St. Francis and the Holy Land

Francis of Assisi may never have set foot in Bethlehem, Nazareth or Jerusalem, but his name will be forever associated with the Holy Land. In 1342, Pope Clement VI, through two bulls, Gratias Agimus and Nuper Carissimae, assigned to Franciscans the care of the sacred places, a task they eagerly embraced. 

In fact, Franciscans were in the Holy Land even before that. As with most things Franciscan, it all started with St. Francis. The Little Man of Assisi was determined to get to the Holy Land. He made three attempts. According to his biographer Thomas of Celano (The First Life of Saint Francis, chapter XX), the first try ended with his ship being blown off course to Dalmatia (now Croatia). 

The second, an overland route, took him as far as Spain, where “God withstood him to his face, striking him with illness, and called him back from the journey which he had begun” (same source). 

But the third attempt in 1219 got him to Egypt and the famous encounter with Malik al-Kamil, the Sultan of the Saracens. (Saracens was the term widely used in Europe for Muslims.) In Egypt, Francis made such an impression that he was remembered more than a century later.

A Desire for Martyrdom

Why did Francis want to go the Holy Land in the first place? Celano attributes it to “the desire to undergo martyrdom” and to “burning with divine love.” 

This was in the time of the Fifth Crusade. In 1095, at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II had called for help to restore access to the Christian sites. The Latin Church in Western Europe jumped at the chance. 

Since 636, Palestine had been under Muslim control, but Muslims mostly had allowed Christians into their territory. Then in 1071, the Seljuk Turks decisively defeated the Byzantine army and cut off Christian access to Jerusalem. What followed was eight crusades over the next two centuries under the slogan “Deus vult” (“God wills it”). 

The motives for the Crusades were very mixed. They ranged from wanting to heal the split in the Catholic Church between the Eastern and Western Churches (1054) to the pope’s promising remission of sins for fighting and/or dying in this struggle. The pope saw this as a way to rally the faith of Western Europe. And some motives for the Crusades, like securing trade routes, gaining glory in battle or achieving riches and power, were admittedly base.  

The mixed legacy of the Crusades is still with us.

Francis’ Pure Motives

By 1212, Francis had already learned that the way of the soldier was not for him. He had engaged in two disastrous attempts to fight for Assisi against Perugia and concluded that pacifism was the only option consistent with his reoriented life. 

In The Earlier Rule (1221; the earliest one has been lost), Francis wrote a chapter (XVI) for any of his followers who would go to work among the Saracens. In it, he described two ways to work among the Muslims. The first is to refrain from arguments or disputes with them. The second is “to announce the Word of the Lord, when they see it pleases the Lord, in order that [unbelievers] may believe in almighty God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. . . .” 

Both of these respectful ways of interacting with Muslims were 180 degrees from the militant, faith-at-the-point-of-a-sword approach of the Crusaders. 

It’s interesting to note, as a footnote to the story of the Sultan points out, that Francis consistently referred to the Muslims as nonbelievers, while his biographer called them pagans. 

Francis and the Sultan

No doubt it was a dramatic meeting: the skinny Francis dressed in his usual rags versus the Sultan arrayed in his silks. 

Celano was one of the first to write down this well-told story of the medieval Church. The usually far-from-humble Celano prefaces his account (Chapter XX, The Life of Saint Francis) of Francis’ encounter with the Sultan with this disclaimer: “Who is equal to the task of telling this story?” But he goes ahead to do just that: 

“When Francis’ third attempt to reach the Holy Land succeeded (after a probable stop at Acre in Israel), he arrived in Egypt. He took with him one companion and set out for the battle camp of the Sultan. The Crusader forces had squared off against the Sultan’s men on the vast Nile delta near Damietta, Egypt. But before Francis could reach the Sultan, he was captured by soldiers, insulted and beaten, but was not afraid. . . . 

“Although, by many, he was ill-treated with a hostile spirit and a harsh attitude, he [Francis] was received very graciously by the Sultan. The Sultan honored him as much as he could, offering him many gifts, trying to turn his mind to worldly riches. But when he saw that Francis resolutely scorned all these things like dung, the Sultan was overflowing with admiration and recognized him as a man unlike any other. He was moved by his words and listened to him very willingly. 

“In all this, however, the Lord did not fulfill his [Francis’] desire [martyrdom], reserving for him the prerogative of a unique grace.” (This last hints at the stigmata, which St. Francis received two years before his death.) 

The story is corroborated by a chronicle of the Fifth Crusade given by Ernoud, a shield-bearer of Balian II of Ibelin, one of the great feudal lords of the Crusader states. 

For any others who doubt that this encounter actually took place, there is the physical evidence of an ivory horn, given to Francis by the Sultan. It is now displayed in a small chapel off the Lower Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, which the Conventual Franciscan friars maintain today. 

And another medieval account of the encounter between Francis and the Sultan has the Sultan presenting him with a letter of safe conduct. Francis may have used this letter to go other places in the Holy Land, but we have no proof that he actually took advantage of the permission. 

