A Christian Church in the Holy Land. Wikimedia Commons

Called to Cherish a Presence

The life of Christians after the victory of Hamas: the importance of dialogue, the centrality of education, new developments in relations with the Jewish community, and the role of the Franciscans. A conversation with the Custodian of the Holy Land.
Carlo Dignola

Returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Fr. Giussani said in an interview, “What you carry away with you from those places is the desire, the painful yearning, that people realize what has happened: God made Himself present to man. Instead, today it seems that what has happened can be wiped away, like erasing a letter in the sand with your foot.” Walking the Via Crucis, putting your hand into the hole of the Cross, or kneeling in the Basilica of the Nativity of Bethlehem mean realizing that “the concreteness of that event is so human that you cannot return from Palestine with the doubt that Christianity is only a fairytale.” Those places, which Paul VI defined “the Fifth Gospel,” have been entrusted for centuries to the care of the Franciscans, called also to support the local Christian community–a small minority now, not only in Israel but also in the Palestinian Territories where Islam is spreading rapidly–and to share the needs, fears, and joys of those who live in this extraordinary hub around which it seems the whole world turns: Jerusalem. For two years now, the responsibility–truly overwhelming; only a Franciscan could do it without being crushed–of the Custody of the Holy Land is on the shoulders of Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, 41 years old, a cultured and prudent man, lucid and diplomatic (he himself jokingly says he’s “a bit Jesuit”), and, above all, a great realist. He is always able to make judgments, case by case, amidst a host of personal situations, ethnic mixes, overlapping religions, and centuries-old rivalries that in this little strip of land often create an explosive mixture. Pizzaballa admits that there is an “excess of the sacred” in this land, and he himself would like a bit more laicity (not laicism), but he finds living in Jerusalem “fascinating,” “marvelous,” in fact, and he is more than certain that, bombs notwithstanding, the Christians of this place will never leave, much less the Franciscans, because there is an evident design in this history, following ways that are mysterious and at times terrible, but grand, and today intimates a surprising return of the Church to her origins, and possibilities on the theological level that only a few years ago were unimaginable.

Fr. Pizzaballa, how do the Christians today live, squeezed as they are between the State of Israel and the quasi-State governed by the radicals of Hamas?
First of all, there are very few Christians: counting together Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Armenians, and Copts–in the Holy Land there are almost all the confessions–there are at most 180 thousand; less than 2% of the population. Fully 99% of them are Arab-Palestinian, so they are a minority within a minority. Sixty percent live in Israel, forty percent in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and in the Territories governed by the Palestinian Authority. The dynamics differ greatly in the two cases. In Israel, from the economic point of view, Christians don’t have big problems, and are usually part of the middle to upper classes. Perhaps for them the principal risk is that of secularization, as it is in all advanced societies. In Israel, everyone works on Sunday, and a student may have to do an exam on Easter Sunday; they live in a non-Christian context. Though Christians here aren’t diminishing in numbers (in fact, there’s a slight increase), they are losing their incisiveness, as a presence and as a witness.

Within the Palestinian Authority they’re worse off.
There, unemployment is very high, often between 40% and 50%, and consequently the social situation is very tense. With the second Intifada, one of the pilasters of the local economy, tourism, practically disappeared. For four or five years, no tourists came, and many small businesses failed. Then, consequently, when the economy is going poorly, there are also social and religious tensions. However, these are always somewhat the consequence of a deteriorated situation from the material and political point of view. In recent years, there has been an exodus of Christians from these lands, with many families, especially those from the middle class, looking for better prospects abroad. But I’m not a prophet of doom. First of all, the poorer Christians will stay, because it takes money to emigrate. And then, there’s a small nucleus that is convinced that its presence there is part of the plan of Divine Providence. Christians will never disappear from the Holy Land. How could the Lord not give particular strength to these men placed at the root of our faith?

Has the success of Hamas changed anything for the Christians?
Up to now, absolutely nothing. The leaders have said they will respect the minorities, and that they want to collaborate for the good of the entire Palestinian population. They do not intend to impose Islamization on society, but to reorganize the State, guaranteeing civil rights to all. This is what has been said, and I have no reason to think differently.

Is it necessary to dialogue with Hamas, too?
Breaking off relations never helps. Dialogue is fundamental, not only for extinguishing fires, but also for building something for the future. There’s no alternative to dialogue. Hamas is not just a political group; it has a very strong network of assistance to the poor, to which it owes its rootedness. It also has a military branch, and this, naturally, creates problems.

Doesn’t a Christian risk endorsing positions that are too radical?
Dialogue does not mean agreement. But very often it’s misunderstood; we have to meet each other, talk to each other, express our dissent as well when necessary, but we have to talk. If you don’t have a clear consciousness of yourself, a clear identity, then dialogue doesn’t help; it’s counterproductive.

