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“We did it!”: Franciscans celebrate 800 years in the Holy Land

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The Friars of the Custody of the Holy Land continue today as guardians of holy places in the Middle East.

This year marks 800 years since the Franciscans arrived in the Holy Land. In 1217, only six years after the founding of St. Francis’ order, Brother Elias of Cortuna arrived in Syria to establish an outpost as missionaries of fraternity and peace.

The new Holy Land province they established include the holy places where Christ was born, performed his ministry, died and was resurrected, and since that time, the Franciscans have served as guardians of these sacred sites.

St. Francis himself traveled to the province in 1219, and famously met with the Sultan Melek-el-Kamel at the height of the Crusades. His dialogue with the sultan, who had decreed that anyone who brought him the head of a Christian should be rewarded with a gold piece, so impressed the Muslim leader that he allowed the Franciscans to continue their work in peace.

Today, the Custody of the Holy Land carries out their work in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and the islands of Cyprus and Rhodes. Over 300 Franciscans serve the principal shrines of the Redemption, including the Holy Sepulchre and the Basilicas of the Nativity at Bethlehem and the Annunciation at Nazareth.

The order also supports schools and missions in the Holy Land, and cares for refugees and the poor living throughout the Middle East.

To kick off the celebrations, on Trinity Sunday this year, Franciscans embarked on a pilgrimage beginning in Acri, Syria, where the first Franciscans made landfall.

Fr. Narciso Klimas, of the Custody of the Holy Land said, “It is great to be here: we are here! Frankly, when I saw Acri, I said: ‘We made it!’ This is the most important message. They stayed, they overcame all the problems they faced over the centuries and today we are able to celebrate not only their first coming but their stay, their battle for these holy places, and their victory!”

“It must be said that during these 800 years, we have been and we are the real winners and we won, not with the weapons of the crusaders and the swords, but in a spiritual way. The Pope entrusted us with the protection of the holy places and today we can clearly say to the pope: ‘We did it! We made it!’” Fr. Klimas added.

The celebration of the 8th centennial will culminate in mid-October with three days of conferences and concerts from the Terra Sancta Organ Festival, featuring music from the Holy Land performed in the churches and shrines where the Franciscans have carried out their work. The concerts will be led by Robert Kovács, the Hungarian organist of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Kovács will include some songs that refer to the episodes of St. Francis’s life depicted in the Upper Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.

All are welcome — why not plan a pilgrimage of your own around the October festivities?

Terra Sancta Organ Festival concert schedule:

– October 17: Tel Aviv-Jaffa, St. Peter’s Church

– October 18: Nazareth, Basilica of the Annunciation

– October 19: Jerusalem, St. Savior’s Church

– October 20: Bethlehem, Church of St. Catherine at the Nativity

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