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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 pilgrims in general, and also the young people, are aware of having a knowledge gap, and that is a beautiful aspect. I always say that the way to judge if a pilgrimage is well done is if, at its end, the pilgrim asks more questions than he has answers. When we ask ourselves a packet of questions, that means the pilgrimage was of service.

Now we come to relations with the other Churches. Meetings with the heads of the other communities are primarily, though not exclusively, institutional. These are not only formal relations, though the formal aspect has its importance. We are in the East, and we must devoid ourselves of a certain, slightly snobbish, Western approach.

Modes of contact and dialogue in the Orient are very different from ours. Religious authorities have a certain role, and it is appropriate to remain in it. If one doesn't enter this mode of behavior, it creates scandal and is not understood. The "coffee ritual" is very important. It has a whole hierarchy that must be considered.

A few illustrative examples: When the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, in paying protocol-required visits, decides to come first to the Custody, this must be understood as a mark of kindness and an attentive compliment. The size of the delegation is also important, whether there are ten, twenty or five members.

These are things that permeate the types of relations among the Churches and also represent public forms of meeting and becoming acquainted. One can limit oneself to the formalities, not going beyond the requisite polite formulas. On the other hand, after the polite formulas, one is seated and then can begin to speak and exchange points of view on concrete problems or documents to be written together. Not to take part in official visits is impolite.

But that is not all. Together with the heads of the Churches, the patriarchs, we have a breakfast from time to time in order to speak more freely -- outside of the formal occasions -- about common problems and strategies.

Finally, it must be remembered that at the Holy Sepulcher the friars and the Orthodox monks live literally under the same roof and share the same spaces. They learn to know each other, to respect or not respect each other, as in any property sharing relationship.

Q: What does your new role mean in terms of your human experience? Has everything changed?

Father Pizzaballa: Before, I had a simpler life style with lots of time to pray, to work, to study. Now, to start with, I have no more private life. If I want to go out to eat with someone, I have to ask my secretary to enter the meeting into my schedule and to check whether or not I am free. Then, my work involves a great deal of solitude. It's inevitable: if you want to remain free, particularly in a micro-context, you have to be alone. Finally, one perceives -- and this may be human -- that when you have responsibility your interpersonal relationships also change. You often suffer from this, and sometimes you are even required to disappoint the people you care for or respect. You have to take this into account.

Q: You travel a great deal. You share the experience of the Holy Land with other Churches, but you can see the experience of these Churches. Do you discuss this with the friars when you return home?

Father Pizzaballa: Yes, I talk about it and the friars are interested. I must admit, however, that these trips are often spent in institutional meetings. I do note a great deal of interest in the Holy Land and I have come to understand during these two years that we are incapable of presenting our reality professionally, so that it becomes known. Therefore, I am trying to invest a great deal of energy and resources on this point. It is important. The Holy Land cannot remain alone. Since the time of the first collection organized by the Apostle Paul, our life at Jerusalem has no sense unless -- as well as having roots in the territory -- it is in very deep union with the Churches of the whole world.

Q: You have Holy Land Commissioners in many countries of the world. In what sense would you say that there are still some rough edges to smooth?

Father Pizzaballa: The commissioners are tied to a classic, traditional model of disseminating information about the Holy Land. In November we are holding their first international congress. This will be the first time that they are all meeting together. Until now, they only had conferences by language group. I think an Italian commissioner would be interested to know what the Americans are doing. We can discover how the commissioner in Japan works, or the how the Hong Kong friars speak about the Holy Land in China.

Furthermore, we need to evaluate the situation, count ourselves and see who we are and where we are; compare the situation as we see it from the Custody with how the commissioners see it. Until now, there has been a communications deficit. If we want the commissioners to represent us around the world, they have to be closely tied to us. We are also trying to study new communication strategies, because the world is changing and the role of the commissioner is not only to collect resources, but also to dispense information about the Holy Land. If people don't know what is happening in the Holy Land, they cannot give concrete assistance.

Q: After two years as Custos, is there something that is particularly on your heart?

Father Pizzaballa: I experience some pain in my relationship with the friars. At the beginning of my term I promised to meet them and listen to them. I didn't even know some of them. I have to admit that this area is more tiring than I had thought, firstly because the friars are dispersed among different countries and it is difficult to meet them, but also because in spending time with them you notice that there are different visions and perspectives that you have to respect and understand. The themes of formation and of communication among ourselves are particularly delicate. Dialogue has to begin here first of all, and I sense that I am going to have to invest more effort in this regard.


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Holy Land, Pizzaballa, Jerusalem, Israel

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