Basilica of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The expectant awaiting

With the world immersed in the pandemic, everyone’s Christmas will be different this year. In December Traces, the new patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, speaks of “the great question of the encounter with Jesus.”
Alessandra Buzzetti

My faith continues to intrigue and disturb me. What most amazes me, in the positive sense, is seeing this in others as well, not just Christians. People are having encounters that are changing their lives.” Monsignor Pierbattista Pizzaballa smiles as he looks back on his thirty years in the Holy Land and forward to the new mission awaiting him as the patriarch of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. This smile expresses the unromanticized realism of one who knows well the experience of a faith that demands flesh, blood, struggle, listening, and patience, all the more if you live it in the land where Jesus was born. “Even though this land has experienced many wounds, it is engaged in a certain expectant awaiting for someone who will come to give life flavor and gusto.” The city where everything began, where the salvation of the world became flesh – “Caro cardo salutis,” Tertullian reminded us – is preparing for an unusual Christmas. Not even in the worst years of conflict did Bethlehem have no pilgrims. “It will certainly be an intimate Christmas, but maybe this will make it beautiful because we will be gathering as a community. It will be the year when we start again, beginning with ourselves.”
The midnight Mass on December 24th will also mark Monsignor Pizzaballa’s solemn entry into Bethlehem as the patriarch of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Just when he thought his mission in the Holy Land had ended, he was asked by Pope Francis to remain to lead the small Catholic community scattered throughout Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and Cyprus.

This Advent begins for you in an unexpected way. What are you waiting for in the depths of your heart?
There is expectant awaiting both in the singular and in the plural. I have given my life to the Lord, and so the fact that I am here and remain here should be viewed from this perspective: seeking the Lord you want to encounter, but whom you never encounter definitively. With its invitation to vigilance and conversion, every Advent places us, places me, in front of the great question of the encounter with Jesus. How can I have this experience now? The great expectant awaiting of Advent happens through many small instances of waiting. Some distract you from the great one, while others place you in the proper horizon. It’s a matter of evaluating each thing as it comes up. This new service that I am beginning as patriarch does not really change my service; it changes my title and maybe its timeline. I think the first thing I should do is listen to the flock that has been entrusted to me, listen critically, and then try to place the various things they are awaiting expectantly in the perspective of our deep relationship with Jesus, in order to understand how to orient them and orient myself toward an encounter with Him, the foundational criterion of our life.

In the message you wrote to your diocese on the day you were nominated as patriarch, you said that “remaining is the verb of true love, learned in the Cenacle and at Gethsemane.” What does this mean for the many people forced by the pandemic to stay inside their homes, isolated, without knowing how long it will last?
We live in a society that is always running, that is always in a rush, that wants everything, and right away; immediate results are required, perhaps because we fear investing our time in something. I wanted to read this verb “remain” by drawing attention to the Cenacle and Gethsemane, but also the concerns and fears of the disciples after the Resurrection and before Pentecost. I read the verb “remain” as referring to a time of patience, not dominated by a demand to possess everything. We need to let time help us comprehend bit by bit what we are living and how we are living it. Circumstances like the pandemic, living without knowing what will happen from week to week, disorient us because we cannot give depth to the circumstances of our life.

In these times, when you enter the Basilica of the Nativity, you are struck by the silence that envelops you. There is an emptiness that we are not used to, but maybe it helps us understand the expectant awaiting for Christmas, how this awaiting happens again in every moment, which is something profoundly different from the concept of “suspended time” often used to describe this time of the pandemic.
Expectant awaiting is not empty; it is full. It is a way of being in reality. Living without any expectant awaiting or hope means not giving any content to life. We have to understand what we put into this expectant awaiting: For whom are we waiting, and how? The Christian response is clear: we are waiting for Jesus. Christians translate this into their ordinary lives, in which the object of this expectant awaiting is already a certainty and gives gusto and flavor to life. God became flesh and I already experience it, even if not fully, and even in the midst of many wounds. Everything depends on how my heart disposes itself to seek Him and wait for Him. When you are waiting for something or someone you are vigilant, with all your senses heightened. As soon as there is a sign of its arrival, you notice right away. Instead, if you live without this alertness, you do not see what happens around you.

It arrives like a “whisper,” almost imperceptibly...
Yes. This is why it is always necessary to be attentive while waiting for someone we truly want to encounter.

In the experience of Advent we are accompanied by the prophecy of Isaiah, but when reading those scriptures here in Jerusalem, their ful llment seems even further off...
We read Isaiah during Advent because he is the prophet of hope. Isaiah had a desolate scenario in front of him – Jerusalem had been destroyed. When he says, “on this mountain, death will be no more,” in reality he saw in front of his eyes a mountain full of dead bodies. Everything depends on the eyes with which you look at reality. Always. If you look at this city only in its present condition, with all its cruelty, and are not capable of going beyond this scene, of dreaming, of giving yourself a positive outlook and and a hope, you stop rebuilding the city. Hope allows you to plan and look ahead, starting from what you already experience in your heart.

