This vision which presupposes a “mystic of the Holy Places” has been part of the essence of Christianity since the first centuries, as we will analyse below, hence the importance of pilgrimages and every believer’s desire to see and touch these places.
The Church, on the other hand, has always understood that the Christocentric spirituality of St. Francis was in line with the intention to vivify the Holy Places.
These are the places where the story of Christ unfolds, seen in his human aspect as the Divine Child in Bethlehem and the man crucified on Calvary, in his childhood and, poor and humble, in his suffering.
The presence of Christ becomes real and tangible in the footsteps of the “memories” that show his passage on this earth. The sanctuaries are signs that recall the events in the life of Christ, the fundamental facts of the story of salvation. However, far from being a mere historical record or a tribute to the beauty of stones, they are a real act of faith, a perpetual meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation in the devotion and love for the Humanity of Christ.
The sons of St. Francis have been able, in his footsteps, to transmit his love for the Human character of Christ, to everyone who visits the Holy Places, in very simple ways: the prayer of great teachers, the study and analysis of Biblical texts and archaeological finds, the humble work of cleaning and looking after the Sanctuary by sacristans and the liturgical service. Pope John XXIII even said so in 1960: “We know very well that if the faithful make devoted pilgrimages to the Holy Places to kiss the holy vestiges of Our Lord, it is thanks to the vigilance of your religious.”
The Franciscans go in procession to the Grotto of the Nativity every day, especially during Christmas and Epiphany, and, venerating the Holy Place where Jesus was born, sing some of the verses from the Letter of St. Jerome with great emotion:
Here, in this small corner of the Earth, the Creator of the Universe was born.
Here he was wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Here he was laid in a crib.
Here the shepherds visited him.
Here he was announced by the star.
Here he was adored by the Three Magi.
Here the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest” hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.
Here the Lord revealed, Hallelujah, his Salvation, hallelujah.”
Fr. Artemio Vítores, ofm
Vicar of the Custody of the Holy Land