Is it a good policy to cut funds from abroad in order not to finance Hamas?
I believe Europe should continue supporting the Palestinian Authority, because without this aid it would go bankrupt. Certainly, Europe must be present and vigilant. In the past, there was no control over how this money was spent. But in other circumstances as well, the Holy See has always been against any form of embargo. Embargo only creates problems for the population. A Christian mustn’t give up. He can’t accept conflict as a given. John Paul II said, “The Holy Land doesn’t need walls, but bridges.” The bridge must be well grounded on both banks, if it truly wants to hold and unite. If the Church wants to be a bridge, it must have solid foundations both in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority.

Is Hamas growing because it is more active on the social level?
All the religious communities here–Muslim, Jewish, and Christian–have a very strong network of social assistance. For everyone here, the faith is not just a creed, but also action. The Church has many works and, at times, actually, there’s the risk of seeming a bit like social workers. The Christian schools have always been an important presence in the Territories. We help poor families who have problems with housing. There are Catholic orphanages and hospitals, and a very dense network of assistance. These things are important because they are the main way we can give a Christian witness in a prevalently Islamic context.

Does the issue of education have a particular significance for you?
It is becoming fundamental. Given that in both Israel and Palestine Christians are a minority, school is the only place we can form Christians with continuity. Without education, Christians will disappear, not in number, but because they won’t know what to say any more. Without education, they would run the risk of becoming an insignificant presence. This is the true challenge of the Church. Basically, finding houses and work is not our job. Certainly, we can help out these people, but our main task is to form a community that knows what it means to be Christian in a context in which it is not normal to be one.

Is there exchange of ideas among the different religions, or does each community live its own life?
To tell you the truth, on the level of faith, discussions are quite rare, and also very difficult. There are meetings and dialogues about concrete problems, like work, human rights, and justice.

As Franciscans, what does it mean for you to live in the holy places?
For us, being here is fundamental. After the Crusades, the only ones who were allowed to remain in a land held by the Muslims were the Franciscans. This is why the Pope entrusted the Order with the task of recovering the holy places of the Redemption, in the name of all Christendom, and safeguarding them, as well as rebuilding a Catholic presence around the sanctuaries, to save an essential principle: that they would be not just stones, but “living stones.” Today in Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jericho, Cana, and Jaffa the Church meets, and celebrates the sacraments. These places are also parishes.

With what heart do you care for the Holy Land?
Saint Francis was the man of the Incarnation, the man in love with Christ who becomes man. Think of the crèche of Greccio, and the stigmata received on Mount Verna: Francis wanted to identify with Jesus physically as well. He desired to be one with Him, in the most concrete sense of the expression. You can’t identify with Christ without considering the place He lived. This land speaks of Him and so, for us, being here is fundamental. The other aspect is indicated by the famous episode of his encounter with the Sultan. When he came to the Holy Land, Saint Francis wanted to dialogue with him. This has always been the style characterizing our presence. There have been difficult moments of great tension, with deaths and martyrdoms, but over these 800 years we have always clung on fiercely, tooth and nail, to these lands and these places, always dialoguing with everyone, however, never erecting barricades.

St. Francis of Assissi. Wikimedia Commons

Given today’s political difficulties, does it make sense for the Church to maintain this profile of presence?
Perhaps even more so than in the past. In a land where political struggle is so ferocious in every aspect, remaining there, attached to those places–and naturally, to those people, to the Christians–without letting yourself be overwhelmed by the political language and attitude, is fundamental. It is the testimony we must give, and which the Church needs. We don’t want to be equidistant, or “equi-near” as they say today; these are all political terms. We are within the life of the people, sharing their problems, trying to be free with everyone, loving everyone in the same way. And leaving the politicians to their job, which isn’t ours.

You Franciscans are an outpost in a land that gave rise to this story, long before Europe. How do you feel, being on this border?It really is a frontier. It is a land of encounter, and also of conflict, where the riches of the East and the West flow together, creating a beautiful symphony that at times becomes a scream, a terrible cry of pain. Here, suffering and the Cross are very evident, and cultural tensions are very strong. We are trying with a lot of humility, without presumption, to remain, to stay, very simply, and to do what is possible, day after day.

At certain moments, you’ve been in harm’s way. I’m thinking of the Tsahal siege, the Israeli army at the Bethlehem Basilica in 2002.
First of all, the task of the Custody is a great grace that Providence has entrusted to us. The risk is that you get used to it. But the tension is always to ask yourself about the person of Jesus, because these places have to direct us to Him. Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem invite us to pray, as well as to ask ourselves about the Jesus who walked here, about the Church who in these places celebrates and remembers the particular moments of His life. Beyond the risks, in the end, the problem is to ask yourself this question: “Who is this man?” Our task, which is surely difficult, has meaning precisely in reference to His person.

