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Reflecting on the Custody of the Holy Land

Interview With Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa

JERUSALEM, JULY 21, 2006 (Zenit) - In May 2004, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, 41, accepted the responsibility for the Custody of the Holy Land.

In this interview conducted by Giampiero Sandionigi, he evaluates his experience.

Q: Father Pizzaballa, was your nomination a surprise for you or were you prepared for it?

Father Pizzaballa: No, I didn't expect it in the least. Before the appointments are made the friars are consulted two separate times. The result of the first is made public; the second is secret. It is sent to Rome, where inquiries and evaluations are conducted.

After the first round of consultations, I understood that I was "at risk." For me, it was very surprising because I was not a member of the previous government. My life was fairly marginal with respect to the rest of the Custody. And finally, there was the age factor: I was only 38/39 years old. The Custos is usually older.

Q: How is it that a community whose average age is not young turns toward a young candidate?

Father Pizzaballa: I don't know. Maybe there was a desire for renewal. It may be that later on, in encountering actual changes, there is some fear, but the desire to change was there. I should also say that our community is an international one in which the nationality factor counts. When we speak of the Custody we think first of Jerusalem, which remains a conservative environment, but there are also more peripheral communities that belong to the Custody. I think they had a great deal of influence.

Q: Did that make it easier to say yes?

Father Pizzaballa: Yes, I talked about it and I gave it a great deal of consideration before saying yes or no. Obedience is not only doing just what the superiors order. When the community chooses you in such an obvious and deliberate, honest manner, if you do not have serious reasons to refuse, there is no sense in saying no. You have to accept in a spirit of service.

Q: Perhaps more than some of your brothers have experience in working with the Jewish component of this society. During your mandate is the Custody going to pay cultural attention to the Jewish world?

Father Pizzaballa: Traditionally, the Custody was always close to the Arab world. This is a fact that is part of our history and is in our genes. In addition, some of the friars are of Arab origin. It is also true, however, that during these two years -- because of my knowledge of the language -- contact with Israelis has been facilitated.

Contact has been facilitated, but this has also created misunderstandings, inevitable in the Holy Land, where every word and every punctuation mark can be misunderstood or interpreted according to differing intentions. Interaction with the Jewish world is important, starting with the fact that a large number of our activities take place in Israeli territory. One doesn't know very well what it comprises, how it should be practiced, what should be practiced. It is a practice that must be built over time.

From the point of view of operational choices, one of my first decisions was that the young religious in formation would study at least one of the three languages spoken in the contexts that come into contact with the Custody (Arabic, Hebrew or Greek). The perspective of insertion into the Israeli domain is, therefore, an integral part of the formation process. We also pursue concrete initiatives of activities and meetings with the cultural and administrative institutions of the State of Israel to resolve problems and study together common working strategies, in the field of tourism and pilgrimage, for instance.

Q: Your new responsibilities brings you two other aspects: contact with pilgrims and ecumenical relations with the other Churches present in the Holy Places. Could you speak on this?

Father Pizzaballa: From this point of view, my work has completely changed. Before, I was in charge of a little parish. Now the perspective and life style are completely changed. The contact with the pilgrims is beautiful. Every day I welcome one or two groups to St. Savior's Monastery. Last year I welcomed thousands of pilgrims, mostly Italians, but not only.

These meetings are always very stimulating. I speak and the pilgrims ask me questions. Many of them are young and it is interesting to get a sense of how they perceive their pilgrimage and their encounter with the reality of the Holy Land. Among the recurring themes is that of dialogue and the scandal of the division among the Churches. Another question that comes up frequently is peace. Young people have trouble understanding why it is difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to meet and talk with each other.

What strikes me the most strongly is the desire for a better knowledge of the Bible and the Gospel. The ...

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