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Challenges of New Franciscan Custodian of Holy Land

Interview With Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa

ROME, MAY 25, 2004 (Zenit) - 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, 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 ...

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