CNA—When Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, was created a cardinal by Pope Francis on Sept. 30, 2023, few would have imagined that within a week, he would find himself leading his Church amid one of the bloodiest conflicts in the region’s recent history.
Vocation of a Cardinal: “Even to the shedding of blood”
The words “usque ad effusionem sanguinis” (“even to the shedding of blood”), used by the Church in the rite for the creation of a cardinal, suddenly became a harsh reality.
“The cardinalate’s red color has taken on a profound significance marked by much sorrow, by many hardships… Obviously, the Lord wants me here, he wants me to bring his grace to this place,” Pizzaballa said in an interview with CNA.
The interview was conducted at the headquarters of the Latin Patriarchate, from which he, with the help of his staff, coordinates initiatives to support the most afflicted and needy Christian communities. Just a few minutes after CNA’s conversation with him, news arrived of a bombing that grazed the Latin parish of the Holy Family in Gaza, causing some damage, but thankfully no casualties.
Made a cardinal in Rome just days before the Hamas invasion
After the consistory at the Vatican in which he was made a cardinal, Pizzaballa had stayed in Rome for the Synod on Synodality. But he made an abrupt return to Jerusalem due to the outbreak of the war.
He has spent most of his time at the Latin Patriarchate’s headquarters as public events have been greatly restricted.
New Act of Consecration of the Holy Land to the Immaculata
“The first Mass I celebrated outside of here [the Latin Patriarchate headquarters] was in the infirmary of the Franciscans,” where a friar of the Custody of the Holy Land passed away on Oct. 21. The second Mass was held at Deir Rafat, at the shrine of Our Lady, Queen of Palestine, the patroness of the diocese, on Oct. 29. During the celebration, a new act of consecration of the Holy Land to the Immaculate Heart of the Virgin Mary took place.
These were “intimate” yet significant moments that reflect the essence of his service: “I understood my creation as a cardinal as confirmation of a service that was already there and has now become even more demanding. I wonder what it means to be a shepherd here, at this moment, and in this complex and torn situation,” he said.
Letter to the entire Diocese of Jerusalem
While there may not be a single answer, Pizzaballa shared some of his thoughts in his “Letter to the entire diocese,” dated Oct. 24:
“What matters to me, and why I wrote the letter, is the need to provide guidance, because a shepherd must be the voice of his flock but also guide it. My concern right now is to provide an orientation, which — while taking into account the different opinions and sensitivities that exist in our diocese — has its roots in the Gospel. We all have to ask ourselves what the Gospel tells us. It’s not guaranteed that everyone will have the same answer — differences will remain — but it’s important that everyone asks the same question. The shepherd’s job is to help everyone ask the right question, which always refers to the person of Jesus.”
That letter, in which the cardinal, among other things, calls on his diocese to have the courage to “maintain unity, to feel united to one another, even in the diversity of our opinions, sensitivities, and visions,” has elicited various reactions among the faithful, including strong criticism.
“The fact that some have expressed their disagreement and have done so directly is a sign that they feel part of this Church. So, we need to talk about it, listen to each other, and try to understand each other’s reasons, each other’s pain, and each other’s struggles, without ostracizing, without being scandalized, but by welcoming and accompanying. I’ve also told others, ‘If something’s wrong, speak up. It’s better to talk about it than keep it inside,’” Pizzaballa wrote.
The cardinal continued: “This should not cause scandal. A shepherd must be a father, must be able to welcome differences, misunderstandings… They are part of life. The important thing is to ensure that there always remains a desire, a channel of communication, that this does not become a pretext to ratify division.”
An echo of Pentecost
The image the patriarch has chosen to commemorate his being named a cardinal is that of Pentecost.
“The Church of Jerusalem,” the cardinal affirmed, “will always be a plural Church, composed of different cultures. It’s part of its nature.” Pizzaballa himself numbers among the foreigners in Jerusalem, being an Italian citizen, even though he has spent most of his life here.
“Being a foreigner is typical of this land; you never entirely belong to anyone or anything. Right now being a foreigner also means trying to have a more detached perspective, one that could help everyone to take the necessary distance from things. It also means accepting misunderstanding and the loneliness that is typical of all positions of responsibility.”
As throughout the world, in the Holy Land, the Church shares in the suffering of people on all fronts of the conflict. The Church tends to the Christian community in Gaza; those who live in Israel, including some of its young people who are in military service or called up as reservists; and those in the Palestinian Territories, where problems are ever-present, exacerbated by roadblocks, closures of businesses, and an increase in violent settler incursions in some areas.
Our prayer is for everyone at war
“We do not pray for those who are right or wrong. We pray for those who are at war. My prayer,” the cardinal said, “is that everyone maintains their consciousness of their dignity and the dignity of every human being.”
Pizzaballa knows the Christian community in Gaza
As patriarch of Jerusalem, Pizzaballa has visited the community in Gaza several times in recent years, a community of about a thousand Christians of various denominations.
“Their suffering touches my heart first and foremost from a human perspective: I know them personally, I’ve been in their homes, I’ve shared their coffee,” he explained.
“Despite being a small community living in a very complex situation,” Pizzaballa said in a recent video message to Christians in Gaza, “I have always found them serene, people at peace — shaken, with so many problems, but never a word of complaint, condemnation, or anger. It’s a community with the problems of all communities, but with a simple and solid faith, and that is a source of comfort,” especially in these dark times. “But it is in the darkness that the light shines the brightest.”
“It is in the darkness that the light shines the brightest”
On a humanitarian level, “so far they have everything they need,” said Pizzaballa, but “we are still in the emergency management phase.” The patriarch met with representatives of humanitarian organizations affiliated with various Christian churches two weeks ago.
“There is coordination at the local level among the churches,” he said. “We are in contact with the Vatican through the Secretariat of State and also, in a special way, with the Anglican Church.”
Recently, the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, paid a visit to Jerusalem in a show of solidarity. Regarding the possibility of humanitarian solutions for the Gaza Strip, “the Church is in contact with all the instances that have a decision-making power on this,” Pizzaballa said.
Intense Prayer in the Holy Land
Christians in the Holy Land gathered together to pray, especially during the two days of prayer for peace. In both instances, there was an escalation of violence in Gaza in the hours immediately following: first, the Anglican Al Ahli Hospital and the Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius were struck; at the end of the second day of prayer, the Israeli army launched a ground offensive.
“We must avoid having a magical or consumerist approach to prayer,” the cardinal explained. “We need to move beyond the logic of results. Praying together first of all has a very significant impact on the life of the community. Whether prayer can trigger a response of evil, I am sure it does. In what we are experiencing, there is such wickedness that it cannot be solely human.”
Forgiveness is not simple
Speaking about forgiveness in this situation and society is no simple matter, Pizzaballa said.
“Here, forgiveness is primarily seen as a sign of weakness, and secondly, it can be perceived as a justification for injustice,” the patriarch said.
“Without forgiveness, without the ability to move beyond the evil committed, we will never get out of this situation. But the timing and methods are not easy to determine,” he said.
He said he is hopeful that in time, progress can be made.
“We are still at a time where emotions play a very important role in interpersonal and community relationships. The question of rebuilding healthy relationships will certainly arise: Trust between Israelis and Palestinians has been wounded in a very deep way.”
For Christians: A call for profound holiness
As Christians, “our task is to boldly affirm the duties of justice and peace but at the same time, to be close to people without judging, without condemning, but by welcoming: welcoming the differences, the struggles, the different perspectives. At a time when everyone is building barriers, we must be the ones with open doors,” Pizzaballa said.