There was great anticipation over the synod that opened at the Vatican on 4 October 2023, but three days later, on 7 October, international attention shifted to the Middle East, bloodied all at once by the brutal attack on Israel by Hamas. This event, preceded by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, has constituted a new factor in disturbing the delicate global equilibrium, confirming the existence of a war on the West, which, at present, has its epicenter in Palestine, the land where the Redeemer of humanity lived and shed His blood.
Pope Francis has spoken out several times to condemn the war, call for the release of hostages and forestall the escalation of the conflict. But is this all that is to be expected from the Vicar of Christ?
Pope Francis could have taken this extraordinary opportunity to let the powerful of the earth hear his voice, together with that of the Synod Fathers gathered in assembly in Rome. What better opportunity to solemnly recall that the reason for wars, like that for all evils, lies in the accumulation of men’s public sins; that the ongoing wars are a punishment for the world’s estrangement from God and that the only way to achieve peace is respect for natural law and conversion to the Gospel? But the Vicar of Christ should also recall that Palestine is the land that was sanctified by the life and death of the Saviour, and appeal for the protection of Jerusalem and those Holy Places which, together with the city of Rome, home of the Chair of Peter, represent the heart of the world.
The Church has always claimed the right of ownership or custody over the Holy Places, venerated and made pilgrimage destinations since Christian antiquity. Devotion to the Christian shrines of Palestine began with Constantine, who, after the Council of Nicaea in 325, gave orders to some of the bishops present that they should go to Jerusalem to identify the places of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and build churches there. Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, also took part in the search for the precious relics. Five basilicas were built: the first on the site of the Holy Sepulchre, a second in Bethlehem over the Grotto of the Nativity, a third on the Mount of Olives where the Ascension of Our Lord took place, a fourth in the garden of Gethsemane and the last in Nazareth. We owe to Saint Jerome and his group of Roman Patricians, who settled in Bethlehem towards the end of the fourth century, the first hospices and lodgings for pilgrims. Thus began a pilgrimage movement interrupted by the Muslim domination of Palestine which lasted, with alternating phases, until 1917.
When, in 1071, the Seljuk Turks conquered Jerusalem, there began a period of persecution against Christians that roused the indignation of Christendom and gave birth to the great movement of the Crusades, with the intention of liberating the Holy Sepulchre. At the end of this epic struggle, the Franciscans were made responsible for devotion to the Christian shrines and for their defense, preserving them over the centuries through countless vicissitudes. The mission of the Friars Minor in the Holy Land was regularised both with the two bulls Gratias agimus and Nuper carissimae of Clement VI (1342) and with the pact between the king of Naples and the sultan of Egypt Qalāwūn. The rights of Catholics were confirmed and expanded for three centuries by all the sultans of Egypt, who were interested in commercial relations with Europe until Palestine was occupied by the Ottoman Turks, who reinstated the oppression. In the same period, Greek Orthodox monks settled in Jerusalem. A long and intractable dispute then began between the Catholic clergy and the Eastern schismatics, aggravated in the following centuries by the claims of Russia, which asserted rights of protection over the Orthodox religion throughout the Levant.
In 1847, Pope Pius IX restored the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, vacant since the time of the Crusades, with the brief Nulla celebrior. On 11 December 1917, as the Ottoman Empire crumbled, the English general Edmund Allenby liberated Jerusalem from the centuries-old domination of Islam. Out of respect for the Holy City, Allenby and his officers dismounted and went on foot through the Jaffa Gate, accompanied by the military representatives of Italy, France and England. Christendom rejoiced, but the hopes for a complete liberation of the Holy Land were soon disappointed.
In the years in which the State of Israel was born, and war was raging between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, Pope Pius XII dedicated three encyclicals to the Holy Places: Auspicia quaedam of 1 May 1948, In multiplicibus curis of 24 October 1948 and Redemptoris nostri cruciatus of 15 April 1949.
In the first encyclical, the pope recalled that a particular subject keenly afflicted and distressed his heart:
“We mean to refer to the Holy Places of Palestine, which have long been disturbed. Indeed, if there exists any place that ought to be most dear to every cultured person, surely it is Palestine, where, from the dawn of antiquity, such great light of truth shone for all men, where the Word of God made flesh announced, through the angels’ choir, peace to all men; where, finally, Christ hanging on the Cross acquired salvation for all mankind, with arms outstretched as if He were inviting all nations to fraternal harmony; and where He consecrated His precept of charity with the shedding of His blood.”
In the second encyclical, he stated:
“[I]t would be opportune to give Jerusalem and its outskirts, where are found so many and such precious memories of the life and death of the Saviour, an international character which, in the present circumstances, seems to offer a better guarantee for the protection of the sanctuaries. It would also be necessary to assure, with international guarantees, both free access to Holy Places scattered throughout Palestine, and the freedom of worship and the respect of customs and religious traditions.”
In the third encyclical, Pius XII renewed his appeal for:
“[T]he rulers of nations, and those whose duty it is to settle this important question, to accord to Jerusalem and its surroundings a juridical status whose stability under the present circumstances can only be adequately assured by a united effort of nations that love peace and respect the right of others. Besides, it is of the utmost importance that due immunity and protection be guaranteed to all the Holy Places of Palestine not only in Jerusalem but also in the other cities and villages as well. Not a few of these places have suffered serious loss and damage owing to the upheaval and devastation of the war. Since they are religious memorials of such moment—objects of veneration to the whole world and an incentive and support to Christian piety—these places should also be suitably protected by definite statute guaranteed by an ‘international’ agreement.”
Plans for the international protection of Jerusalem and the Holy Places were never realized, and the flow of pilgrimages continued in a context of latent conflict. Today, war has exploded in the land where He who was announced by the prophets as “the Prince of Peace” (Is 9:6) was born and died, and threatens to spread to East and West.
But if Christ is not proclaimed by those who should represent Him and call humanity to conversion, how can one marvel if the world is risking a war worse than all those that preceded it?
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