Interview with the Custos of the Holy Land

Friar Francis Patton

the Holy Land
Photo Credit: CTS, Custody of the Holy Land

The Custody of the Holy Land is the Province of the Franciscan Friars Minor, which operates in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Rhodes. Some 300 men religious work in it. They serve the principal shrines, such as the Holy Sepulcher, the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The Custos of the Holy Land, Friar Francis Patton, was in Italy in recent days. He gave a conference at Bologna on the situation of Christians in the places where Jesus’ earthly life unfolded. On the occasion, he kindly agreed to give an exclusive interview to Exaudi.

The Custody’s Activities

 The Franciscans of the Custody carry out pastoral activities in 22 parishes, especially among Arabic-speaking but also Hebrew-speaking Catholics. The Custody is involved in numerous social works, among which are schools and colleges that form about 10,000 students, also non-Catholics and non-Christians. The Custody’s scientific activity has as its pivot the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum of Jerusalem, known throughout the world of biblical and archaeological culture.

Father Patton, what is the situation of Catholics in the Holy Land?

 More than of the situation of Catholics, it’s better to talk about the situation of Christians in the Holy Land for two reasons. The first is that Christians in the Holy Land feel all in all belonging to the same body. The majority of families are “ecumenical,” namely, made up of Christians of various Confessions, often one who belongs to a Confession takes part also actively in the celebrations, initiatives, and activities of the other Confessions. In the second place, it’s better to talk of Christians because the total sum of the various Confessions doesn’t reach 2% of the population.

A Variegated Minority

 Having made this premise and limiting ourselves to the Holy Land in the strict sense (Israel and Palestine), the situation of Christians, and obviously also of Catholics, is variegated according to the territories and the categories with which we wish to read it. If we look at religious practice, the situation is better for those that live in territories of the Palestinian <Authority> that in general frequent more often than Christians that live in Israel. In regard to the demographic and economic situation, the situation is better for those that live in Israel. If we look at work opportunities, freedom of movement, the possibilities to assert oneself in society the situation is certainly better for those who live in Israel.

In fact, the situation of Christians in the Holy Land is that of a minority community whose members are not always recognized fully and integrally in their rights as citizens and also in religious expression. However, it is a minority that is often able to assume courageous positions, which for centuries has resisted, kept and cultivated its identity. It is able to be salt and leaven and, especially over the last years, has cultivated very strongly the yearning for unity and, in many cases, already lives the contents and attitudes of unity.

A Very Burdensome Economic Crisis

 The pandemic has affected the whole world but for an economy, which is based above all on religious tourism, it must have had a devastating impact. What are the consequences? How is the Custody operating? What help can come from the faithful worldwide?

 The pandemic has affected above all, in a particularly hard way, the Christians of Bethlehem and surroundings and those of the Old City of Jerusalem. The majority of Christians of Bethlehem and the surroundings live of pilgrimages: they work in hotels, are guides, have small businesses of religious artifacts, they sell religious objects. In the last two years all of them remained completely without income, in a context where there isn’t welfare. That meant that many families found themselves in serious difficulties to acquire basic goods, for medical expenses as well as school expenses.

As Custody of the Holy Land, we ourselves saw the Shrines emptied, which guaranteed the necessary income for daily life and for part of the maintenance. Moreover, we saw the Good Friday Pontifical Collection halved, which is the main source of support for the Custody’s activities, of those linked to Shrines, to pastoral care, to education, and to social welfare.

We tried in every way to help as much as possible. We also continued to pay half the salary to those that stayed at home and do not benefit from layoffs. We lightened families’ school and rental expenses, continue to give work especially to workers of the West Bank, and also sensitized more well-off  Christians to sharing initiatives with the poor. We obviously carried on with all the pastoral services in the parishes and made an enormous effort to guarantee the functioning of the 15 schools in the Holy Land.

Economic and Spiritual Solidarity

 Aid from faithful worldwide should come through economic solidarity, which means to participate generously in the Good Friday Collection, but also to give, if possible, through the Holy Land Commissioners Office spread over the national territory. With the reopening of the possibility to travel, a concrete way will come to also help those taking up again the practice of pilgrimage, despite the hardships that it might still entail. The parishes will be able to acquire handcrafted objects  made in Bethlehem and in the Old City.

It will be essential to organize cultural initiatives to make known the reality and the difficulties of the small Christian community of the Holy Land. It will also be very important to organize Prayer Vigils  and celebrations that put one in communion with Christians of the Holy Land. I think the time of Advent and Christmas will be particularly adapted to this.

There is again an atmosphere of tension in Israel. How do Christians live in this situation? Does it affect their daily life?

Alas, I dare say Christians of the Holy Land are used to the atmosphere of tension. It certainly affects their daily life. The wave if emigration from the Holy Land over the last two centuries has always been connected to moments of tension. To give an idea, suffice it to think that there are more native Christians of Bethlehem in Chile and Brazil than in Bethlehem. The Lebanese and Syrian communities in Latin America are also consistent now. The atmosphere of tension reduces hope in the future.

The greatest worry, especially for someone with a family, is to guarantee a future to their children. In many cases, people are now discouraged and risk losing hope, with all that that entails. Then there are daily problems, especially for those that must go through the checkpoint to go to work. When there are clashes there, it is closed and they have to go back home. Unfortunately, the problems and hardships move always together.

Occasion of Dialogue

 At what point are the restorations of the Holy Sepulcher? What is coexistence like with other Confessions?

 A first phase of works of restoration ended in March 2017. The second phase has now started, which foresees 26 months of work and will regard the floor of the Basilica and all that is underneath it, from the aspects of structural stability to those of archaeological relevance, to those linked to services and infrastructures. In fact, thank God the good relations with Greeks and Armenians facilitate the works. It was possible to underwrite an agreement of collaboration and the different workers have already been able to go to work, at least for the prior study and projection phase.

The work of restoration itself, of the most important church of Christianity, is itself a great occasion of dialogue. I like to see this work as a metaphor or a sign of that which the whole Church is called to live in this, our time: to meet together around the empty tomb, to be able to recognize the Risen Lord in the moment He breaks the bread for us and to go out from that tomb and from that fundamental meeting aware that we are sent to take this proclamation and the hope that stems from it, everywhere.

There is a month and a half left before Christmas: How are you preparing and how do you hope to live it after the lockdown for the pandemic?

 We are preparing for Christmas as we do every year, especially by intensifying our prayer and celebratory moments. We earnestly hope to see the streets of Bethlehem full of new pilgrims who come as the Magi from all over the world to adore the Child Jesus.

Translation by Virginia M. Forrester