Challenges of New Franciscan Custodian of Holy Land

Interview With Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa

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ROME, MAY 24, 2004 ( The new superior of the Custody of the Holy Land sums up in a simple way the challenge that the Franciscans face there.

«It is necessary to be impassioned, but not to be taken up by passions,» in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, says Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, of the Order of Friars Minor.

Father Pizzaballa was recently appointed Custodian of the Holy Land, succeeding Father Giovanni Battistelli, who held the office for the last six years.

Father Pizzaballa, 39, is one of the youngest custodians in history. The Custodian of the Holy Land is nominated by the Franciscans’ General Definitorium with the approval of the Holy See.

Pierbattista Pizzaballa was born at Cologno al Serio on April 21, 1965. He entered the novitiate in 1984 and professed solemn vows in 1989. He was ordained a priest in September 1990.

He earned a licentiate in theology at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum of Jerusalem, and is now preparing his doctorate there. He also attended courses of modern Hebrew in Jerusalem and took specialized courses in Semitic languages at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

In this interview, sent to ZENIT by the Office of Communications of the Order of Friars Minor, Father Pizzaballa addresses the challenges facing Franciscans and Christians in the Holy Land.

Q: What does the Custody of the Holy Land mean to you?

Father Pizzaballa: The Custody is a presence based in the Middle East, which we Christians call the Holy Land. It is a bridging presence, a meeting — sometimes a clash — between two cultures, those of the East and of the West. … There is no other place in the world quite like Jerusalem, where all Christian religious confessions are present.

Beyond the evident difficulty of relationships, the Holy Land has a fascination that is unique, to such a point that Paul VI defined it as «the fifth Gospel.»

Here, we Franciscans are an historical presence and down through the centuries we have learned a lot about dialogue with other Christians.

On the interreligious level, we are a small reality in respect to the two great presences: Jewish and Islamic. But it is good to see how, though not forming a part of those cultures, we take on some aspects of their traditions and succeed in communicating some things of our own.

In this sense we find ourselves at the heart of the life of the Church and of the world here.

Despite the limitations due to the scarcity of personnel, to the difficulty of the spoken languages, etc., we can always offer a welcome, meet the pilgrims and faithful from all parts of the world, and discuss things with those that do not think as we do.

The Holy Land is a fascinating place that continuously challenges, and the greatest challenge that we find ourselves facing now is that of not being limited to enduring the difficult situations in which we live, but to become involved in them with an active and critical attitude.

Q: What are the priorities that have been set for your mandate as custodian?

Father Pizzaballa: My priority is, above all, formation. It is precisely because of the fact of being stationed in the Holy Land, of always having been part of the landscape, that we cannot take the risk of living on past results. The status quo, at times, can also become a way of thinking.

I think it is necessary to shake up our conscience, in ongoing and initial formation, so that things might change in the Holy Land and, consequently, we also are called on to change ourselves, though remaining in the line of tradition.

Q: What, in your opinion, obstructs change and renewal?

Father Pizzaballa: The first obstacle that I would identify is the lack of personnel, which, after all, is a problem of a good part of the Order. Another is the division into language groups.

Internationality is a richness in the Custody that becomes a limitation when the individual groups tend to close in on themselves, when each one should present himself as an enrichment for the other.

It is then necessary to consider that the Holy Land is a land charged with passions. The environmental situation obliges one, in a certain sense, to become involved in the situations, but this also implies risks; when the passions become visceral, one hides behind one’s own positions.

It is necessary to be impassioned, but not to be taken up by passions, since that would take away freedom before others. I think preserving the freedom to love all is fundamental today, especially in the Holy Land.

We Friars, after the example of Francis of Assisi, must preserve love for everyone as a prophetic attitude and, therefore, our next Chapter will have as its topic «Prophets of Reconciliation and Peace.» A prophet is one that is in solidarity with and close to all.

Q: What do you expect from the Order of Friars Minor?

Father Pizzaballa: The Custody is part of the Order of Friars Minor. We are the one family. The Custody alone cannot meet all the demands and difficulties that there are in the Middle East; the Custody needs the Order and, I think, the Order needs the Custody.

If the Custody intends to renew itself by asking «what it is» and «how it intends to be present in the Holy Land,» it will not be able to find an answer without a dialogue with the Order. Not only do we need personnel, but also ideas and projects in which the Friars of all latitudes can be involved.

