JERUSALEM — When Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa makes his first entrance into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as patriarch, he will continue the balancing act of representing everyone in the Holy Land.
“I can’t become Palestinian and I can’t become Israeli; it doesn’t make sense, but trying to understand the perspective is essential,” the Italian-born archbishop told Catholic News Service days before his Dec. 4 solemn entrance. He will celebrate his first official Mass Dec. 5.
“I can’t become the voice of Palestinians or Israelis, but I have to be the voice of the church … including everyone from his own perspective. It is quite difficult, because here everyone wants you to be (either) here or there.”
Appointed in October as the first non-Arab Latin patriarch of Jerusalem since 1987, Pizzaballa said it is “essential” for anyone in his new position to try to understand the different perspectives of all the residents of the Holy Land — not an easy undertaking in a land fraught with political and religious conflicts.
The new patriarch has been in the Holy Land since 1993, following his ordination as a priest in the Franciscan order in September 1990. He has been exposed to both the Israeli and Palestinian realities: He served as superior of the Sts. Simeon and Anne House of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community of Jerusalem from 2001-2004 and was appointed as vicar of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in 2005. From 2004 to 2016 he was Franciscan custos of the Holy Land. In June 2016 he was appointed apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Maintaining a balance is not always easy and requires being clear about your roots and who you are, Pizzaballa said.
“First of all, you need internal personal stability. You need to listen a lot, and to pray a lot,” he said. “To have a strong attitude of prayer helps you also to keep the emotional distances.”
After he was tasked as apostolic administrator with the fiscal and administrative reorganization of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which had amassed a debt of $100 million, Pizzaballa said he was forced to make some very difficult decisions, such as selling off some nonessential property in Nazareth to local Muslim Arab businessmen.
“These were not long-term (debts) which could be paid off in 20 or 50 years … but had to be repaid in two to three years to banks,” he said. As it would have been impossible to ask for outside support for such a huge sum, he decided to pay off the debts and “take responsibility” for the wrong choices and lack of procedures from the past, he said.
“To (file for) bankruptcy would mean to close schools, which would be a disaster, so the solution was to sell nonessential properties — which was very problematic for our people, and I understand that. It was also very painful for me, but we have to take decisions.” While the debt has now been reduced to about $20 million, a lot of work still remains, he said.
“The past years were spent extinguishing fires; now we have to plant seeds, which takes a longer time,” said Pizzaballa. “Corona is affecting us, of course, but we have to think in the long term. In a year or two things will be solved with the coronavirus … now we have to consider a long perspective and reorganize the staff and to organize the pastoral perspective of what to do and how to do it.”
Though each of the four regions of the patriarchate — including Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Cyprus — faces its own unique challenges and needs, they also share similar concerns about economic, political and social issues such as youth and refugees, as well as the dwindling number of Christians. He said the Christian commitment in the region and their “attachment to their roots and to their land” will keep Christians in the Holy Land.
As Franciscan custos, Pizzaballa was active in ecumenical dialogue with the leaders of other churches, including the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox. The religious leaders worked especially on the collaborative restoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Church of the Nativity, where the three denominations have established rights according to the 1887 Status Quo agreement on holy sites.
“I believe that this is a duty, a mission; from the religious point of view we have to do this. Secondly we owe this to our communities — almost all our families are mixed families, and our relations among Christian institutions affect also the life of the community, so it is important,” he said.
When he answered Pope Francis’s call to Rome in October he knew whatever the pontiff would ask of him would be difficult, he said.
“To leave after 30 years is not easy, because most of my life was here. To remain also is difficult, because the road is a difficult one, it is not a simple one,” he said, noting his concern for his elderly mother, who still lives in the small northern Italian village of Cologno al Serio, where he was born. “So from my point of view, I was ready for something difficult.”
“When you say yes to God when you are young, you don’t know to what you are saying yes,” Pizzaballa said. “Now (when you are older) you know, and it is from one side more difficult, but from the other side it is also more conscious and more complete.”