Each month, The Central Minnesota Catholic features a big question the Church is facing. This month, Franciscan Father Greg Friedman, who has assisted the Franciscan Friars serving in the Holy Land as a pilgrim guide for the past six years, answers the question, “What is the situation in the Holy Land?” Father Greg is a writer, photographer and journalist who has served in editorial roles for The Holy Land Review and St. Anthony Messenger. He recently became the secretary of the province for Our Lady of Guadalupe Province, headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Q: When someone mentions the Holy Land, one often thinks of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and other places where Jesus lived and ministered. Geographically speaking, is that the correct way to think about the Holy Land? How would you define it?
FATHER GREG: I think that is the common way people think of it but, in fact, the Holy Land includes much more. In addition to those places, the Holy Land also includes the countries of Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and parts of Greece. We serve in Egypt as well. The area across the Jordan River is now the modern country of Jordan and has shrines like Mount Nebo, where the story of Moses ends. Jesus’ baptism is commemorated on both sides of the river, although it probably happened more in the country of Jordan. And, of course, you have the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Mount Tabor, Mount Carmel, Damascus, Rhodes and Cyprus. These are places where a lot of Scripture stories unfold.
Q: What is the role of the Franciscan order in the Holy Land in terms of ministry and responsibilities? What is the history of that work?
FATHER GREG: The friars first came to the Holy Land when St. Francis had a meeting of the friars over 800 years ago. In the middle of the 14th century, they were given care of the shrines and have maintained the care of the shrines ever since. The friars represent the Holy Father and the Latin Church in the Holy Land. The Custody, as it is called, was given to the Order of Friars Minor (OFM) by the pope and over the years has acquired more places.
Franciscans are divided internationally into provinces. Most of the time, those are made up of members of a particular country. But the Holy Land province is international, so we have friars from all over the world that are members of the Holy Land province. In the OFM, the mission of the Holy Land is the No. 1 mission, or the “jewel,” of the Franciscan order. There is kind of an expectation that, if possible, every Franciscan province will contribute someone to the province of the Holy Land, if they can.
The friars not only take care of the churches and shrines, but we also have schools and regular parishes, such as the one on Jericho. There are not too many Catholics in Jericho; it is mostly a Muslim city. We have a large school there where we educate both Christians and Muslims. Our schools are very well-known and highly thought of.
In addition, the friars do biblical research, archaeological research and guide pilgrimages. We also do a lot of social services in and around Jerusalem and other places. We have been providing housing for Palestinian Christians, who are one of the most endangered populations. It is just down to a small number of Christians who live in the Holy Land who, for economic and political reasons, feel the need to flee to other parts of the world.
Q: What is your role with the Custody? *
FATHER GREG: I have been on loan from my community serving as a pilgrim guide for the last six years. Since the pandemic, that work has been on hold and I’m missing it a lot. Pilgrim guiding is a unique ministry. I really love showing people the Holy Land and introducing them as pilgrims. Pilgrimage is kind of a way to look at the spiritual life. It is going to a holy place to learn about the story, the events that happened in that place, and then to allow yourself to be open to what God wants to show you in that place. Sometimes people will tell us that a particular place comes alive once they’ve gone back home and hear the Gospel story of that place. The idea of a place, an event and the spirituality associated with it, is a good way to look at how we live out our life. You have your parish church, where the story of your faith unfolds, or even your own home, where you live everyday life, or a particular place you like to go — a lake, a mountain or someplace that speaks to you of God. In that place you can experience God. A pilgrimage is a model for how our life with God unfolds.
Q: We are just beginning the season of Advent in the lead-up to Christmas. What’s it like to celebrate Advent and Christmas in the Holy Land?
FATHER GREG: A lot of things tend toward Bethlehem for the Christmas season. The friars do some special prayers leading up to Christmas. In general, though, there are various groups of Christians celebrating Christmas at different times. The Franciscans celebrate it as Roman Catholics do in the U.S. on Dec. 24 and 25. The Greek Orthodox celebrate Christmas when we would be celebrating Epiphany. And then the Syrians and the Coptic Christians and Ethiopian Christians celebrate at a different time. The Armenians are the last to celebrate sometime in mid- January. This is because of different calendars. So it’s Christmas in Bethlehem really all the time.
