To fulfil this mission, the Franciscans have always carried out a very intense social and pastoral activity. Today this activity includes various aspects: parishes, schools, employment for Christians, building homes and so on. In the past, medical care and welfare was very important for the whole of the population (including pilgrims) of the Holy Land, in particular in Jerusalem.
This should not be a surprise if we think that the friars considered looking after the sick and lepers as a duty, in line with the teachings of their Father Francis. The General Chapter of the order in 1292 laid down instructions to regulate the study of medicine in the order, and although Canon law normally prohibits the clergy from this, the study and practice of medicine were admitted in exceptional cases and situations.
In general, there was a shortage of doctors and nurses throughout the Middle East. For this same reason, medicine was very important for the friars. For centuries, the main and most highly specialized doctors and pharmacists in Jerusalem and in the rest of Palestine were the Franciscans of the Custody. The first friar doctor sent by Pope Pius II, in 1460, was Friar Baptist Lübeck who, as well as holding a degree in medicine, was also a great expert in the field.
The friars had begun their medical and charity work much earlier. As early as 1355, the Franciscans had been appointed by Pope Innocent VI, with the Piis fidelium studiis Bull of 5th September of the same year, to run the hospital and the reception centre of Mount Zion, founded in 1352 by Sofía de Arcangelis, a wealthy noblewoman from Florence. Sofia had bought some derelict houses next to the Franciscan convent, as well as a vast piece of land, where she founded a hospice for women, with a capacity of one hundred beds.
It was on the left of the convent of Sion and access was from the cloister of the convent or from the church. It was triangular in shape, on two floors and had all the necessary to feed and accommodate the needy. On 13th December 1362, Pope Urban V granted the Franciscans the faculty of giving spiritual and sacramental assistance to the pilgrims, with the Piis devotorum desideriis Bull.
The convent also acted as a hospice with a number of rooms for pilgrims and thus assistance by the friars to pilgrims was always free of charge (save some alms) and often subject to taxes imposed by the government. The convent-guest quarters, where St. Angela de Merici, who founded the Ursulines, also stayed, ceased to exist when the Franciscans were definitively expelled from Mount Zion in 1551.
Fr. Artemio Vítores, ofm
Vicar of the Custody of the Holy Land