Exactly one month since his mandate as Custodian of the Holy land came to an end, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa returns immediately to the Holy Land as Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Today, Pope Francis summoned the Franciscan from the Italian province of Bergamo to take up the position previously occupied by Fouad Twal who stepped down having reached the age limit. The Pope appointed him Apostolic Administrator sede vacante of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, until the appointment of a new Patriarch, elevating him nevertheless to the dignity of archbishop.
The appointment was announced while the Pope was flying to Armenia; but what is even more surprising is the fact that the leadership of the diocese of Jerusalem has been given to an Italian again – albeit only temporarily – after 29 years of Arab patriarchs (the Palestinian Michel Sabbah in 1987 and the Jordanian Twal in 2008). The statement issued by the Holy See made it clear that Pizzaballa would hold the nomination “until the appointment of a new Patriarch”. But the timing of the selection and the way in which it was made as well as the clarification that the former Custodian will be receiving the episcopal ordination in September, suggest that the position will not be held for a brief time.
Fr. Pizzaballa did not hide his surprise: “I have been asked to “return to Jerusalem” (cf. Lk 24),” he wrote in the message he sent to the Latin Patriarchate straight after the news of the nomination, “like the Apostles after “the events in Jerusalem” and the encounter with the Risen One. Through the Pope, He has asked me to return to the Holy City after my experience as Custos of the Holy Land. I do not hide that I was surprised by this request, knowing my personal and objective limitations. You can therefore imagine my trepidation and my concern for the task that has been entrusted to me. I can also understand your many questions and perhaps even some misgivings,” Pizzaballa added. “However, I know that it is He who calls and sends, and I trust in Him. “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12:9). I return to Jerusalem, primarily with the desire to serve the local clergy and the whole community, asking all of you for understanding, friendship and collaboration.”
In an interview published just a few days ago by Jerusalem’s Christian Media Center, Fr. Pizzaballa said: “Many have asked me about what my future holds, what my plans are. I am a friar and – it is true – I make plans like everyone else but friars are also children of obedience. The time will come when someone else will tell me where to go, just like Jesus does with Peter. And this is only right.” In that interview, Pizzaballa was actually speaking about the challenge of having to start a new chapter in his life “having spent 25 years in the Middle East, half my life…”. Yet it is this very obedience that brings him back to Jerusalem, but in a new context that promises to be no less easy.
55-year-old Fr. Pizzaballa was born in Cologno al Serio, in northern Italy and has been a priest since 1990. He was Vicar to the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem at the start of the new millennium, with Michel Sabbah, when he was looking after the small community of Jewish Christians. Then, at the young age of 38, he was appointed Custos of the Holy Land, leading the Franciscan province in such a balanced way that his six-year mandate was prolonged twice. Now in his role as Apostolic Administrator of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem he begins a new chapter in his life as well as in the local Church in the Holy Land. The Church has jurisdiction over Israel as well as Palestine and even Jordan and Cyprus.
The only time a Custos of the Holy Land went directly on to become a leader of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was Alberto Gori in 1949. His appointment came just as the Latin rite Catholic community in the Holy Land was going through the worst period it had ever been through before. It was the aftermath of the first Arab-Israeli war, which ended in an armistice that ratified the division of Jerusalem. At that moment, the Holy See placed all its faith in the Custos who had solid inside knowledge of the situation.
This alone is indicative of how special the choice Francis made for Jerusalem today is. His choice should also be interpreted within the context of the very difficult moment the Middle East is currently going through. Fr. Pizzaballa is certainly deeply esteemed by all in the Holy Land but the fact is, is that his nomination as Apostolic Administrator of the Patriarchate is a considerable setback for the local Arab clergy. At a time of great change for Jerusalem too, Pope Francis has decided to give greater importance to the experience of a man who has a great deal to offer, rather than to his nationality. Over the years, Pizzaballa has, on many occasions, shown great openness with regard to people’s background. During his mandate, he will encourage the Holy Land to look ahead rather than dwell on the past.
But there is another objective fact that Pizzaballa’s nomination opens our eyes to: today, Pope Francis feels free to choose a non-Arab figure for the position, partly because the face of the Latin Church of the Holy Land has changed exponentially over the past almost 30 years. The Church that Fr. Pizzaballa has been called to steer s no longer a purely Arab Church: it is made up also of several thousand Filipinos, Indians, Sri Lankans and Sudanese people, who came to Israel as immigrants, to work, and found that the parishes were their only point of reference. They have surpassed Arab Christians in terms of numbers (even though their presence is only temporary because of Israel’s incredibly strict immigration laws). In addition to problems such as the knife intifada and radical groups in Jerusalem, Fr. Pizzaballa also faces the challenge of really keeping Palestinian parishes together, an Israel that is filled with migrants, Jordan, which is struggling with the massive influx of refugees who head to the Holy Land to escape war in the Middle East. He will also have to ensure the further progression of ecumenical dialogue, in light of Francis and Bartholomew’s meeting at the Holy Sepulchre. Challenges, which are – probably – just as tough.