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Noga TarnopolskySeptember 28, 2023
Cardinal-designate Pierbattista Pizzaballa, on Palm Sunday 2022. (OSV News photo/Amir Cohen, Reuters)

For the first time in history, Jerusalem, a city holy to the three great monotheistic faiths, has a cardinal.

A very surprised cardinal.

July 9, the day his elevation was announced, had been densely packed with meetings for Pierbattista Pizzaballa, O.F.M., the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. Early that Sunday afternoon, as he was seated for lunch, his phone began buzzing constantly. He saw the word “cardinal” flash across his screen. Alerts and messages kept coming.

“Stop it,” he instructed the device.

Eventually he answered the call of a Vatican correspondent he has known for years, who asked, “Did you see what happened? Cardinal!”

“Who?” Patriarch Pizzaballa asked the journalist.

“You!”

Energetic, resolutely modern, deeply cosmopolitan, Patriarch Pizzaballa shares the pope’s intention to restore the somewhat backwater reputation of Jerusalem to its former glory.

The letter from Pope Francis came later.

The Italian-born Patriarch Pizzaballa, 58, a tall, athletic man with an easy smile and a spontaneous manner, has been part of the fabric of Jerusalem life since he arrived here as a 25-year-old priest in 1990.

He is considered close to Pope Francis, who has steadily advanced the patriarch, naming him apostolic administrator sede vacante of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in 2016 and, in 2020, making him Latin patriarch of Jerusalem with responsibility for the entire Holy Land.

But his elevation to the College of Cardinals came out of the blue. A member of the patriarch’s team accompanying him that day saw a cheerful text message on his own phone and asked, “Is the pope coming on another pilgrimage?” (No. The last papal visit to Jerusalem took place in May 2014.)

Instead, among 20 others who will be newly created cardinals, mostly non-Europeans, Pope Francis that day announced that Patriarch Pizzaballa, very much a son of Jerusalem, would be its first cardinal. The consistory will be held in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sept. 30, and a number of Palestinian and Israeli authorities will be joining the patriarch for the event.

Pierbattista Pizzaballa: “No one can do anything alone. Since all society is shaken, we need to work together—to serve diversity, not to create uniformity, to reconsider relations between religion and laity.”

Energetic, resolutely modern, as comfortable with technology as with theology and deeply cosmopolitan, Patriarch Pizzaballa shares the pope’s intention to restore the somewhat backwater reputation of Jerusalem in the church’s constellation to its former glory.

“Since the beginning [Pope Francis] has chosen cardinals not necessarily from the main churches or dioceses, has shown that he wants to distribute these more internationally and to the periphery. It is his style to choose Jerusalem,” Patriarch Pizzaballa says.

In an exclusive interview held at the Latin Patriarchate earlier this month, Patriarch Pizzaballa argued for Jerusalem’s unique status as both the original church and as a community on the fringe of the contemporary church.

“Jerusalem is both: It is an important diocese because it is the Mother Church,” he said. “Spiritually and theologically it is the heart of the church because everything was born here. At the same time we are also kind of peripheral. As Christians we are a very small minority; we are living in a country which is in a very typical situation of conflict, it is a place where the interreligious dialogue is at stake, is always challenged and at the same time, it is also our common life. It’s a kind of laboratory from the religious point of view.”

The anti-Christian violence in Jerusalem, Patriarch Pizzaballa noted, “is consistent with what is happening to the country. A rise in violence, mistrust generally, within Israeli and Palestinian societies.”

“Paying attention to this portion of the church, the world, Jerusalem and the Middle East, I think was a gesture with a vision,” he said of the pope’s choice.

Isaac Herzog, president of Israel, has known Patriarch Pizzaballa for more than two decades, dating back to March 2000, when then-Cabinet Secretary Herzog coordinated Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem with Patriarch Pizzaballa, then the vicar general of the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem for the pastoral care of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel.

Among many other attributes, Mr. Herzog prizes Patriarch Pizzaballa’s “fluid, eloquent Hebrew.”

In an interview with America in which he underscored the importance of Patriarch Pizzaballa’s appointment for Jerusalem’s international prestige, Mr. Herzog said, “He is a brilliant person. He is a leader knowledgeable and extremely well acquainted with the complexities of our region and enjoys the trust of all the concerned parties in Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and Israel. They respect him tremendously. His name precedes him.”

Patriarch Pizzaballa was congratulated on his elevation by the King of Jordan, the Palestinian president and numerous other dignitaries. But in Israel only the president, the titular head of state, called to congratulate the new cardinal-designate. The Israeli government and the City of Jerusalem have yet to comment.

Pierbattista Pizzaballa: “Spiritually and theologically," Jerusalem “is the heart of the church because everything was born here. At the same time we are also kind of peripheral.”

