A Latin island in the midst of an
Pilgrimages to the Holy Land have experienced a
considerable revival since the first half of the 19th century, when the
number of visitors reached a million.
In England alone between 1840 and 1880 there were 1,600
books and leaflets
on these pilgrimages and innumerable photocopies, lithographs and works
by the various landscape painters
circulated in this period.
Travel for pilgrims was facilitated by a considerable
improvement in the logistic aspects and the means of transport. The
voyage from Naples to Port Said, on the new steamers, had become
reasonably easy, safe and quick: the distance could be covered in five
or six days. The pilgrimages were made up of devout Anglicans,
Lutherans, Baptists and, of course, Catholics. They all proved to be
inspired by the same wish for "conquest", if only in the religious
Even General Allenby considered himself in a certain way
a pilgrim. On entering Jerusalem in 1917 he found it quite natural to
proclaim the re-establishment of the dominion of the Crusades, even
after an interval of 730 years.
Some pilgrims and travellers from France
more and more numerous in the Holy Land from the second half of the 19th
told, on their return, of the shocking "barbarity" of those distant
lands: of the dirt, negligence, intolerance and corruption.... such
criticism was echoed by the Germans, following Wilhelm II (1898), and
hence was also levelled by the English led by General Allenby (1917).
Not only was the Ottoman Government accused of
backwardness but the rival Europeans present in the territory were also,
if indirectly, accused of inadequacies.
The last to arrive would generally exercise the
prerogative of blaming their immediate predecessors. If one of the last
links in the chain of accusers were the English, the first to be taken
to task, it seems, were the Franciscans themselves, accused by French
pilgrims of being backward and out of date, especially concerning the
education they offered.
The Protestants were the first to make themselves
champions of "civilization" in the antiquated Orient. So it was that,
precisely in the light of all that the Protestants had done, especially
in the area of education
school was in fact considered the tool to use as a lever on which to
rely in order to spread the "civilization"
Catholics began to criticize the Friars of their own religion for their
lack of enterprise.
Indeed, the most critical proved to be the heirs of
Gallican Ultramontanism: the readers of L'Univers and the
supporters of the Pious Mission Societies.
Addressing The Congregation for the Propagation of the
Faith in 1844, the French Consul in Jerusalem wrote a critical letter on
schools run by the Franciscans. Their superior was obliged to defend
himself and made an attempt to explain "que Paris ne se trouve pas en
Terre Sainte" [that Paris is not in the Holy Land].
He argued that: "the education of the young generations
had been prohibited down the centuries, or rather had been subject to
Qur'anic law. Only the reform initiated by Muhammad Ali and continued by
his son Ibrahim Pasha (1830) permitted some form of opening, but was
restricted to Egypt alone.
A State school system like
that in Europe only became possible in the Holy Land thanks to the
measures adopted by Sultan Abdul-Medjid (1839-61), with his solemn
proclamation at the Pavillion of Gulhane in the grounds of the Imperial
Palace of Topkapi. However, the apologetic was worthless in the opinion
of the winner who always had reason on his side.
If the last to arrive had
expressed the tendency to conceal, or what is worse, to denigrate the
work of others, what in fact was the real situation, apart from the
propaganda, and what may have been the positive elements over and above
The Franciscan universe of
the Custody was complex and had many dimensions. Priority was given to
work in the parishes of dedicated missionaries
20 in all, including Syria, Palestine and Egypt
not only to evangelization but also to social, cultural and civil
animation with the religious who served as mediators in the Catholic
the so-called "Latin" nation, for the faith professed rather than for
and the rest of the Islamic world, the government authorities and their
delegates in the administrative and judicial spheres, the little world
of economic and legal intrigues that gravitated around the local courts.
The Latin nation was like a
real people which had to be assisted in all its needs and could not be
abandoned. The Custody had always shared its destiny, in times of
revolution, persecution or the epidemics that were very frequent in the
period spanning the 17th to the 19th centuries.
What did this Catholic
community amount to in the second half of the 19th century? Latin-rite
Catholics numbered 21,500 and Christians belonging to other rites were
1,700, including Greeks, Armenians, Chaldeans, Syrians, Maronites, Copts
and others. They were all resident in the Franciscan parishes, even
those who did not belong to the Latin rite since there were no clergy of
their own rite.
From the outset the Custody
of the Holy Land had been conceived in accordance with the canons of an
autarchic and autonomous system: its convents, like islands in the midst
of an Islamic sea, had to show an almost absolute independence.
As a guarantee of their survival, it often happened that
certain groups of "Latin" families were moved from one zone to another
so as to constitute a sort of Catholic microcosm around the convents.
The purpose of all this was naturally to safeguard the "testimonies of
the faith" in the Holy Places, a patrimony not only to be preserved but
also to be made available to pilgrims.
Then there was the commitment of the so-called
"visitors", religious who were not involved in missionary pastoral work,
but whose main task was to look after the shrines: to supervise
liturgical and devotional practices, to welcome pilgrims and,
especially, to handle the awkward coexistence with the clergy of the
Coexistence with the population of the Turkish Empire
also imposed on the Friars the commitment to train interpreters, the
so-called "dragomen" or "turkmen", by whom alone religious might be
assisted in the management of the conventual economy and in the far more
complex operations required by civil law for the protection of rights
over the Holy Places.
Rarely, however could the future dragomen receive
an adequate training for their office on the spot; for this reason, from
1729, candidates for this delicate profession were sent to
The picture of the Custody must be completed by a
mention of what the lay faithful achieved. By their work they vouchsafed
the Custody's livelihood, ensuring that it really was a "people among
the people" and as such endowed with all the necessary components to
guarantee its autonomy and integrity. It was an organizational network,
carefully extended over the social and cultural geography of the East.
For the Western world, the
considerable number of brothers that arrived in the Holy Land during the
19th century with the ambitious aim of exporting their European
civilization was an object of misunderstanding; the constitution of the
Custody as a "people among the people" escaped the Western pilgrim's
conception of it and as a result he was incapable of understanding its
Interesting in this regard
is the following passage, compiled in 1858 by the Custos, Fr Bonaventura
of Solero, in response to the doubts expressed by one of the most active
agencies for fund-raising, the Propagation of the Faith in Lyons.
"I am of the opinion that I
have not properly outlined the condition of the personnel of the Holy
Land communities, since I spoke to you only of fathers.... Equally
important, however, are the lay people whom this country needs as much
as it needs priests. For since the population in these regions has long
suffered under Muslim domination, it has been deprived of many things of
primary importance for life.
"Our Friars have therefore
sought to meet these urgent needs. This explains why, in our convents,
there are lay brothers who work as stonemasons, locksmiths, carpenters,
tailors, bakers, cobblers.... They are not only concerned with seeing to
the immediate needs of the Custody but rather endeavour to teach the
young people a craft, so as to enable them to leave school with a job
that corresponds to their inclinations and vocation and to guarantee
their ability to earn their bread for the rest of their days".