We share these shrines with other Christians and so we have to respect each other’s celebrations because we are in the same place. We have very careful rules to respect each other’s customs and traditions.
Q: Christians in the Holy Land have faced many challenges over time. How is the Christian community doing right now in the Holy Land? What are the biggest challenges it faces and how is the Church helping to address them?
FATHER GREG: There are two big challenges. One is the ongoing crisis for Christians in the Holy Land with regard to the unresolved status of Palestinians versus the state of Israel. We are concerned most directly with Palestinian Catholics. The people we are pastors of and the people who attend our schools are Arabs, Palestinians, residents of the Holy Land in Israel and the West Bank. These
are people who are under tremendous economic and political pressure. If you are a Palestinian and you live in the West Bank, you are restricted severely as to where you can go. If you work in Jerusalem, you have to have a special permit. Your passage in and out of Israel can be restricted. If you are an Arab Palestinian on a bus and come to a checkpoint, all of those people have to get out and have their identification checked. Their opportunities are very limited. If they are lucky enough to have a job in Jerusalem, they still may be under various pressures and limitations.
We try to help Palestinian Christians stay in the Holy Land. We provide housing, employment in and around our schools and shrines and provide job training in some of the ancient arts like mosaics. That whole situation, difficult as it is, has been raised up to a whole new level because a lot of Palestinians work in tourism. Many work in souvenir shops, as tour guides, bus drivers and staff hotels. These people are all hurting. There are no guests or pilgrims to provide their livelihood. So it’s really tough right now.
Q: How can Catholics here in Minnesota support the Christians and churches of the Holy Land?
FATHER GREG: The primary way we support them is through the Holy Father’s Good Friday collection, taken on Good Friday all around the world. This offering is made and given through the Vatican to Christians in the Middle East. A large amount of that collection goes to support the work the Franciscans do in the Holy Land.
There are other ways to help — for example, Bethlehem University and the Holy Family Hospital both appeal to donors in the U.S. Every year around this time, we have a drive for infant onesies that babies can wear home from the hospital. And, in good times, Catholics can come on pilgrimages. That is really a tremendous way to help the Holy Land: supporting local industry.
Be aware that the Holy Land is a complicated place. It is worth the work of digging a little deeper into learning about the Holy Land, both its past and present. One way to do that is by reading the Holy Land Review and subscribing to it. I also encourage people to visit the website www.custodia.org.
And of course, we encourage everyone to pray for the people of the Holy Land.
We belong to a religious order in the Catholic Church, the Order of Friars Minor, the Franciscans.
Drawn by love of the poor and the crucified Christ, our founder, St. Francis of Assisi, went to the Middle East at the beginning of the 13th century in order to “touch” the places which, up to our day, offer an irreplaceable testimony to God’s revelation and to God’s love for the human person. During his pilgrimage, and despite the Crusades, St. Francis encountered and dialogued with the sultan, Melek al-Kamel, who was governing the Holy Land at the time. It was a peaceful encounter, which marked the beginning of the Franciscans’ presence in the Holy Land and also influenced the way in which we have been present in the course of the centuries until today.
Over the course of time, this province of the Franciscan order took the name “Custody of the Holy Land.”
For the full history of the Custody, visit www.custodia.org.
Any time you read Scripture, you may consider the holy places mentioned there. Especially during the Advent and Christmas seasons, you might be thinking of the lands where Jesus and the Holy Family walked. Take some time to think about and pray for the holy places and the people who live there, especially those facing persecution.
Minnesota Catholic Podcasts
The following podcasts will be posted in December. You can access them by visiting www.TheCentralMinnesotaCatholic.org and clicking on “Minnesota Catholic Podcasts.” You also can subscribe to Minnesota Catholic Podcasts on iTunes or Google Play.
Topic: “How our religious communities pray.”
Guest: In five separate podcasts, representatives from religious communities in the St. Cloud Diocese will talk about why prayer is important in their community, ways they pray and how their prayers change for the Advent/Christmas season.
Podcasts include: Sister Rose Mae Rausch of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls; Sister Katherine Howard of the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict in St. Joseph; Father John Meoska of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville; Father Kermit Holl of the Crosier Fathers and Brothers in Onamia; and Sister Mary Matthew Tomsyck of the Poor Clare Sisters in Sauk Rapids.