In this year of significant religious anniversaries, the 800 years since

St Francis sent the first friars to the Holy Land does not register alongside the Reformation or Fatima. Yet that decision continues to shape the Christian presence at our holiest sites.

The local Churches in the Holy Land are not in strong shape. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the largest of the Christian Churches, has long been dogged by both internal factionalism and occasional scandal. The Latin Patriarchate – the Roman Catholic diocese – is stronger due to the international support it receives from the Pontifical Mission for Palestine and the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre.

Yet last year when the Latin Patriarch, Fouad Twal, retired, the Holy See judged that there was no suitable local candidate for the diocese. Pope Francis left the patriarchate vacant and turned to the Franciscans to provide an archbishop administrator, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the recently retired Custos of the Holy Land.

The Custos is the head of the local Franciscan province, known as the Custody of the Holy Land. It was that province which the Franciscans established at their first general chapter in 1217. In the eight centuries since, as the presence of the various Churches of east and west have waxed and waned, the Franciscan Custody has been the enduring and reliable Christian presence at the holy sites.

Though it was a surprise that the Holy Father chose the former Custos to step in to run the Latin patriarchate, it is not the first time the Franciscans have provided leadership in a difficult time. In 1949, after Arab states attacked the newly established State of Israel and the subsequent armistice reshaped the Holy Land, the Venerable Pius XII chose Alberto Gori, who had been Custos for 12 years, as the Latin Patriarch, a position he held until 1970.

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