From Monday 4 December to Friday 8 December, the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton, visited Croatia. He was accompanied by fra Sandro Tomašević, Discreet of the Holy Land, and fra Siniša Srebrenović, guardian of the Convent of the Agony (Gethsemane), both Croatian, and who have been in service at the Custody for several years.
Top level meetings
The trip had been planned for some time and had both institutional and religious motivations. Fra Patton met some Franciscan communities, with whom he was able to fraternally share his concern about what is happening in the Holy Land and the life of the friars of the Custody. The agenda of meetings with the civic and religious authorities, including the Prime Minister of Croatia, Andrej Plenković, the nuncio in Croatia, Mons. Giorgio Lingua and the archbishop of Zagreb, Mons. Dražen Kutleša, was also full. The Custos presented the activities of the Franciscans in the Holy Places but also the complex situation of the Christian community. Special attention was given to the social projects, related to education and health care.
A piece of Croatia at the Shepherds’ Field
“We met the highest authorities of the country,” the Custos said at the end of his visit, “to officially thank the Croatian government, which funded the building of the Croatian chapel at the Shepherds’ Field, in Beit Sahour, and all those who worked to achieve this result.” The inauguration of the Croatian Chapel at Shepherds’ Field was scheduled for 8 November, but after the outbreak of the conflict between Israel and Gaza, it has been postponed to a date to be determined. “The Chapel,” the Custos underlined, “is important for promoting this Holy Place.” The Prime Minister received the Custos and his delegation for a long meeting, during which the parties investigated the possibility of future projects in collaboration. This was followed by a meeting with the President of the Parliament, Gordan Jandroković, and the Member of Parliament, Marijana Petir, head of the Inter-Parliamentary Group of Croatian-Israeli Friendship.
Protomartyr of the Custody
In Croatia, fra Patton paid tribute to two Franciscan friars who spent their lives for the Holy Land and in the Holy Land. One of them, fra Nikola Tavelić, is also the first saint and martyr of the Custody of the Holy Land. He was killed by Muslims in Jerusalem in 1391 for his preaching, together with three confreres. The Custos of the Holy Land visited Šibenik, the city where fra Nikola was born and where a shrine dedicated to him stands. The Custos celebrated Mass here, emphasizing how topical this figure is: “For us, friars of the Holy Land, the testimony of St Nikola and his companions is an example of Christian strength and missionary courage,” fra Patton said. It also “motivated thousands of friars from all over the world to give a turning-point to their lives” to the services of the Holy Land: “in being a fraternal, praying and welcoming presence in the shrines; in the pastoral service of the small Christian community and in the educational service open to all, in keeping alive the Christian memory and identity of the Holy Places, in the studies of the Scripture and biblical archaeology, in testifying the real foundation of our faith; in welcoming pilgrims and in serving the poor and the sick.”
In memory of Jeronim Mihaic
Another important stopping place was Pučišići, on the island of Brač. Here the Custos presided over the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the birth of another Croatian Franciscan friar, Jeronim Mihaic, who linked his life and his name to the Holy Land forever. “He was a very important friar for the Custody,” fra Patton explained, “because he was able to purchase Mount Nebo and the site of Mukhayyat from the Bedouins. In 1933 he started the archaeological excavations in collaboration with the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, which brought to the light the Memorial of Moses and the city of Mukhayyat”. Fra Jeronim, who was also a skilful rider and hunter, was able to conquer the trust of the local population and was a friend of the great-grandfather of the present-day King of Jordan. His remains still rest on Mount Nebo, alongside those of fra Michele Piccirillo. The Custos blessed a plaque in memory of fra Jeronim in Pučišići.
The “Croatian Nazareth”
A homage to the “Croatian Nazareth”, in Trsat, a suburb of the city of Fiume, could not fail to be included. Tradition has it that the Holy House of Nazareth remained here for three years, from 1291 to 1294, before reaching Loreto. Today a Marian shrine stands on that spot. On 8 December, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the Custos presided over the dawn Mass in the church of St Anthony of Padua. He then visited the House for retreats of Tabor, where he blessed a statue of the Child Jesus purchased in Bethlehem.
For the Holy Land
“I was very impressed by the great interest that everyone showed in the Holy Land and in what is happening there,” the Custos said on his return from his trip to Croatia. He found those who prayed for peace there, but also many who expressed their desired for concrete solidarity – including at political level, he specified, “I found great sensitivity and willingness to support projects in the Holy Land, in particular in Bethlehem” where the Franciscans run some charities dedicated in particular to children and youngsters: the Children’s Home, Catholic Action and the Terra Sancta School. “I also received great assurance of support for our missions in Syria and Lebanon in the social area.”