marks the 800th anniversary of Franciscan presence in the Holy Land. In fact, in May 2017, during the Chapter of Pentecost in the Portiuncola, Assisi, the Order initiated missionary universal ministry with the decision to send its friars throughout the world as “witnesses of brotherhood and peace.” Among them figured a group of friars that were sent “beyond the sea.” They were led by Brother Elia da Cortona. They founded a Franciscan Province which was initially known as the Province of Outremer or Syria.

To celebrate the recurrence the Custody organized a set of initiatives that will culminate next October but will be ongoing until 2019, marking 800th years since the Saint Francis travelled to Damietta, near Cairo, where he met with the sultan of Egypt Melek-al-Kamel, nephew to Salah al-Din.

“Francis arrived in Acri during the Fifth Crusade – Father Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land, recalled in the interview to SIR – and then travelled to Damietta, where he met with the sultan.

Instead of remaining entrenched in his field, Francis crossed the battle line and managed to reach the opponent’s grounds to initiate dialogue. On the one side, Francis described himself as ‘simplex et idiota’ (simple and unprepared), on the other, the Sultan, showed great open-mindedness and cultural openness in welcoming the friar that had travelled from a distant land.

The encounter lasted several days, and it concluded with feelings of mutual respect and esteem. This shows that

Encounter is possible before an open heart.”

800 years following the style of Damietta: Custos Patton, what is the value of Franciscan presence in the Holy Land today, and why is it topically relevant? 
I believe the value ought to be sought in the method that the same Francis indicated to the friars in the Rule “non bollata” (Earlier rule) of 1221, in the chapter dedicated to the mission. The friars, the Saint said, should behave in two ways: they should not get involved in quarrels and disputes, and act as subjects to and servants of all human beings for the love of God and confess to be Christians.

The fact of not getting involved in disputations and clashes proved to be a successful proposal as it made it possible to adapt to the multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious environment of this Land, which is not always easy to do.

Serving others for the love of God sparked off a wide range of activities promoted by the Custody that developed over the past eight centuries.

The Franciscan presence is characterised especially by the educational commitment. What is the reason?

Education apostolate developed since the beginning. Let it suffice to remember that the first school dates back to mid-1500 in Bethlehem. Today we run a dozen of schools with over 10 thousand students, most of whom are Muslim. These are formidable places of education to coexistence and peace, necessary to avert extremisms and fundamentalisms that are presently resurging. We have also set up “Magnificat”, a music school, affiliated to the conservatory of Vicenza, where students and teachers are Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Where does the passion for archaeology originate from? We owe some of the most important archaeological findings in the Holy places to the Franciscan friars … 
Along with education, archaeology is another area that prompts the development of coexistence and peace. The reason why the friars became passionate about archaeology, since the 1900s, is their love for the Incarnation of the Son of God and for the places and the stones that transmit that memory. In fact those are not mere “stones.”

The study of Scripture in the Franciscan Centre for Biblical Studies encompasses the passion for archaeology. We are now working on the project of a Museum of the Holy Land in Jerusalem that will provide first-hand experience on the history of Christian identity in the Holy Land.

Christian identity must be placed near the Jewish and Muslim identities.

A short step separates the stones of the Holy Sites to the living stones that are the Christian communities of the Holy Land, which owing to conflicts and conditions of economic and social instability are emigrating in surging numbers…
 Archaeological stones are also those that help local Christians preserve their identity, for they represent the focus of the favourable economic impact of pilgrimages. Many initiatives promoted by the Custody provide material support and help the Christian community. These include the planning of new housing units for young couples to stop them from emigrating.

What do the friars offer to pilgrims in the Places of Jesus? 
We offer spiritual guidance and reception, along with the assurance and the grace of religious celebrations in the Holy Sites. We welcome the pilgrims so they may have a deep experience of faith. Entering the Sepulchre as pilgrims also means that death has been defeated. Our task is to favour this experience.

The logo of the celebrations is the medieval miniature of the St. Francis’ docking in the Holy Land.” It was said that in Egypt the Gospel met the Koran and the Koran met the Gospel. Francis was not afraid of Muhammad and the Sultan was not afraid of Christ. Is a new inter-faith encounter possible after 800 years?

Encounter is not only possible; it’s necessary.

We are sowing the seeds for that purpose. We must only have the patience of the sower and not let ourselves be discouraged if the fruits don’t appear immediately.