Where The Word Of God Walked
3/1/2018by Columbia staff
An interview with Father Francesco Patton about the care for Christian shrines and pilgrims in the Holy Land
Franciscan Father Francesco Patton was named the Custos of the Holy Land in May 2016. A native of Italy, he is charged with leading a Franciscan province that has overseen the region’s sacred shrines for the past 800 years. Known as the “Custody of the Holy Land,” its apostolate is carried out in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and the islands of Cyprus and Rhodes.
In November 2017, Father Patton and the Custody of the Holy Land awarded Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson and the Knights of Columbus the Grato Animo Award for the Order’s work to end persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.
Columbia recently corresponded with Father Patton about the history and work of the Custody.
COLUMBIA: How did the Franciscan presence in the Holy Land begin eight centuries ago, and what have been its most defining characteristics?
FATHER PATTON: It began as a missionary presence after the Chapter of Pentecost of 1217, when Franciscans set out to evangelize the known world. The first Franciscans arrived under the direction of Brother Elias of Cortona, one of the most trusted brothers of St. Francis. St. Francis himself came to the Holy Land in 1219, and we remember his peaceful encounter with the Sultan Malik al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt.
From the very beginning, St. Francis wanted our presence to be in service of all for the love of God and with a clear Christian identity. It was his love for the mysteries of the incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ that led to our special bond with the holy places of Christianity.
Our fraternal presence is rooted in and around the shrines in the service of evangelization and pastoral ministry, but also as a social presence through schools, institutions, charitable activities and other initiatives.
COLUMBIA: What is the current scope of the Custody’s responsibility for the care of the Holy Land’s shrines?
FATHER PATTON: We are presently taking care of around 70 shrines, the majority of which are found in Israel and Palestine. The most famous are the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
There is also a very important shrine in Jordan, namely the Memorial of Moses, and two shrines in Damascus, Syria: the Memorial of the Conversion of St. Paul and the House of St. Ananias, which marks the place of St. Paul’s baptism.
All of the shrines demand constant maintenance, while others are in need of highly specialized works of restoration and expert archaeological studies. There is also work linked with rendering these shrines more welcoming to pilgrims.
COLUMBIA: What are some of the most notable restoration initiatives in the recent past and the near future?
FATHER PATTON: The most recent and important works of restoration have undoubtedly been those of the Edicule of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. We are also continuing work in the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem and concluding restoration of the Grotto of the Annunciation in Nazareth.
There are continuous works even in the smallest shrines, which are an important memory of the facts narrated in the Gospel.
COLUMBIA: A hallmark of the Custody has always been hospitality and spiritual care of pilgrims. How common are such pilgrimages today?
FATHER PATTON: More than 400,000 pilgrims from all over the world and from all Christian confessions booked celebrations in our shrines in 2017 through the services of the Franciscan Pilgrim Office. In this past year, the number of pilgrims coming from the United States, the most represented country, has doubled.
Many of our brothers from the United States lead groups of pilgrims, and our brothers present in the Holy Land often meet with the groups as well. We also welcome pilgrims to Franciscan centers of hospitality known as “Case Nove.”
It is important for us to be able to offer an experience of faith, of prayer and of welcome in our shrines.
COLUMBIA: How crucial is the Holy Land collection on Good Friday in supporting the Custody’s work?
FATHER PATTON: The Good Friday collection is the principal instrument by which Divine Providence serves to support our presence in the Holy Land. It is the means through which the solidarity of all the Church with the “Mother Church” of Jerusalem is realized. Concretely, without the Good Friday collection the maintenance of the shrines would become more difficult and our efforts would have to be drastically reduced. We would have to close many of our schools and suspend social projects that aid local Christians and the poor.
COLUMBIA: What has been your own experience of visiting, and now living in, the Holy Land?
FATHER PATTON: My first experience in the Holy Land was in 1997, when I came as a pilgrim. I arrived in Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon, and the first thing I did was go and pray at the Holy Sepulcher, which during that moment was practically empty. I entered the Edicule and knelt down in prayer with my head resting on the marble slab that protects the rock upon which the body of Jesus was placed. Even today, that place is for me a place of great peace and Christian hope, because in that place death has been conquered.
Living in the Holy Land in my responsibility as Custos entails helping my brothers to live their own Franciscan vocation. It is a service to the small local Christian community and to the pilgrims who arrive from all over the world, and it is also a service linked to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, placing me in contact with the civil and political realities.
It is certainly a more complex and demanding experience than that of my first pilgrimage. However, it still continues to be, first and foremost, an experience of faith and an authentic experience of grace.
COLUMBIA: How significant is the presence of Christians, who now comprise a very small percentage of the population in the Holy Land?
FATHER PATTON: As Christians in the Holy Land, we are now about 2 percent — but the most important thing is not our numbers but rather the quality of our evangelical life. Jesus began his mission with the Twelve Apostles and a group of women who followed him. He exhorted them to be salt, leaven and light. This is the true challenge for Christians in the Holy Land, who have a special vocation and mission of living and sharing the Gospel message in the land where Jesus lived.
COLUMBIA: What role has the Custody played in promoting dialogue and peace among people of different faiths?
FATHER PATTON: Ecumenical and interreligious dialogue in the Holy Land is an activity of daily life. Our schools, for example, are a place where children and young people from all confessions grow up. With the Jewish culture, we have occasions for dialogue thanks to the cultural interest that some of our activities and our shrines present.
On the ecumenical front, our privileged relations are with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate, since we share with them the care of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. However, there are also friendly relations with the other Christian communities present in Jerusalem, including the Copts, the Ethiopians, the Syriacs, the Anglicans and the Lutherans. The Custody plays its positive role precisely because it is appreciated as open to dialogue, to peace, to the service of all.
COLUMBIA: What more would you like to say to our readers?
FATHER PATTON: What I desire to add is simply a heartfelt invitation to come to the Holy Land as pilgrims in order to see the places of the Gospel and touch the stones that conserve the memory of our salvation.
Blessed Paul VI called the Holy Land the “Fifth Gospel” because it is the concrete place in which the Gospel has been announced and where it took flesh. My great wish is that pilgrims to the Holy Land have powerful experiences of faith inspiring a deeper commitment of witness of one’s love for the Lord Jesus.