The Custody of the Holy Land's Work in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Giuseppe Buffon

A Latin island in the midst of an Islamic sea

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 publications 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 sense.

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 century 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first to be taken to task, it seems, were the Franciscans themselves, accused by French pilgrims of being backward and out of date, especially concerning the education they offered.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 apologetic?

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 population the so-called "Latin" nation, for the faith professed rather than for race 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 other denominations.

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 Constantinople.

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 effective usefulness.

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".


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
2 December 2009, page 8

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