To continue their mission, the Franciscans needed the help of people who felt their same vocation, in exactly the same way as today. In about 1350, the friars founded the “Knights of the Holy Sepulchre”, with the idea that the relationship of Christians with the Holy Sepulchre ought to be formed with love and suffering rather than with weapons.
Although they were laymen, the knights acted in agreement with the guidance and the strength of Franciscan spirituality, which has as its purpose “peace and good” for all. The same spirituality was also at the basis of the medical care and welfare exercised in the hospital of Mount Zion. This activity was then officialised by Pope Urban VI with the Ad ea quae piorum Bull of 10th April, 1384 addressed to the Custody and the Franciscans of Mount Zion.
After having seen the continuous stream of the sick and pilgrims and after having observed the shortage of personnel, the Pope decided to grant to the friars the possibility of having “ten persons all inspired by God and love for the poor and the sick”, with the condition that they were “over 40 years of age.” These people were to be some of those who help the Franciscan friars in their activity at Mount Zion.
This was how the first voluntary service for the Holy Land under the guidance of the Franciscan Custody came into being.
In particular, the volunteers were pious people at the service of the Franciscans, who lived in a sort of convent-home not far from their convent and who also enjoyed a certain prestige amongst the Muslims. According to Francesco Suriano, Custos of the Holy Land and missionary for a long period in the Land of the Lord, no Muslim would ever have dared be rude to any of the women volunteers, whether young or elderly, alone or accompanied, inside or outside the city, respecting all women: Christians, Jews and Muslims.
These women could therefore travel around alone and in complete tranquillity in Bethlehem, Ein Karem and Bethany without fearing harassment (Il Trattato di Terra Santa e dell’Oriente, 118). The Franciscan tertiaries had as their first task that of running the Mount Zion hospital and helping women in particular but they also kneaded bread for the friars and pilgrims, looked after the chickens and prepared ornaments.
They continued as Franciscan volunteers until the expulsion of the Friars Minor from the Cenacle who, together with the friars, were the only Catholic Christians in Jerusalem. As Father Francesco Soriano also said at the end of the 15th century, “no Catholic Christian lives in the Holy Land, whether lay or religious, with the exception of our friars and our blessed sisters of the Third Order” who, he added, “are honest women, and out of good respect and to avert every suspicion, live a holy life of good morals.”
Being a real Christian in the service of the poor and needy is fundamental in voluntary service for the Holy Land, including to guarantee the respect and love of the people. Speaking of the Franciscans of Mount Sion, Ludolfo Sudheim, in the Holy Land from 1336 to 1341, said that “the friars were very courageous men, loved not only by pilgrims and merchants, but even by the Saracens, for the good that they bestowed on them all.”
Fr. Artemio Vítores, ofm
Vicar of the Custody of the Holy Land