Custodian of the Holy Land

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The Custodian of the Holy Land, in short Custodian or Custos, is an officer of the Franciscan Order, appointed by the leadership of the Order, with the approval of the Vatican.[1] The Custos is the head of the Franciscans in the entire Middle East.[2] His attributions have a particular focus on the Christian shrines of the Holy Land "sanctified by the presence of Jesus".[3] The Franciscans have assumed the task of tending to these shrines and the pilgrims visiting them on behalf of the Latin or Western Church since the initiation of a "Province of the Holy Land" at their 1217 General Chapter. The institution they have gradually created is historically known as the Custody of the Holy Land.[4]

Italian Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, OFM has been Custos since his appointment in 2004.[5]


The Custodian of the Holy Land, also called the International Custodian of the Holy Land, is appointed by the General Definitorium of the Order of Friars Minor (OFM) of the Franciscans and approved by the Pope and the Holy See.[1]


The Custodian has the role of Minister Provincial (i.e. major superior) of the Franciscans living in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, parts of Egypt, Cyprus and Rhodes. The Custody has about 300 friars and about 100 sisters in these countries. The Franciscans serve the principal Christian shrines, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.[6]

Property in the Holy Land[edit]

The Franciscan order owns a great deal of property in the Holy Land, second only to the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. In addition to the major shrines of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which the Franciscans own and administer in common with the Jerusalem Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox patriarchates, the Custodian also cares for 74 shrines and sanctuaries throughout the Holy Land, including properties in Syria and Jordan.[7]

In 1909, in the territory of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, re-instituted in 1847, the Franciscans had 24 convents and 15 parishes, including numerous schools.[8]


The Custodian's offices are at the St. Savior's monastery, a 16th-century Franciscan monastery near New Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem.


An online history, The Franciscan Presence in the Holy Land, has been prepared by the current Custodian, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, OFM.

The Franciscan presence in the Holy Land started in 1217, when the province of Syria was established, with Brother Elias as Minister. By 1229, the friars had a small house near the fifth station of the Via Dolorosa. In 1272 the sultan Baibars allowed the Franciscans to settle in the Cenacle (also called the Upper Room) on Mount Sion. Later on, in 1309, they also settled in the Holy Sepulchre and in Bethlehem.

In 1333, King Robert d'Angiò of Naples, and his wife, Sancia di Maiorca, bought the Cenacle from the Sultan of Egypt and gave it to the Franciscans. In 1342, Pope Clement VI, by the Papal bulls Gratiam agimus and Nuper charissimae declared the Franciscans as the official custodians of the Holy Places in the name of the Catholic Church.[9] A portion reads:

A short time ago good news from the king and queen reached our Apostolic See relating that, at great cost and following difficult negotiations, they had obtained a concession from the Sultan of Babylon (that is, Cairo), who to the intense shame of Christians occupies the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord and the other Holy Places beyond the sea that were sanctified by the blood of this same Redeemer, to wit that friars of your Order may reside continuously in the church known as the Sepulchre and celebrate there Solemn Sung Masses and the Divine Office in the manner of the several friars of this Order who are already present in this place; moreover, this same Sultan has also conceded to the King and Queen the Cenacle of the Lord, the chapel where the Holy Spirit was manifested to the Apostles and the other chapel in which Christ appeared to the Apostles after his resurrection, in the presence of Blessed Thomas; and also the news of how the Queen built a convent on Mount Zion where, as is known, the Cenacle and the said chapels are located; where for some time she has had the intention of supporting twelve friars of your Order to assure the divine Liturgy in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, along with three laymen charged with serving the friars and seeing to their needs.[10]

The Custodian was described as the “Guardian of Mount Zion in Jerusalem". Between 1342 and 1489, the Custodian was the head of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and held the ex officio title of Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. From 1374, he was based at the Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura in Rome.

In 1489, Pope Innocent VIII suppressed the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and ruled that it was to be merged with the Knights Hospitaller. In 1496, Pope Alexander VI, restored the Order of Holy Sepulchre to independent status, but the Custodian ceased to be the head of the Order. Instead, a Grand Master of the Order was created, and the office vested in the papacy. The Custodian continued to act as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem ex officio until 1830, and by being appointed to both offices until 1905. The office of Grand Master remained vested in the papacy until 1949.[11] On 29 August 2011, Archbishop Edwin Frederick O'Brien was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI Grand Master to succeed Cardinal John Patrick Foley, who resigned the office on 24 February 2011 due to ill health. The Order is a member of many international bodies and has observer status at others (such as the United Nations). The Grand Master is a papal viceroy who assists Vatican diplomacy with procedural support for making motions, proposing amendments and requiring votes in the sphere of international diplomacy.

