The presence of the Franciscans in the Holy Land goes back to the very origins of the Order of Friars Minor which was founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209. In 1217 the Province of the Holy Land was established when the General Chapter divided the Order into several provinces.
The Holy Land Province included the place where Christ was born, where He performed His ministry and where He died and was resurrected. For this reason the Province of the Holy Land was considered to be the jewel among the other provinces. St. Francis himself stayed several months in the Holy Land during 1219-1220.
In 1291, the city of Saint-Jean-d’Acre, the last remaining Crusader stronghold, fell into Muslim hands. The Franciscans found refuge on Cyprus. Pope John XXII permitted the Provincial Minister of the Holy Land to send two friars to the Holy Places every year. Despite the difficulties, the Friars Minor continued to exercise all possible forms of apostolate.
It wasn’t until 1333 that there was a definitive return of the Friars Minor to the Holy Land with legal possession of certain Holy Places and right of use for others. Through the mediation of the Franciscan Roger Guerin, they obtained from the sultan of Egypt the site of the Cenacle and the right to officiate at liturgies in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was established that the Friars Minor would exercise these rights on behalf of the Christian world.
This project was approved in 1342 by Pope Clement VI with the bulls Gratias Agimus and Nuper Carissimo. From then on, it was established that the friars assigned to the Holy Land could come from any province of the Order and once in service of the Holy Land, they would be under the jurisdiction of the Father Custos, the “Guardian of Mount Zion in Jerusalem.”
In 1623, the Province of the Holy Land was reorganized into a number of smaller entities, called Custodies. This is how the Custody of the Holy Land was created.
The Friars Minor, then, are the official guardians of the Holy Places by the desire and at the request of the Universal Church. Pope Paul VI, the first pope since Saint Peter to visit the Holy Land, recalled this fact and it was confirmed by Pope John Paul II during his pilgrimage during the Great Jubilee Year, 2000 AD.
Today, the Custody’s apostolate is carried out in the following countries: Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and the islands of Cyprus and Rhodes. Some 300 friars are present in these countries, working in collaboration with about 100 sisters from various congregations. The Franciscans serve the principal shrines of the Redemption, including the Holy Sepulchre, the Nativity at Bethlehem and the Annunciation at Nazareth, which hold pride of place. This work has grown to include support of schools and missions in the Holy Land, as well as care for refugees and other needy people throughout the region.