A new leader for the Franciscans of the Holy Land has been chosen. He is Italian Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, 52, who succeeds Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who held the position for 12 years. The international leadership council of the Friars Minor, with the consent of the Holy See, elected Father Francesco to this important position.
He was born in Vigo Meano in the Diocese of Trent, in Italy, in 1963. He belongs to the Franciscan Province of St. Anthony in Italy. He is fluent in English and Spanish, besides his native Italian. He made his first religious profession in 1983 and his solemn profession in 1986; and was ordained to the priesthood in 1989. In 1993 he earned a Licentiate in Communication Sciences at the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome.
Father Francesco has served in various capacities in his province and also within the Order. He twice served as Secretary General of the Order’s worldwide leadership meetings in 2003 and 2009; Minister Provincial of St. Vigilium (Trent, Italy) from 2008 to 2016; President of the Conference of Franciscan Provincial Ministers of Italy and Albania. He also served in many capacities outside of the Order: as member of the Diocesan Presbyteral Council and secretary of the Diocesan Pastoral Council of the archdiocese of Trent; professor of Social Communications at the Studio Teologico Accademico Tridentino; a staff member for the diocesan weekly publication, and part of the diocese’s outrach in radio and television.
The role of the Custos
The Franciscans have been present in the Holy Land since the 13th century. The Custos of the Holy Land, on behalf of the Catholic Church, cares for and guards most of the places of Jesus’ Incarnation. He also takes care of the “living stones” of the Holy Land—the Catholic community which is present in this land. He is the point of contact for Greek-Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac and Ethiopian churches. He also is part of the Assembly of Catholic Priests of the Holy Land, which brings together all of the Catholic bishops and episcopal vicars of the Latin and Eastern rites.
The Custos of the Holy Land also ministers to the friars who are members of and serve with the Custody – some 300 friars. The territory of the Custody is spread out over several countries in the Middle East: Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Cyprus and Rhodes, and in Cairo, Egypt. Over the centuries, the Franciscans have developed a network of social, educational and cultural outreach to maintain and revitalize the faith and life of local communities.
The current situation in the Middle East requires that the Custos follow the social and political situation in these countries in order to decide the priorities of the Franciscan mission, wherever it is present. He must constantly adapt this mission to the needs of local Christians, with the goal of communicating to the hope that comes from Christ. The Custos is the liaison between the patriarchs, bishops and apostolic nuncios (ambassadors) of these countries.
But the Custody, being ever mindful of local realities, is also concerned with welcoming pilgrims and foreign tourists in all of the shrines that it has under its jurisdiction. Facilitating their experience in the Holy Land, as “the Land of the Fifth Gospel” – in the words of Pope Paul VI – the Custody and its leader give homage to the universal character of this land chosen by God. This is why the Custos must be attentive to the needs and spiritual and material aspirations of pilgrims, as well as the preservation of the holy places.
The election process
The Custos is chosen (“elected”) by the international leadership group of the OFM Franciscans, known as the “General Definitory,” with the approval of the Holy See. Prior to this choice, the friars of the Custody were consulted, and expressed their preferences in two secret ballots.
The results of this process are taken into account, but the General Definitory is free to add other names, keeping in mind the skills required to lead the life of the Custody and serve the people of the region. The choice of the Definitory is presented by the Minister General to the Congregation for Eastern Churches, which evaluates and approves the choice.
The Custos’ first six-year term can be renewed for another three years and, exceptionally, in case of postulation (that is to say if many friars request it), for another three years.
The installation of the new Custos
The ritual of installation (which will take place in the next two weeks) begins at the Jaffa Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, not far from Saint Savior Friary, the headquarters of the Custody. The outgoing Custos, accompanied by the guardian of St. Savior’s and canonical visitor (the friar appointed from Rome to oversee the nomination process among the friars), welcomes the Custos-elect.
In the church at St. Savior’s, the visitor reads the nomination decree, the outgoing Custos solemnly gives his successor the seal of the Custody, on which is written Conventus Sigillum Guardiani Sacri Montis Zion. This title refers to original role of the Custos which was as “guardian” of the Convent (Friary) upon Mount Zion, where the friars originally lived in the Friary of the Cenacle or Upper Room.
The new Custos swears an oath to faithfull carry out his duties. Then, each friar pledges him obedience.
From the friary church, the friars then head to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for a solemn entry. The new Custos is welcomed into the basilica’s by the superiors of the three main communities of this holy place: the Greek Orthodox, the Franciscans and the Armenians.
Leaving the Old City of Jerusalem, the friars in procession take the ancient path of the patriarchs with the traditional stops at the Mar Elias Monastery, which marks the entrance to the three Christian villages of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala; they also stop at Rachel’s Tomb, and finally, at the Church of the Nativity.
After being welcomed by the Franciscan superior of the local community, the friars enter through what is called the “door of humility,” the low entrance that leads into the nave of the church where the Custos is welcomed this time by the superiors of the Greek Orthodox, Franciscan and Armenian communities serving in that basilica. Then, the friars head into Saint Catherine’s Church, the parish adjoining the basilica, served by the Franciscans.