Franciscan friars cared for the Cenacle, restoring also the building with Gothic vaults, until 1552 when the Turks captured Jerusalem and banished all Christians. After the Franciscan friars' eviction, the Cenacle was transformed into a mosque. Christians were not allowed to use the room for prayer until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

In 1623, the Latin Province of the Holy Land was split into a number of smaller entities, called Custodies - creating Custodies of Cyprus, Syria, and the Holy Land proper. The Custody of the Holy Land included the monasteries of Saint-Jean-d'Acre, Antioch, Sidon, Tyre, Jerusalem and Jaffa.

In 1847, a resident Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was restored in the Holy Land, together with the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem became the ecclesiastical superior of the Order, and eventually assumed the title Grand Prior, supplanting the Custodian. The office of Grand Master still remained vested in the papacy.

In 1937, Alberto Gori was appointed Custodian of the Holy Land, an office he would occupy until 1949, when he was appointed Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, an office he held until 1970. In Gori's reports to the Vatican in the 1940s, he was critical of Jewish and later Israeli forces, whom he accused of destruction of holy places.[12] Despite repeated Israeli assurances that Israel will guarantee freedom of religion and safeguard the Holy Places of all religions, Pius XII issued several encyclicals expressing concerns about the holy places as well as access.[13]

In 1949, at the time of appointing Gori to the office of Latin Patriarch, Pope Pius XII also relinquished the title of Grand Master.[14]

Current Custos[edit]

On 15 May 2004, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, OFM was appointed Custodian of the Holy Land,[15] succeeding Giovanni Battistelli, who held the office for six years.[5][1] On Friday, June 28, 2013, Pope Francis confirmed that he would continue as Custodian for at least a further three years.[16]

Pierbattista Pizzaballa was born at Cologno al Serio on 21 April 1965. He was ordained a priest in September 1990.

Current issues[edit]

Fr. Pizzaballa has expressed the view that there is a problem of the survival of the Christians in the Holy Land, with many Christians leaving the region, especially the Palestinian Territories, and that assistance with housing was aimed at avoiding emigration.

He has also stated that there is a serious problem in the reduction of a trained Christian presence "because whoever has the economic possibility and good training emigrates, since he does not see any prospect for the future. The problem exists in the Palestinian Territories and is due especially to the political situation in the territories and to the absence of economic prospects."[1]

On Thursday, August 25, 2011, the Catholic News Service (CNS) website published a story where Father Pizzaballa, in a talk, during the course of a meeting, with Vatican Radio, alluded to the tense situation for Christians in Syria and Egypt.[17]


An important role is education. Many schools were founded by the Franciscan friars during the centuries.

List of Custodians[edit]

  • Roberto Razzòli (1906-1912)[12]
  • Ferdinando Diotallevi (1917-1924)[12]
  • Aurelio Marotta (1925-1931)[12]
  • Nazareno Iacopozzi (1931-1937)[12]
  • Alberto Gori (1937-1949)[12]
  • Carlo Ceccitelli (?-1992)
  • Giuseppe Nazzaro (1992-1998)
  • Giovanni Battistelli (1998-2004)
  • Pierbattista Pizzaballa (2004–present)


  1. ^ a b c d "Challenges of New Franciscan Custodian of Holy Land: Interview With Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa". ZENIT. 24 May 2004. Retrieved 8 April 2015. 
  2. ^ {{cite web|url=
  3. ^
  4. ^ "The role of the Custos for the Holy Land". Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Retrieved 8 April 2015. 
  5. ^ a b "Administration". Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.  Text " " ignored (help);
  6. ^ Hareetz: "Senior Catholic cleric: 'If Jews want respect, they must respect others'" By Nir Hasson September 07, 2012
  7. ^ Jerusalem Post Jan 25, 2002 - The gatekeeper
  8. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia
  9. ^ The Bull of Clement VI (1342)
  10. ^ The Franciscan Presence in the Holy Land, by Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, OFM, Franciscan Printing Press - Jerusalem 2008
  11. ^ Official website page 1
  12. ^ a b c d e f Paolo Pieraccini, Custos of the Holy Land and Patriarch at the Second Vatican Council
  13. ^ E.g., Auspicia quaedam of 1 May 1948, two weeks before the end of the British Mandate; In multiplicibus curis on 24 October 1948; and Redemptoris nostri cruciatus of 15 April 1949.
  14. ^ Official website page 2
  15. ^ Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa an SBF professor new Custos of the Holy Land
  16. ^
  17. ^ Middle East Christians must be courageous, open, says Franciscan custos

See also[edit]