The Question of the Holy Places (1517-1852)

Vocations “come and follow me”

The Question of the Holy Places

A Firman

This was, without a doubt, the most difficult period in the age-old history of the Holy Land. Never as in this period of time has it been possible to verify the saying accorded to the Holy Land, "there is never July weather, it is always March," meaning that one cannot be sure of anything because everything can change in an instant the way the weather changes in the month of March.

It was a time of persecution: harassment, expulsion, exile and the stripping away of laboriously acquired rights were the order of the day. Over the previous three centuries, the Franciscans had established a substantial presence at the shrines. The Franciscan community had settled in and built a convent at Mount Zion, with exclusive rights to officiate at the Holy Cenacle, and officiated together with other Christian communities at the Holy Sepulcher, the Basilica of St. Mary in the Valley of Josaphat and the Nativity in Bethlehem. At the Holy Sepulcher during the 15th century, the Franciscans were in exclusive and peaceful possession of the building of the Sepulcher itself, of the Chapel of Calvary and of the Crypt of the finding of the Cross.

In 1517, Mamluk rule in Palestine was succeeded by that of the Turkish sultans based in Constantinople. The Greek Orthodox communities, taking advantage of the fact that their members were subjects of the Ottoman Empire, came streaming into the Holy Land.

Competition for the possession of the holy places led those communities to begin a defamation campaign against the Franciscans, depicting them as usurpers, foreigners, and enemies of the Turkish Empire. In that period, the Custody of the Holy Land underwent unjust usurpations.
The most humiliating and serious was definitive expulsion from the Holy Cenacle, which took place in 1552. It was a hard blow: the convent of Mount Zion had been, for two centuries, the heartbeat of Franciscan activity in the Holy Land.

Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, the history of the holy places in regard to the right of legal possession saw a succession of losses and partial recuperations. If everything was not lost at the Basilicas of the Holy Sepulcher and the Nativity, this was due to the partial and laborious action undertaken by the heads of the Custody. They asked Catholic rulers to begin diplomatic work with the Muslim sultans of Constantinople for the defense of Catholic rights in the holy places.

Pope Urban VIII himself, with a bull issued in 1623, reaffirmed that it was the right and duty of all Catholic princes to protect the Franciscans of the Holy Land.
While losses of rights were experienced in the Basilicas of the Holy Sepulcher, the Nativity and the Tomb of the Virgin in the Valley of Josaphat, the Franciscans acquired new rights in other places.
In 1620, they took definitive possession of the site of the Annunciation in Nazareth, and were granted Mount Tabor. The two acquisitions were a result of the benevolence of the Druze Prince Fakhr-al-Din.
In 1684, the area of Gethsemane was acquired, and in 1679, that of the shrine of St. John in Ein Karem.
In 1754, the Shrine of the Nutrition in Nazareth was acquired, and in 1836, that of the Flagellation in Jerusalem.

Reviewing the history of the Custody from the 16th to the 19th century, note should be made of the variations that the Custody’s juridical profile underwent in ecclesiastical law - variations in practice corresponding to the evolution of the juridical figure of the Father Custos.
Dominican Fr. Felice Fabri, who was in the Holy Land in 1480, and again in 1483, presents the Father Custos of the Holy Land to us with the rank and title of "Provisor" for the Latin Church in the East, an office that, as he says, was frequently conferred by the Pope.
The first time that the Custody of the Holy Land was presented as "Responsale" by the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in almost the entire Middle East was in 1628. Later it became a regular “Institution.” Records also charge the Custos with the office of "Prefect of the Missions of Egypt and of Cyprus." Another important title and juridical attribute is that of "Apostolic Commissioner of the Holy Land and of the East." All of these duties remained the responsibility of the Father Custos until the reconstitution of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in 1847.

Naturally, the relationship between the Custody of the Holy Land and the Catholic West also had an economic aspect, as the Franciscan organization was not involved in capital investment and refrained from any possible gain in its areas of activity.
Thus it was necessary that the Custody needed to be externally financed. Over the centuries, the Popes reminded the entire Church through important documents of its duty to help the Holy Land, requiring periodic collections in all dioceses. Economic aid from European governments was also certainly providential, even if it was not always adequate in fulfilling the material needs and the needs of prestige, an important aspect in the Eastern culture in which the Custody operates.
In this respect, great assistance was provided to the Custody by the Kingdom of Naples through the creation of the Commissariat of Naples in the year 1621, through which funds that had been collected were sent to the Holy Land. Another Commissariat was created in 1636, in the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, based in Messina, followed by another in Palermo.
From the other end of Italy, Venice encouraged pilgrimages to the Holy Land by providing transport on its ships and the guarantee of a safe voyage. In 1593, it was even established that the Custos and those religious elected with him to govern the friars serving the Holy Places would set out for the East exclusively from Venice. In 1520, the Venetian Senate expressed a desire to become the advocate of the Guardian of Mount Zion, reminding the Pope that the Franciscan order had custody of the holy places, and asking him to confirm this privilege. Venice was also committed to the defense of the holy places through its diplomatic relations with Constantinople.
France's policy on the Custody of the Holy Land was expressed through Capitulations or contracts granted by the Ottoman Empire, which France received for the first time in 1535, from the Sultan of Constantinople, Suleiman II the Magnificent. When Suleiman was in full expansion toward Europe and elsewhere, King Francis I signed an alliance with him against Henry VIII of England, causing great scandal among the Christian kingdoms of Europe.