A new video of this exciting story is scheduled for release by Franciscan Media this month.

Current Franciscan Work in the Holy Land

It was Francis’ failure to convert the Muslims that motivated the Pope in 1342 to confirm the Franciscans’ mission in the Holy Land. Francis failed at conversion, but his respectful approach to the Sultan had garnered the respect of Muslims. The example of the friars working in the Holy Land after Francis’ death continued to impress Muslims. 

There is no agreed-upon definition of what countries or areas constitute “the Holy Land.” At one time people equated it with Moses’ Promised Land or Palestine, but it was always more. 

According to Father Jeremy Harrington, O.F.M., commissary and guardian of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C., Franciscans now carry out their Custody of the Holy Land mandate by working in the following countries: Israel/Palestine Authority, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, as well as the islands of Cyprus and Rhodes. 

Currently, some 300 friars work at 50 sanctuaries in these countries. Nearly every province of Franciscans has a group that supports this work. In a booklet entitled The Franciscan Presence in the Holy Land, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa writes, “Protection of the Holy Places, welcoming pilgrims, aiding local Christians and dialogue with everyone have been and remain the reasons the Friars Minor passionately place their lives into the hands of the Lord every day, following His footsteps in the Land that was His own.” 

The latest year-end report describes the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Lands projects completed in 2010: construction of a surrounding wall at Ain Karem, which commemorates the birthplace of John the Baptist; renovation of the lighting system at St. Catherine’s Church in Bethlehem, which adjoins the Grotto of the Nativity; final phase of the plan for improving the area for pilgrims at the Dominus Flevit Sanctuary (the church and gardens on the Mount of Olives that commemorates where Jesus wept over Jerusalem); designing a plan for restoring the Shrine of the Transfiguration at Mt. Tabor; construction of new sanitary facilities at Tabga’s Primacy of Peter Shrine; and many others. Critical right now are efforts underway in Syria. 

The Custody maintains primary and secondary schools that serve more than 10,000 students in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Cyprus and Lebanon. It provides 360 university scholarships so that graduates will be prepared for jobs and can stay in the Holy Land. In addition, the Custody supports archaeological research through the Studium Biblicum Francescanum of Jerusalem. It provides scholarships to 30 students a year and helps the faculty. 

The Franciscans also sponsor Magnificat, a school of music for young children through adults. Among the pupils and teachers are Jews, Muslims and Christians of all denominations. The Franciscans describe them as “united by a common passion for music and singing.” All these educational efforts promote peace because the children and their parents get to know one another. 

True to their people-oriented charism, the Franciscans maintain 25 parishes centered at these sites, and they work with needy local people. They have special projects for youth, families and craftsmen. Overall, the Custody has built more than 1,000 residential units. 

The Franciscans are also involved with ecumenical activity and interreligious dialogue, sometimes formal, sometimes just by respectfully answering pilgrims’ questions at the holy places.

To Continue St. Francis’ Work

Franciscans who do this work consider it a great privilege. In a telephone interview last October, Father Jeremy listed four ways for others to join them in this work: 

1) Contribute financially (see sidebar). 

2) Pray for all the people of the Holy Land, especially right now those in Syria. 

3) Go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. A journey with a group should be safe enough. In Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement of this year’s Year of Faith, he encouraged people to walk in Jesus’ footsteps in the Holy Land. A pilgrimage to the Holy Land goes to “the geographical point of union between God and men, between eternity and history,” in the words of Pope John Paul II. 

The Custody sponsors pilgrimages, as do many tour companies that advertise in The Official Catholic Directory (also known as the Kenedy Directory) or Catholic newspapers and magazines. 

4) Sign up for a study tour. Pope John Paul II frequently referred to the Holy Land as “the fifth Gospel.” Being familiar with this land, its history, its human and geographical features will enrich any understanding of the Scriptures. Study tours result in better homilies. 

For more information on the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, check out the following websites:;; or For a taste of the Holy Land, visit the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C., 1400 Quincy Street, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017. The Franciscans there publish a small magazine called The Holy Land Review. 

For other news of the Holy Land, consult the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a U.S.-based pontifical association that publishes a magazine called One. That name reflects the vision that there is “one God, one world, one family and one Church.” Founded in 1926, CNEWA supports the pastoral missions and institutions of Eastern Catholic Churches and provides humanitarian assistance to those in need. 

To sign up to have a Mass at one of the shrines in the Holy Land, contact the Christian Information Centre, Omar Ibn el Qattab Square, P.O.B. 14308, 91142 Jerusalem, ISRAEL, e-mail:

St. Francis loved the Holy Land and risked his life to get there. Today, there are many ways to share in his love for the land of Jesus. TP 

BARBARA BECKWITH is the retired managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine. She has twice been on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, once with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and once with an ecumenical group that tried to boost tourism for the millennium celebrations.