Q: What do you hope for in particular?

Father Pizzaballa: A greater involvement on the part of the provinces. The Custody is defined as «the pearl of the missions,» but it remains a way of speaking.

Very often the missions are spoken about without consideration being given to presence in the Holy Land. In ongoing formation, it is also urgent to involve the Order and provinces. We wish to be in harmony with the trajectory of the Order. I think there is a possibility, indeed a need, for cooperation.

The role of the Franciscan Studium Biblicum and of the other study centers is indispensable for the Custody. The scientific and formative contribution of these centers cannot be left to one side.

We certainly must confirm, strengthen and coordinate our study centers so that there is no dispersal of forces.

Numerically we are a small presence in an interreligious environment, but precisely because of this we must give an especially good service.

Q: Do you think it necessary to have a different attitude in respect to relations with the civil authorities?

Father Pizzaballa: We must recover our freedom before all. There is a tendency on the part of both the local and international authorities to orchestrate our presence. There is the risk that certain events may become used and orchestrated.

I think it very important for us to maintain a non-political language and to have a prophetic attitude. This does not mean being disinterested in all that happens around us, but rather to preserve our autonomy and freedom before all, without prejudice against anyone.

Q: Two peculiarities of the Franciscan presence in the Holy land have been the care of pilgrims and of the resident Christians. One of the practical activities that the Custody carries out is the building of homes for Christians. Do you think it useful to continue this kind of activity?

Father Pizzaballa: The problem of houses for the Christians of the Holy Land is very serious.

It is necessary to be careful not to transform ourselves into a ministry for infrastructure. No matter how many houses we could build, it would never solve the problem of the survival of the Christians. In this perspective we are called to give our practical contribution.

The construction of houses was aimed at avoiding emigration. Many Christians are leaving the Holy Land …

In the Territories, emigration is a truly dramatic problem whil
e for the Christians that live in Israel there are problems of a different kind.

The Custody, for example, does not build houses for them. You must remember that the poor never leave, they will always remain with us, since they do not have the money necessary to emigrate.

A serious problem, on the other hand, is the reduction of a trained Christian presence because whoever has the economic possibility and good training emigrates, since he does not see any prospect for the future.

The problem exists in the Palestinian Territories and is due especially to the political situation and to the absence of economic prospects.

In this case the construction of houses is important, but the Custody cannot limit itself to this. We Friars must be in greater solidarity, less «assisting» and more present. The people do not only need money; they ask for hope, they want to be helped to believe in the future.

Q: What do you think of the dividing wall?

Father Pizzaballa: I understand the fear and anxiety of Israel. I am sure that the wall is not the answer.

Israel wishes to defend itself from terrorist attacks, but the reality of the wall divides the villages from the lands, the children from the schools, the hospital from the sick. All this is difficult to understand.

History, on the other hand, teaches that all walls fall, sooner or later. It is a response of fear that does not have prospects in time because the force of ideas and the forces of life overcome every barrier.

Q: You have lived close to the reality of the Christian communities, whether of Jewish origin or Palestinian origin. How do they face up to this dramatic situation?

Father Pizzaballa: What I have noticed in the Christian communities is that there is a lot of psychological and spiritual tiredness.

The Christians are not a people of themselves, since being a Christian does not mean belonging to a national entity and the faith is not identified with a national identity. The Christians are from both sides and each one identifies himself with his own people.

The Palestinian Christians are in solidarity with the Palestinians, while the Christians of Jewish origin are in solidarity with the Israelis, even if, obviously, they do not often share the choices of their own governors.

Q: What are the perspectives for the future of the Custody?

Father Pizzaballa: The starting point for the Franciscan presence in the Middle East is the meeting of St. Francis with the Sultan Melek-el-Kamil.

In that context of war, during the Crusades, Francis of Assisi climbed over the trenches to go to speak, dialogue, with the Sultan, who was considered the enemy par excellence, the infidel.

The future is in the prophetic gesture of dialogue. This is put into practice and lived first of all in relationships among us Friars, who come from different countries and different cultures and then in the relationships with the men and women that live in the Holy Land.

It is necessary to begin again from the origins, from the motives for which Francis of Assisi wished to undertake his journey to live again the experience of Jesus Christ, to see with his own eyes the earthly places where the Son of God was born, lived, died and resurrected for the salvation of mankind.

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