“There is a leader in Jerusalem.” The comment posted in Hebrew on X (formerly Twitter) by a journalist from the influential Israeli national daily Haaretz is eloquent. Beneath his sober comment is an article recounting the statement by Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who offered himself in exchange for the Israeli children held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
“Absolutely available” to take the place of child hostages
In reply to questions last Monday by the media during a videoconference, the young cardinal replied spontaneously, “Am I ready for an exchange? [I’ll do] anything, if it can lead to their release and the return of these children to their homes, without any problem. I am absolutely available.”
In just a few hours, the patriarch’s statement went around the world. “It wasn’t a media release that he had thought through or that his communications team had prepared,” says Noga Tarnopolsky, an Israeli journalist who has worked with the Franciscan for a dozen years. She recognizes in this response the “authentic” and “spontaneous” character of the Italian cardinal.
Another source living in Jerusalem agrees. “It wasn’t prepared and it wasn’t feigned. Those who know him well know that if he were asked to die to save everyone, he’d sacrifice himself that very moment. There’s not a shadow of a doubt.”
The Vatican’s voice in the Holy Land
At the age of 58, the Franciscan — born in Bergamo, northern Italy — has found himself at the heart of tragic current events since Hamas terrorists launched a bloody attack on Israel on October 7. Having just been created a cardinal by Pope Francis, he had to rush back to Jerusalem, where he found “a frightened country,” he told the Vatican media.
On the shoulders of this rigorous, hard-working man now rests the responsibility of speaking for the Holy See in a crisis on a scale not seen since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. When asked whether the Pope would send an emissary to the Holy Land, as he did recently for Ukraine, a Roman Curia official was quick to reply: “Cardinal Pizzaballa is already there.”
It has to be said that the man in whom the Pope has placed his trust is perfectly familiar with this land and its complexities. This professor of biblical Hebrew was head of the Custody of the Holy Land from 2004 to 2016. Pope Francis then entrusted him with the reins of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, an institution in financial disarray at the time. “His cardinalate is a sign of recognition from the Pope for someone who accepted to do the job that no one else wanted to do,” says a Roman source, who underlines the Italian’s qualities as a good administrator.
In the drama currently unfolding in the Holy Land, Pierbattista Pizzaballa is now faced with diplomatic issues of life and death. In a land where hatred between Israelis and Palestinians is at its height, and vengeful impulses are at their height, the slightest statement by the patriarch is likely to trigger an avalanche of condemnation.
Declarations by the patriarchs and heads of Jerusalem’s Christian churches — signed by the cardinal, among others — have already provoked the ire of Israeli officials. They accuse Christians of not clearly naming those responsible for the disaster.
“The presence of Christianity in the Holy Land is so small that it cannot appear disunited,” explains an expert in the region. He points out that these Church leaders are above all Arab leaders driven by the pain of their people. Anxious to preserve this fragile ecumenism, Cardinal Pizzaballa is forced to add his drop of moderation to their messages.
Little room to maneuver
This does not prevent him from personally expressing his unease. For example, when asked about Israeli irritation at the content of Christian leaders’ communiqués, he told the press, “I’m irritated too. But out of respect for the other churches, I don’t want to add anything.” And then he assures us: “To be clear, Hamas has committed barbaric acts in Israel.”
As the voice of the Holy See in the Holy Land, Cardinal Pizzaballa must play the role of diplomat with Israel, at a time when Tsahal soldiers may be invading the Gaza Strip, which has been bombarded for days. The patriarch, who speaks perfect Hebrew, has little room to maneuver. The shock provoked by the Hamas attack has exacerbated the desire for revenge. Consequently, the number of interlocutors capable of hearing the Holy See’s message is limited.
“Today there’s a big void at the level of leadership. Pizzaballa is one of the few people who really embodies what it means to ‘be responsible for a people,'” says Noga Tarnopolsky.
The patriarch’s love for Gaza’s Christians
The journalist notes that his cardinalate, “which should have been celebrated by the Christian community,” began with “a tragedy.”
The man who donned the cardinal’s scarlet on September 30, that shade of red that symbolizes the blood of martyrs, is now surrounded by the blood of thousands of civilians killed in recent days.
In Gaza, home to several hundred Christians, at least 16 died on Thursday evening when a building was damaged on the grounds of a Greek Orthodox Church. Most Gazan Christians did not follow Israeli orders to flee to the south of the 25 mile x 8 mile enclave, home to over 2 million Palestinians.
Cardinal Pizzaballa holds the Gaza community especially close to his heart. He usually makes a pastoral visit there every year before Christmas. A man close to the patriarch says, “I’ve already heard him say that this is his favorite community: the smallest, the poorest, but the one that never complains.”