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Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch Pizzaballa, former Custos and future cardinal



I.Media - published on 09/15/23

The Italian has lived and worked in the Holy Land since his ordination in 1990 and maintains good relations with Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

At a time when tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are back in the news, Pope Francis has chosen to create the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, as a cardinal. The 58-year-old Italian will thus be an elector in the event of a conclave. A champion of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, he is the first patriarch of Jerusalem to enter the College of Cardinals

A history of ministry in the Holy Land

Born in Italy in 1965, Archbishop Pizzaballa entered the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor at the age of 19. He received ordination in 1990 in Bologna, a year after he had taken his perpetual vows. Professor of Biblical Hebrew at the Franciscan Faculty of Biblical and Archaeological Sciences in Jerusalem, he supervised the Hebrew translation of the Roman Missal in 1995. 

In 2004, he was elected Custos of the Holy Land — the superior of the Franciscan province in the Holy Land — and re-elected to the same post in 2010 and 2013. From 2005 to 2008, he was also Patriarchal Vicar of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, for the pastoral care of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel. 

In 2016, he had just stepped down as Custos, and the previous Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, was retiring. Pope Francis then appointed Bishop Pizzaballa apostolic administrator of the patriarchate, elevating him to the rank of bishop but formally leaving the patriarchate vacant. One of the Italian bishop’s tasks was to reorganize an office whose management had led to serious financial problems. He managed to improve this situation despite a certain amount of internal resistance.

Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem

Four years later, in 2020, the Pope officially and formally entrusted him with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, conferring the pallium on him during a mass celebrated at Casa Santa Marta. The choice of an Italian was criticized by some, who lamented that Rome did not appoint a patriarch from the region. In 1987, John Paul II had chosen Michel Sabbah, the first Palestinian Arab to hold the title of Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. He was perceived by Israel as being committed to supporting Palestinian political forces. Sabbah was replaced in 2008 by Jordanian Fouad Twal, appointed by Benedict XVI.

The jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem extends to Latin Catholics living in Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, and Cyprus. The cardinal-designate is also president of the Conference of Latin Bishops of the Arab Regions (CELRA). 

Although the future cardinal is not originally from the region, he professes a deep attachment to the Holy City. “I’ve lived in Jerusalem all my life, ever since I became a priest in 1990,” he said in an interview. “‘Here I dwell because I have desired it,’ as the Psalm says. […] It was (God) who led me here, and He will decide what happens next.”

A model for the Church of the future

During his decades in the Holy Land, he has gained recognition for his wisdom and diplomatic skills, maintaining relations with both Israeli and Palestinian authorities. “Here, we are friends with everyone,” he says, “because […] we have no power. Christians represent less than 2% of the population.”

The Patriarch sees Jerusalem as “a precious laboratory” where “interreligious and ecumenical dialogue is never theoretical and abstract, it’s always a concrete reality.”

“In our Christian communities, Catholics and Orthodox cross paths without barriers. Orthodox Christians come to Mass in our Latin parishes, and vice versa. […] The people are ahead of our status quo.”

For him, the Church of the future could be like that of his patriarchate, “a Church with less power, fewer structures, fewer people.” The cardinal-designate has not hesitated to take courageous pastoral decisions, such as opening ecclesiastical tribunals to non-Catholic lawyers, breaking the monopoly of a small group with high fees, in order to relieve the faithful.

Within the Roman Curia, he has been a consultant to the Commission for Relations with the Jews of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity since 2008. 

The Middle East has another cardinal elector: the Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon Louis Raphaël Sako (Iraq). Pope Francis also created Mario Zenari, nuncio to Syria, as a cardinal in 2016, but the diplomat is still counted as an Italian cardinal.

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