The Franciscan presence in Bethlehem
The Franciscans were already present at the Monastery of Mount Zion in 1335, as confirmed by the bulls “Gratias agimus” and “Nuper carissimae” issued by Pope Clement VI in 1342 which speak of the difficult negotiations and considerable expenses incurred by the royal family of Naples, King Robert and Queen Sancha, to reacquire it from the Egyptian Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad.
From the Monastery of Mount Zion the Franciscans went regularly to worship on the established holidays at the neighboring Sanctuaries, among those being that of Bethlehem.
That there was an active brotherhood present in Bethlehem in 1347 is attested by fra Niccolò da Poggibonsi, who arrived in that year in the Holy Land and later wrote in his “Libro d’Oltremare” (published in English as “A Voyage Beyond the Seas”):
“Let us return to the church of Bethlehem, which is maintained today by the Friars Minor of Saint Francis, and which was given to us by Medephar, Sultan of Babylon; and the Friars entered it while I was in Jerusalem."
The sultan referred to was Muzaffar Hajji, who reigned in Cairo in 1346-1347. A further confirmation of the Franciscan presence is provided by a letter sent by Queen Joanna I of Naples to the Sultan of Egypt requesting a number of privileges for the Friars Minor.
Due to the close relations between the Franciscans and the European sovereigns, and to the efforts of the then guardian fra Giovanni Tomacelli, in 1479 it was possible to rebuild the roof structure of the Byzantine church. The materials offered by Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy and King Edward IV of England were transported on Venetian galleys to Jaffa and then on to Bethlehem. They are still in place six centuries later.
The Franciscan presence was continuous and uninterrupted until 1637, as the sole owners of both the Church and Grotto of the Nativity, thus allowing them to perform their own celebrations, welcome pilgrims and carry out the necessary maintenance works. But this was by no means an entirely peaceful time for them, as they saw their ownership revoked and even their right to a titular bishop in Bethlehem called into question.
The Franciscans then turned directly to Pope Martin V who in his bull “Dudum siquidem” rejected the arguments that had been raised and confirmed the Friars Minor in their ownership of the Sanctuaries of the Holy Land.