Patron of the Holy Land

April 11 2014 | by

THIS MONTH Pope Francis visits the Holy Land, in the footsteps of Saint Francis himself. As is well known, St. Francis was much concerned with the ‘Mission to Islam’. His rule makes special provision for those brothers who wish to work among ‘the Saracens’, and he sent missionary friars both westwards to Morocco and eastwards towards Egypt and Palestine. He made more than one unsuccessful attempt to go in person, before he finally achieved his ambition. He famously preached to the Sultan of Egypt, at a time when Christian armies were attempting to regain control of the Holy Places by force.

Saint Anthony’s connection with the Holy Land is more indirect. We all know how, following the martyrdom of St. Berard and his companions, Anthony was inspired to leave the Augustinian Canons of Coimbra and join the little Franciscan community outside the city. He asked leave to be sent as a missionary to Morocco, but though he reached Africa, his ambition was frustrated by illness, and God’s plan was for him to exercise a wonderful preaching and teaching ministry in Italy and France.

Because of his fame as the ‘Saint Paul’ of the Franciscan movement, the friars themselves had a great devotion to him, not least those brothers who, following in the footsteps of Francis himself, watched over the Holy Places in Palestine. Yet it was not until the early 20th century that this devotion was marked formally by the choice of Anthony as ‘special patron and protector’ of the Custody of the Holy Land. How did this come about?


The Great War


Until the Great War of 1914-18, Palestine was ruled by the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, which extended from the Balkans around the eastern Mediterranean and into Egypt. Their policy was to allow a certain autonomy to the various religious groups within their territories, including Christians of several denominations, Catholic, Orthodox and so on. The religious authorities were responsible to the Sultan’s government for keeping order within their communities, seeing that taxes were paid, and so on. Non-Muslims were ‘second-class citizens’, but granted much freedom and tolerance within that status.

In 1914 Turkey was allied with Germany as one of the ‘Axis Powers’ opposed to the western alliance of Britain, France and Italy, together with Russia. By 1917 European citizens of the Allied Powers were still able to live in Palestine, and this included Italian Franciscans of the Holy Land Custody. However, there came a time when the Turkish governor of Jerusalem, Jamal Pasha, ordered them to be imprisoned. If this order had been enforced, the Holy Places would have lost their Catholic guardians.


Protector of the Custody


The Franciscan superior, Fr. Eutimio Castellani, requested a series of three Triduums in honour of St. Anthony to be held in all the houses of the Custody. The decisive one was held from April 22 to 27. On the morning of the third day, the Patriarch of Jerusalem went to see Jamal Pasha, to intercede for his auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Piccardo, who was seriously ill. Although the decree for the imprisonment of foreign citizens had by then been issued, the Governor exempted not only Msgr. Piccardo, but all the Italian Franciscan priests and lay-brothers.

It was as a result of this answer to prayer that Fr. Castellani renewed his desire (which he had already conceived) to have Saint Anthony named as Protector of the Custody. Nor was this the end of the Saint’s help. In November 1917 a further order for the imprisonment of the friars was made, and another Triduum was held. On the last day, a telegram arrived from Constantinople authorising their release, and further stipulating that “the Franciscans of the Holy Land should no longer be troubled; rather, they should be allowed to remain where they are, since they are harmless and are not involved in politics.”

When the war was over, Fr. Castellani’s desire was fulfilled, and on July 28, 1920, Pope Benedict XV decreed that henceforth St. Anthony of Padua should be the special patron and protector of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. St. Anthony’s Day is now kept as a Solemnity.


Pope Francis


Now our current pontiff is visiting the Holy Land, renewing a recent custom inaugurated by Pope Paul VI. Every time a Pope makes this pilgrimage, there are hopes that he will inspire a fervent will to work for peace in that troubled region. It seems ironic that peace is still so elusive in the very land in which Our Lord, the Prince of Peace, lived and died. Somehow, the Holy Land of Israel exemplifies, in its small space, the tragedy of human enmity and hostility throughout the world. If we could only bring reconciliation there, between Israeli and Palestinian, between Jew, Christian and Muslim, then perhaps we would have found the key to unlock so many intractable situations elsewhere.

The present Pope has caught the world’s imagination by his unassuming style, and even by his choice of name. Francis is one of the most beloved of Saints, even outside the Church, renowned for his love of the poor, and for his joyful proclamation of the Gospel of Peace. In the strife-ridden Italy of the 13th century, Francis sent his friars out in imitation of Jesus, with a greeting of peace and goodwill: Pace e bene. Simply by calling himself Francis, the Pope has signalled that this is his priority too. But will the world listen? Our fervent prayers, along with those of St. Francis and St. Anthony, and of our Blessed Lady, will accompany the Holy Father on his journey.


Last article


With this month’s article, I am concluding my series of reflections on Saint Anthony, his life, his writings and his influence, which I have been contributing to the Messenger since 2003. It has been a great honour to write for this magazine, but I have been thinking for a little while that it is time to hand on to someone else. Fr. Mario has been very understanding, and from next month there will be a fresh mind and a fresh style in this slot. I very much hope that you, my dear readers, have been entertained and informed by what I have written, and I wish you and the Messenger every blessing. I shall continue to read it avidly, and (who knows?) I may yet contribute once in a while, if the Editor asks me.

Updated on October 06 2016