The man has always been extraordinary; Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, did not fail in his reputation. Monday, on the eve of the day of “fasting and prayer for peace and reconciliation” on October 17, which he had initiated, he declared that he was ready to take the place of the Israeli child hostages being held in Gaza by Hamas. “I am ready for a trade, anything, if it will lead to their release and the return of these children home. My determination is absolute,” reported Ansa, Italy’s main news agency. A comment immediately taken up by the Israeli media who know this Christian dignitary well, perfectly Hebrew-speaking and very involved for a very long time in interreligious dialogue in the Holy Land.
Determination is a constant in Mgr Pizzaballa’s personality. During an interview in 2004, when this Franciscan had just been elected Custos – one of the highest Christian religious authorities in the Holy Land – by his peers at the age of 39, he defined himself as “ obstinate”. This is undoubtedly why Mgr Pizzaballa, elevated to the rank of cardinal on September 30, also wanted to clarify on Monday that “Hamas has committed acts of barbarism in Israel”.
This clarification was omitted in the joint declaration made on October 7 by the religious leaders of the Holy Land in which Hamas was not even mentioned – a text of which Mgr Pizzaballa was himself a signatory but dissatisfied. He refrained from criticizing other churches in front of the media, but nevertheless confided that he was “irritated” by the tone of this letter.
Finally, he clarified that the Holy See had offered its good offices for mediation on the question of the hostages, even if this involves entering into contact with Hamas which, he admitted, is very difficult.
He of course also recalled the dramatic fate of the Christian community in Gaza, which has some 1,000 faithful, including 140 Latin Catholics. “It is the community that suffers the most and yet they never complain,” he said.
Opinionated, young Pierbattista always was. Originally from a small village near Bergamo (Italy), where life was punctuated by religion, Pierbattista Pizzaballa always knew he wanted to be a priest. At 6 years old, it was already clear. At age 11, he asked his parents to enter the seminary. Refusal. But that was without taking into account the child’s determination! He was ordained a priest in 1990. Immediately, his superior sent him, against his will, to study the holy scriptures in Jerusalem. “It was very hard, the first Intifada was not over. I had never seen a gun in my life and the day after my arrival, there were 20 Palestinian deaths. A few months later, there was the Gulf War. That was my baptism in the Holy Land!” he confided in 2004. In the end, he never wanted to leave. After studying for three years with the Franciscans, he decided to continue at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he never felt ostracized “as a Christian.”
However, “the first year was horrible! Because of Hebrew. But, I am tenacious!”, he recalled. So tenacious, that he was professor of biblical Hebrew at the Franciscan Faculty of Biblical and Archaeological Sciences in Jerusalem, responsible for the publication of the Roman missal in Hebrew, priest of the Hebrew Catholic parish of Jerusalem in 1998, then vicar general of the Hebrew Catholic community in Israel before being elected Custos by his Franciscan brothers in 2004. He had barely finished this mandate in 2016 when Pope Francis named him administrator of the Latin Patriarchate and elevated him to the dignity of archbishop for , then, appoint him in 2020 Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, the highest authority of the Latin Catholic Church in the Middle East. He succeeds Mgr Twal, Jordanian, and Mgr Sabbah, Palestinian, who was the first Arabic-speaking Latin patriarch.
In 2004, he told us: “I belong to this land, but I will never be neither Israeli nor Palestinian. But, because I am neither one nor the other, I have the freedom to love both, unconditionally. And I want to show it to them.” This is what he is still trying to do today, even if the task is more difficult than ever.