On 14 February 1421, Pope Martin V issued his bull "His quae pro ecclesiasticarum" which became the birth certificate of the Commissariats of the Holy Land. Six hundred years later, on 14 February 2021, the Custody of the Holy Land and the 67 Commissariats of the Holy Land will celebrate this anniversary with Eucharistic celebrations for the benefactors of the Holy Land on 15 February.
From lay procurators to Franciscan Commissaries
The term "Commissar" appears to come from the juridical terminology of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, with which the Custody had relations thanks to the trading routes between the Republic and the ancient port of Jaffa. The commissar was and is the person who is the “general curator” of the interests of an institution or of a person.
"The Commissariats were not established six hundred years ago by chance,” says Fr. Marcelo Ariel Cichinelli, the Custody’s delegate for the Commissariats of the Holy Land. "History situates their creation during a hard period for the life of the Custody when strong support was needed for the mission in the Holy Land."
Well aware that they could not be all over the world at the same time and having to live through the upheavals brought about by the Protestant reform, in which two of the central themes were alms and poverty, the Franciscans initially gave laymen the responsibility for “procuring” economic support for the Holy Land. This was how the figure of the Procurator, the forerunner of the commissar, came into being. The first layman appointed is mentioned in documents dating back to 1392, and was the merchant Ruggero Contarini, assisted by his brother, first, and then by his nephew. Close to Fr. Gerard Chauvet, who then became Custos of the Holy Land (1387/1388-1398), Contariniwas appointed "procurator for the territory of the Republic of Venice,” and corresponded intensely with Chauvet and with his successor, Fr. Jean de Rochefort.
The time had come for the Franciscan Order to officially approve the role of these laymen. This is why Pope Martin V, in a bull called "Salutare Studium", specified with reference to the Procurators of the Holy Land that the Constitutions, the apostolic ordinances, the by-laws, the customs of the Order, including any oath or apostolic confirmation whatsoever, should not be of impediment to the regular performance of this work and this was exactly what happened. Supported by the two Papal bulls, over the centuries, laymen were gradually replaced by Franciscan friars, and today all the Commissaries of the Holy Land are religiously appointed by their territorial superior, after having consulted the Custos of the Holy Land.
The spread of the Commissariats in the world
It is very difficult to identify an exact chronology of when the commissariats were established, especially the European ones which are recognized as the oldest. We know, for example, that the commissariats of Naples, Paris, and Vienna, were founded in the first half of the 17th century. Even more surprising, but which proves the international nature and the vitality of the Order of St Francis, was the work of the Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal. We owe the creation of commissariats in Mexico City, Lima, Cartagena, Quito, and Buenos Aires, at the end of the 16th century, shortly after those of Madrid and Santiago de Compostela, to the Spanish crown. The Portuguese crown, after the foundation of the commissariat of Lisbon, also supported the foundation of the Commissariats-General of Ouro Preto, Salvador de Bahia, and Rio de Janeiro. The commissaries then took on the function of "ambassadors" of the Holy Places, also organizing pilgrimages, but they also did more: they served the interests of the whole Order. For example, it was thanks to the creation of a commissariat in Paris that the Franciscans could return there after the expulsion of all the religious in 1880. The foundation of a Commissariat in the United States based in Washington DC (1882) and in Canada in Trois Rivières (1888), created by the Blessed Fr. FrédéricJanssoone, also dates back to the same period.
From the very beginning, the mission of the Commissariats has been essential: they have represented a bridge between the mission of the Holy Land and the local churches. They are natural channels, established and encouraged not only by the Franciscan Order but by the Church itself, which reasserts the importance of the support for the Holy Land with the "Collecta pro Locis Sanctis" established by Pope Leo XIII on 26 December 1887 and repeated every year on Good Friday.
Celebrating the 600 years of the Commissariats
"Despite the despondent period we are in, 600 years later the Custody wants to celebrate this institution and thank God and the Church for the creation and the support for these bodies,” emphasizes Fr. Marcelo. This goal in time has allowed the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton to promote a time of prayer for the commissaries but, even more, for the benefactors, because each one, within their possibilities, was the expression of Divine Providence.
"This celebration also lets us relaunch the figure of the Commissaries,” continues Fr. Cichinelli."We want to communicate to the world that we are not fixed in the past, but this figure has evolved, following the times and they meet regularly at the conferences of the Commissaries (the last one was held in 2018) to continue being more and more efficient in their work of animation.”