Of all the papal visitors to our region, there is perhaps no one more appropriately named than Pope Francis, who chose his name in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi. There is a long and deep connection between the Holy Land and St. Francis who in 1219 went to Egypt in an attempt to convert the Mameluke Sultan and put an end to the Crusades.

Giotto, St Francis before the Sultan (Trial by Fire), 1325. Image: Wikipedia.

In fact, two years earlier, in 1217, the Franciscan Order had already established a presence in the Holy Land. Since then, it has been here almost uninterruptedly; it is the Franciscans who were allowed by the Sultan to stay on in the Holy Land, and were recognized by Pope Clement VI in 1342 as Custodia Terrae Sanctae  — Custodian of the Holy Land — on behalf of the Catholic Church.

The Custodian of the Holy Land (also called the International Custodian of the Holy Land) — Custos for short — is an officer of the Franciscan order. In addition to the major shrines of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (which the Franciscans own and administer in common with the Jerusalem Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox patriarchates), the Custos also cares for 74 shrines and sanctuaries throughout the Holy Land, including properties in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Jordan.

The trust placed in the Custos has persisted throughout the centuries. In 1947, Pius XII told the Franciscans of the Holy Land: “We know that you too, as your predecessors did, work diligently so that in the holy places entrusted to your care, everything possible is done to best satisfy the piety of the faithful.” Today, the Custos use multimedia — online and off — to spread their message.

The websites of both the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity have wonderful sections about their history and archaeology that are truly worth visiting. In addition, the Custodia Terrae Sanctae website has three wonderful albums of antique photos — once rarely seen images of the holy sites that have now been scanned, recorded and uploaded to YouTube.


In honor of Pope Francis’ current visit, the Custos has prepared a didactic panel exhibition about Pope Paul VI’s 1964 visit to the Holy Land. The exhibition commemorates that historic journey through images and testimonies with a special emphasis on the historic meeting that took place 50 years ago between Paul VI and the Christian Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Atengora in Jerusalem.

The exhibition, which is free of charge, will remain open through June 30, 2014 and can be viewed at two locations: the Saint Savior Monastery at the New Gate in the Old City and the Christian Information Center, located at the Jaffa Gate. For more information, visit the Christian Information Center website.