Otherwise, you could run the risk of a certain “fetishism” of places…
Yes, the place isn’t important in and of itself; it’s important for what we remember there. It celebrates, encloses, and cherishes the memory of an episode of Jesus’ life, an important moment of our faith. This is why it is very important for a pilgrim to visit all the sites, but the place must refer us to the person of Jesus, always. Reading the Gospel here isn’t merely a cultural operation: it is an effort to understand more deeply, the better to enter into the story of Christ.

With Pope John Paul II, there was an evident rapprochement with the Jews. In fact, more than that, there was almost a rediscovery of a common way of feeling. Is it true that something important is changing? What does it mean for a Christian to live not only the places of Christ, but also to be inside the life of this ancestry?
On the political level, relations with the State of Israel are fairly cordial. Naturally, there are moments of tension. It’s inevitable when there are all these intertwined interests, but the climate is not tense. Israel does not need our charitable structures. It already has them, and of better quality. Thus, unlike in the Territories, our presence as Church has meaning and, in fact, is necessary, precisely on the cultural level. In this field, there are certainly great possibilities today. We are very close; we share the same language, and literature, art, and history are extremely interesting topics of discussion for which Israel is ready. John Paul II irreversibly changed the Church’s attitude toward Israel, and vice-versa. However, a great deal remains to be done, above all on the level of society. Work needs to be done so that the acquisitions of recent times may enter the people’s mentality and way of thinking, and this will take a long time. But with the religious authorities there is a real change–excluding the ubiquitous fanatic or two. There are extremely rich meetings on aspects of the life of faith, the sacredness of life, and justice, as well as conferences on Biblical themes, such as the interpretation of a certain Scripture passage. The whole New Testament context is Jewish, and we have yet to discover it all, so in this field the Jews can help us a great deal. There is only one Revelation, only one road: the way of salvation passes through Jesus. But what is Israel’s place in all this? Benedict XVI himself has said that from the theological point of view, we still have to study a great deal.

Are any Jews curious about Jesus? Is there any interest in Jesus?
Yes, absolutely. Any Jew who reads the New Testament is struck by it, and finds nothing anti-Semitic in it. In fact, all things considered, he understands that it’s “his stuff.” Today, there is very strong interest in the person of Jesus. The difficulty is accepting His divinity. When I studied at the university, I would often happen to read the Gospel with some religious Jewish friends of mine, without any ulterior motive, just the pleasure of turning those pages together. Very often, the question that came out was, “It’s a marvelous message. Jesus is an extraordinary figure, but why do we have to make Him rise from the dead?” For a Jew, the content of the Gospel would be a splendid message even if Jesus simply died on Golgotha. Herein lies the great difficulty.

Have any become Christian?
A few. There is a Catholic community “of Jewish expression,” as they put it, about 700-800 people, half of whom are Jewish who’ve been baptized, the other half “Gentile” Israelis. One thing that has a certain effect is that their Liturgy today is exclusively in Hebrew; for the first time, after thousands of years, the Church here prays in Hebrew, as in the beginning. With the birth of Israel, a context was reborn in which the Church prays, speaks, and does catechesis in this language, and is inserted in a Jewish context. I believe that this small group has a dual vocation: on the one hand, to let Israel know an aspect of the Church that is not hostile to the Jewish world, and, on the other, to let the Church know the importance of her relationship, theological as well, with Israel.

Recently, a group of prisoners in the maximum security prison of Meghiddo, digging in a courtyard, found by chance some beautiful Christian mosaics, with text that speaks of “God Jesus Christ, that memory may be made of Him.” Is this an important finding?
It is certainly a very ancient pavement. There is discussion among archaeologists, and they are pursuing their studies, but certainly it is extremely interesting. If it should turn out to be a place of worship predating the third century, as some sustain, it would be an extraordinary discovery. After Capernaum, it would be the second place with testimony to the Christian cult before Constantine, who, as is well known, profoundly changed the entire area. It would be an experience of domus ecclesia very close to the origins. In any case, there is also another living Church, understood as home, very close to the origins, in the Holy Land: it is here in front of me, speaking to me.

Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, 41 years old, has been the custodian of the Holy Land since 2004. A Franciscan, he was chosen by the Friars Minor, and his nomination was approved by the Holy See. Pizzaballa was born in Cologno al Serio, in the province of Bergamo, on April 21, 1965, and has been a priest since 1990. That same year, he earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Theology at the Antonianum Pontifical University in Rome. He continued at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem, earning his licence in Biblical Theology in 1993. He then earned a Master’s at the Jewish University of Jerusalem. For 15 years, he has been part of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. He has taught Modern Hebrew at the Franciscan Faculty of Biblical Sciences and Archaeology in Jerusalem, translated many liturgical texts into Hebrew, and published, together with Fr. Massimo Fazzini, the important Mass rite and the Liturgy into Hebrew. On behalf of the Latin Patriarch, he had pastoral responsibility for the Catholic faithful of Hebrew expression.