But the Capitulations nonetheless served as a bridge that allowed the Muslim states to enter into peaceful and friendly relations with the Christian world. For France, the Capitulations constituted a moral obligation to intervene and protect the Franciscans through the intermediation of its ambassadors in Constantinople, who intervened in moments of grave difficulty, especially in the 17th century. Later, the French consul resided in Seyde, traveling to Jerusalem to address unresolved questions. On these occasions liturgical honors were rendered. This situation lasted until 1793. The Capitulations disappeared definitively only in 1917, with the Allied occupation of Jerusalem, and were not legally abolished until 1923 with the Treaty of Lousanne.

The French Protectorate over all Catholics began with King Louis XIV, who wanted to be the defender of the Christians of the Ottoman Empire, although he only implicitly obtained this right and in rather ambiguous terms. It was only under King Louis XV, with the Capitulation of 1740, that the rights of the Protectorate of France were sanctioned and officially recognized, thanks to the role that the Protectorate played on behalf of the Ottoman Empire at the Treaty of Belgrade. The Holy See officially recognized the French Protectorate over all Catholics of every nationality within the Ottoman Empire, including Turks, the Ottoman Empire and those of the Eastern Rites. In 1870, France was alarmed by the appointment of the patriarchal vicar of Constantinople as apostolic delegate. The Protectorate was also prepared to intervene in the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Turkey, but those under French protection who were not French citizens resented the arrangement. After the start of the twentieth century, more and more non-French religious lost the practice of using their respective consuls, so that the protection of the latter was added to that of France. The French Protectorate continued until 1923, and was abandoned at San Remo by representatives of France. The end point can be traced to the Lausanne Peace Treaty, signed between Turkey and the Entente Powers July 24, 1923. All that is left of this long tradition marked by diplomacy is the liturgical honors still granted by the Vatican to France in some of the countries once belonging to the Ottoman Empire.


From the beginning, Spain worked to help the Christians and friars in the Holy Land by sending large sums of money to the East. When the Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile were united, the Catholic monarchs assumed the responsibility of helping the Holy Land and the Franciscan guardians of the shrines, sending one thousand crowns each year for this purpose. In 1550, Charles V approved funds for the restoration of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. In 1646, the Sacred Congregation issued a decree prohibiting the Franciscans of the Holy Land from using money to buy back shrines. The Spanish King then took direct action in the matter, sending a Spanish friar to the court of Constantinople, who, after eleven years, obtained the restitution of the rights of the Franciscans over the shrines that had been usurped by the Greeks.
In 1714, the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher was restored, and again the Spanish King covered the cost of the project. An institution was established in Madrid for the "Pious Work of the Holy Places”, that administered aid to the Holy Land.
Charles III defended the rights of Spanish patronage over the holy places was with the Royal Bull of 1772, in response to the Bull of Pope Benedict IV In supremo, in which these rights were not mentioned. This royal decree was a stern warning to anyone who took an interest in the problems of the Holy Land. In order to defend their rights, the King forced Pope Pius VI to publish the Brief Inter multiplices in 1878, which confirmed the claims of Charles III, a document that he later withdrew because of the political situation in Spain. In 1846, with the Bull Romani pontifices, the Holy See reunified the case of Spain and that of the Nation into a single case in support of the Holy Land. In 1853, the Spanish Consulate in Jerusalem was created in order to protect religious Spaniards in the Holy Land and to administer money sent by the Attorney General of the Friars so that these funds did not fall into the hands of the Latin Patriarchate, which had been reconstituted in 1848. Pressured by Isabella II of Spain to send missionaries to the Holy Land, the “College of Priego” was founded in 1853, followed by those of Santiago de Compostela and Chipiona.

Also in this period, many friars of the Custody were victimized because of their faith. In 1530, friars were incarcerated because of the legend of the treasures collected in the Holy Sepulcher: the unfaithful tried to seize the treasures and, failing that, put the friars in prison for 27 months. Another persecution broke out in Palestine between 1537 and 1540, when Muslims took revenge for the defeat of 1537, imprisoning the friars of Mount Zion and Bethlehem in Damascus for 38 months. In 1551, the friars were expelled from Mount Zion, settling first in the Tower of the Furnace and later, in 1558, in St. Savior’s Convent. In 1548, a persecution broke out in Nazareth, causing the friars to flee to Jerusalem. The situation was repeated between 1632 and 1638. Other brothers died in the Holy Land because of the hatred of the Greeks, as was the case in 1560 on the Island of Candia, when two friars were thrown into the sea. The arrival of Napoleon in the Holy Land sparked persecutions in Jerusalem and Ramleh in 1799. The situation was escalated by a recurring plague in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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