From their humble beginnings in Assisi, the Franciscans quickly grew into a great religious order animated by the spirit of their founder. St. Francis’ life was marked by a dynamism unique even among the saints. With every word and deed he desired to extend the testimony of the Franciscan way of life in living the joy of the Gospel. Springing from this impulse to fulfill the call of Our Lord to “…make disciples of all nations…” (Matt 28:19), the General Chapter of the Franciscans held in 1217 decided to extend their mission to the ends of the Earth. The world was divided into distinct provinces where Friars would be sent to preach the saving truths of the Gospel.
The Province of the Holy Land was considered the most important as it included the lands sanctified by the life of Our Lord. Because of this, Francis himself visited this Province from 1219 to 1220 which included his famous encounter with the sultan, Malek-al-Kamil, on the battlefield of Damietta in Egypt. On this same journey, Francis established his friars in the Holy Land whose presence there would last to our own day despite tremendous obstacles.
After the fall of the Crusaders in 1291, the Franciscans were forced to take refuge on the island Cyprus, but from there orchestrated the gradual return of a Christian presence in the Holy Land. With the aid of European royalty and after laborious negotiations with hefty payments to the Sultan of Egypt, the Franciscans were able to acquire definitive legal possession of various sanctuaries along with the right of use in others. Pope Clement VI issued two papal bulls on November 21st 1342 titled Gratias agimus and Nuper carissmae affirming the work of the Franciscans in the Holy Land while also issuing administrative guidelines. These two documents, in effect, established the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land as we know it today.
The Holy See has granted the Custody particular rights and faculties to continue their work in maintaining a liturgical life in the sanctuaries built upon the biblical sites, providing spiritual assistance to pilgrims and caring for not just the maintenance of these sanctuaries but also the “Living Stones” of the Holy Land, that is, the Arab Christian communities native to the Middle East. This work is not easy. Throughout the past 800 years the Franciscans have had to overcome the loss of the Holy Land after the Crusades, the humiliating restrictions imposed by Ottoman governors, hostilities with our separated Christian brethren of the East, and now the current Arab-Israeli conflict that has seen the Christian population of the Holy Land reduced to a mere 2%. As they always have, the Friars rely on the support of Catholics throughout the world for their mission to endure.
The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land is an immensely important institution whose presence at the Holy Places embodies the right of Catholics throughout the world to pray at these sites. Throughout the centuries numerous Popes have called attention to the duty the Church has to the Holy Land. To facilitate alms “For the Holy Places”, the Custody has established many commissariats throughout the world. These are territories or districts assigned to the Friar appointed as commissary, whose duty it is to raise awareness to the work of the Custody and the needs of the Christians in the Holy Land. The commissary might do this through promoting pilgrimages or other means, but his most important obligation is the collection of alms. The primary vehicle for the fulfillment of this duty today is the “Pontifical Good Friday Collection”.
Fr Larry Dunham, OFM, is the Guardian of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington D.C. as well as one of the commissaries of the Holy Land. He took the time recently to answer a few of our questions about the importance of the Pontifical Good Friday Collection.
CWR: In 2013 you became the Guardian and Commissary of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C. What is your role as the Guardian and Commissary?
Fr. Larry Dunham, OFM: I very much appreciate this opportunity to write about the work of the Friars Minor in the “Holy Land” and in the surrounding Middle East geographic areas, and about just who benefits from the Pontifical Good Friday Collection outside of the territories of Palestine and Israel.
About my role here in Washington: I currently hold the offices of Guardian and Commissary. Guardian is the Franciscan word for ‘superior’. St. Francis did not like the word ‘superior’ as it implied an ‘inferior’, and Francis was all about horizontal relationships in his new Order: brother to brother. While he always called for a respect for the hierarchy, he did not use that structure within his Order. He preferred to describe the leader of the community (superior) as the Guardian, the one who would protect, guard, care for, and serve the brothers of the community.
What is a Commissariat and what is a Commissary? These somewhat arcane words are derived from military terminology: a commissariat is the department of an army charged with the provision of supplies, both food and forage, for the troops. The supply of military ammunition stores was not included in the duties of a commissariat. The office of a Holy Land Commissariat, besides funding and supplying for the needs of the friars in the Holy Land, was also tasked with encouraging vocations for and promoting pilgrimages to the Holy Land. And the ranking officer of a Commissariat is called a ‘Commissary’.
My biggest “job” as Commissary of Washington, DC is clearly overseeing the Good Friday Pontifical Collection in the United States, a gargantuan task. “Overseeing” includes promotion, education, collecting, investing, and distribution to the Custody of the Holy Land. All results of each year’s Collection is yearly reported to the proper authorities, both civil and religious.