Though neither Mr. Herzog nor Patriarch Pizzaballa agreed to discuss the matter, Israel’s new government, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, has not made life easy for either of them. Violence has sharply risen under the new government, particularly against minorities, and some of Mr. Netanyahu’s ultra-orthodox Jewish parliamentary allies have called for a ban on “Christian evangelical” activity in Israel.

Mr. Herzog has been absorbed throughout 2023 with attempts to bring Mr. Netanyahu back from the brink of attempting what critics have called a judicial coup. Patriarch Pizzaballa, in addition to his vast array of duties as top Vatican official for the Middle East, an area extending from Cyprus in the west to Jordan in the east and encompassing Lebanon and Syria in addition to Israel and Palestine, has been forced to address the alarming spike in violence directed at Christian religious personnel and symbols in Israel.

When in August followers of a radical rabbi invaded the campus of the Stella Maris Monastery in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, Mr. Herzog, his wife, Michal, and Patriarch Pizzaballa undertook a widely reported visit to the site as a display of “good faith and support from [the] head of state of Jewish state towards the Christian world,” Mr. Herzog said.

The anti-Christian violence, Patriarch Pizzaballa noted, “is consistent with what is happening to the country: a rise in violence, mistrust generally, within Israeli and Palestinian societies.” Christians “are easy targets,” he said.

“We are few, the difficult history among Jews and Christians of course plays a role, and the attitude of some ultra-Orthodox, who view us as pagans. With all this, the role of moderate elements in society is disappearing, and everything has become extreme, at City Hall, in government, small and large—all of it has an influence.”

Pierbattista Pizzaballa: “There is a lack of leadership, of vision. We need people to help give orientation—not to neglect the fears but not to give fears the only space.”

“I don’t think there is a specific intent against Christians,” Patriarch Pizzaballa said, remarking upon his return from a visit to the devastated Syrian city of Aleppo, an ancient Christian community that has been decimated by war, that Israeli and Palestinian Christians can live and worship freely. They experience “difficulties in coexistence [with Jews in Israel and Muslims in Palestinian territories], not persecution,” he said.

Patriarch Pizzaballa is alert to a knowledge gap between his diocese and some members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops but is “not frustrated” in his outreach efforts. Attitudes, he said, “are changing.”

“We are in contact with the [U.S.] bishops’ conference and with many other bishops, and we try to explain to them the complex reality of our land and the complexity of its politics, where things are not all black and white,” he said.

“We try to help them understand that the Palestinian people are still waiting for their rights, their dignity or recognition. And when we say Palestinians, we also mean Palestinian Christians, who cannot be separated from all Palestinians, or all Christians.”

The challenge, the patriarch acknowledged, is significant, because most American Catholics “have never been here and don’t know anything about our reality, but [we] just have to keep working, keep talking, and never cease talking and raising our voice when necessary.”

“I think an authoritative voice, a cardinal, has a resonance that is different and gives me more responsibility: Jerusalem is a unique point of observation, and it is important for Rome, too, to hear from Jerusalem.”

He attributes much of the world’s current instability to fear. If in the past societies were more static, “now all societies are becoming multi-something.” This has benefits but “also creates fear. We are losing identity. The traditional questions of identity and belonging have acquired different meaning now. My impression is that a lot of society is disoriented.”

But he does not let political leaders off the hook. “There is a lack of leadership, of vision. We need people to help give orientation—not to neglect the fears but not to give fears the only space.”

The patriarch quoted the American Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously argued that no religion is an island. “No one can do anything alone,” Patriarch Pizzaballa said. “This is also intuitive for Francis. Since all society is shaken, we need to work together—to serve diversity, not to create uniformity, to reconsider relations between religion and laity.”

He views Jerusalem, and his impending cardinalate, as the crossroad from which intra-church and interreligious growth can emanate. “We know very well that for Pope Francis, Abu Dhabi was important,” he said, referring to an agreement on human fraternity and peace achieved there in 2019.

“But we cannot avoid Jerusalem. I think an authoritative voice, a cardinal, has a resonance that is different and gives me more responsibility, on one hand, but also the vision: Jerusalem is a unique point of observation, and it is important for Rome, too, to hear from Jerusalem.”

This is a view echoed by one of Patriarch Pizzaballa’s closest associates, the Rev. Davide Meli, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate.

Patriarch Pizzaballa’s appointment, he said, reflects the fact that “Jerusalem has a universal dimension.”

“The value of Jerusalem to the world is today a bit understated because of the divisions that tear Jerusalem apart,” Father Meli said, “but in a sense that’s a reflection of the divisions that tear the world apart. The main idea is that having been in Jerusalem for more than 30 years, [Patriarch] Pizzaballa has the opportunity to see the world in Jerusalem. So perhaps more than most, he can appreciate what Jerusalem means in the world.”

Correction: A clarification was added to a quote from Patriarch Pizzaballa regarding Christian coexistence in Israel and Palestinian territories.

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