CWR: What is the Pontifical Good Friday Collection and why is it so important?
Fr. Larry: The Good Friday Collection is used throughout the entire territory of the Custody of the Holy Land and not just only in Palestine. The Collection helps the Franciscans to maintain the holiest shrines of all Christendom, and serves the millions of pilgrims who come to touch and be touched by these sacred places. And it continues the work the Friars Minor began in 1217 and validated in 1342 when the Church bequeathed to the Order of Friars Minor the most sacred shrines of Christendom and the care of its Peoples.
And what is this “work” of the Franciscans in the Holy Land? Simply stated, it is to engage in those missionary bridge-building efforts between the three great monotheistic religions, to promote its simple yet oh so necessary peace-making efforts among the mistrusting and warring political factions of the Middle East, and to stay devoted and dedicated in its attempts to serve and pre-serve the Living Stones of the Holy Land, the most ancient Christians who sadly compose less than 2% of the population of Israel and Palestine combined. And how do we do the latter? The answer is at once both simple and profound: education (schools), housing, and jobs. That is what we do with the Good Friday Collection.
And yet, the needs grow exponentially over there due to a charged and destructive and volatile climate that always seems to manage to rear its ugly head in some corner of the Custody every day. We are grateful beyond words for the Holy Father giving the Good Friday Collection to the work of the Franciscans throughout the Holy Land and throughout the Custody, but it barely brings in thirteen million dollars on a yearly basis here in the United States, not nearly enough to do all we need to do.
CWR: What works of the Franciscans in the Holy Land does this collection support?
Fr. Larry: The work of the Franciscans in the Holy Land is varied. The Custody’s territory now encompasses the following countries where our friars continue to serve: Palestine, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Cypress, Egypt, and Rhodes. Except for the latter area (Rhodes), all the other entities mentioned continue to be enmeshed in some kind of conflict or other…and have been for a very long time. And even Rhodes, during the last 10 years, has been affected as it became (and still is) a staging area for refugees principally fleeing the Syrian war or the Iraqi conflict. Daily our friars there are at the temporary camp ministering to these people before they are shipped out to the various refugee centers or permanent camps, such as the island of Kos.
It is important to note that of the nearly 300 friars of the Custody (province) of the Holy Land, 17 of them serve in the present-day country of Syria, and in the worst of conditions. Our places in Damascus and Aleppo have been repeatedly bombed and hit with missiles. The friars have lived and labored under the same conditions as the people: brownouts, blackouts, lack of food, lack of water, endless barrages, constant fear—and yet they have stayed, despite the loss of 90% of the Christian population. The northern Christian villages of Syria where the rest of the friars are stationed, have all been overrun by various rebel factions, with each succeeding rebel group more and more jihadist and fundamentalist. The damage to the Christian peoples in these villages—to their homes, their churches, their faith—has been horrific. Two of our friars were abducted by Al-Nusra, one of the last and most fundamentalist of the rebel groups. Thanks to back door diplomacy that came about because of the efforts of former Cardinal McCarrick and former Congressman Bob Livingston, the two friars were suddenly and surprisingly released after two weeks of captivity and no news, though one of them had been tortured and physically and emotionally damaged.
Some of the apostolates and works of evangelization the Franciscans engage in among the peoples of the Holy Land, the Living Stones, are the following: homes for the aged, outpatient clinics, summer camps, pilgrimage hostels (Casa Nova) in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, the Mundo X Project on Mount Tabor (long-term housing care and ministry to young drug addicts), orphanages, schools (we have 12,000 students in our schools!), student scholarships (especially to Bethlehem University run by the Christian Brothers), donation of lands such as for Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem, the Magnificat Institute—a school for gifted musicians and singers from all three cultures and religions of the area that uses music as a means toward unity and understanding. An incredible academic institution staffed and run by the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land is the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum located in Jerusalem right in the Old City at the Flagellation Station. It is the Faculty of Biblical Sciences and Archaeology of the Pontificia Universitas Antonianum in Rome. The Franciscans founded this center for biblical studies in 1901, built upon the foundation of the friars’ leadership since the nineteenth century in biblical archaeology.
In the countries of Jordan and Lebanon, our principal work (besides, say, Mt. Nebo and the Shrine of Moses), is our schools. The Custody has two large Terra Sancta Schools in Jordan and Lebanon—one in Amman and one in Beirut. We also have at least five missions and parishes among the Christian population of Lebanon. I always tell pilgrims and visitors to the Monastery here in Washington, DC that there are three pillars necessary to sustain Christians in the Holy Land and to give them the supports they need to remain rooted there: education, jobs, and homes. The friars of the Holy Land do all three. Without the Good Friday Collection, none of the above happens…and none of the most holy sites of Christendom are preserved.
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