You know the Jewish world very well, and from close up. What have you learned from their way of waiting?
If there is a people that lives an expectant awaiting, it is the Jewish people. This waiting for the Messiah, naturally, is understood in many different ways, according to various currents and thinkers. They are a people who have filled this expectant awaiting with prayer and study – their waiting is not devoid of life, but full of life. They have taught me a great deal – being constantly in a state of expectant awaiting evokes many questions about every aspect of existence. Their questions have helped me a great deal in rethinking my reading of Jesus, the Gospels, and also my own expectations.

Interreligious dialogue is one of the themes of Pope Francis’s new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. What does it mean to live this brotherhood of which the pope speaks in the Holy Land? In recent times, you have repeatedly stressed that this is not a time of great gestures.
It is true that I stress this. It is not a moment of great gestures. In our media-centered world, we’re always expecting great gestures that change the course of events. This is not the moment because great gestures require vision, charisma, and leadership, all of which now seem to be lacking. It is the moment of sowing and waiting for the fruits. Sowing means working with people, with those who wish to meet, speak, and listen, and working with institutions. We will not have immediate results, but it is our way of living what Pope Francis says when he speaks of brotherhood and fraternity. We are different –v ery often we have neither the same opinions nor the same political orientations, but we share the need to do something together for the community in which we live.

Is the Abu Dhabi meeting, which the pope mentions a number of times in the encyclical, a help for shared living with the Muslim world? If so, how?
Here too, once again, we must allow the passage of time. Both Christians and Muslims labor under a heavy burden of stereotypes, prejudices, and reciprocal dif culties. History has bequeathed us an inheritance that is not simple. These situations do not change from one day to the next. Meetings like the one in Abu Dhabi are important gestures because they help create a mindset. Over the course of time, they will help this message of reciprocal hospitality and fraternity seep into both Christian and Muslim schools, but we cannot presume that all this will change over the course of a few years. What we need to do is live that message in our reality in this land a bit at a time, as the generations succeed each other.

Could you give us a few examples of fruits that have come to maturity through long and patient sowing?
I have met a great number of people who are able to work together despite holding completely different opinions. For example, I am part of the Jerusalem Cultural Center, where Christians, Jews, and Muslims–Israelis and Palestinians, religious and secular, with different political orientations–collaborate, such as in teaching Arabic to Israeli employees so that they can better interact with the Arab public, or in updating scholastic manuals, or in helping people obtain passes. These are very practical things that create common ground, based on the fact that we all belong to Jerusalem and want to do things together. We also have gatherings in Jerusalem between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious to read and discuss together some passages from the Bible or from one of the religious traditions. These are simple gestures, but not to be taken for granted in a context in which religion is often used as an excuse to look for a fight. There are many other associations that promote similar initiatives not having a political goal–and in this moment maybe it’s better to leave politics aside–but with an awareness of belonging to each other.

You said that in thirty years “the Holy Land has changed a great deal, and so have I. My faith is more realistic.” What still strikes you with wonder today?
My faith continues to intrigue and disturb me (laughing). I recently met a religious Jewish friend with whom I used to read the Gospels when I was at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but after that lost contact with. Our meetings changed me a lot and now I have discovered that they changed her, too. She has remained an observant Jew, but since then has spent a lot of her time in interreligious meetings, and now goes to Arab villages to better understand their situation. I’m amazed to see how such encounters change people. They give you a restlessness that you would prefer not to have, but you have it anyway. This restlessness intrigues you and at the same time makes you uncomfortable, but maybe this is the truest way of being for people living in Jerusalem.

You will travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on December 24 to celebrate the Christmas Eve Mass. Going there physically means crossing the separation wall, coming up against the Palestinians’ legitimate expectations of peace and freedom. Is it possible to be free on the other side of the wall?
I fear that my answer may sound theoretical because the Palestinians have to live this waiting for peace and freedom amongst the daily humiliations at the checkpoint, with an awareness of the rights they should have as persons, rights that have continuously been postponed. And I’m Italian. I don’t live this reality personally. I have to try to identify with their experience as much as possible, knowing that I’ll never be either Palestinian or Israeli. I have to listen a lot and become the voice of this population. I feel I must encourage my community not to live in a state of putting things off, but even in these conditions to live fully our joy and our right to life. With the healthcare and economic crises worsened by the pandemic, it is still difficult to talk to Christians about hope, especially those in Bethlehem, whose livelihood comes from tourism and pilgrimages. Since last March everything has stopped and the families don’t have bread. But I am comforted by seeing the simple faith of many people who, in spite of everything, want to nd a way to celebrate, to be together while helping each other. For example, I was struck by what happened in August when the explosion ripped through the port of Beirut and generated an emergency situation in a country already in a state of collapse. As the church, we wanted to give a sign of solidarity to the Lebanese, and the poorest parishes were the most generous. The young Palestinians of the West Bank alone, most of them unemployed and often without money to pay for school, collected over thirty thousand dollars. That is an enormous sum for them, and a beautiful sign that they are not focused only on their own problems: in front of the need of their Lebanese brothers, they responded with charity.

For the small community of Bethlehem, this will also be the first Christmas without pilgrims.
It will be an intimate Christmas for the Christians of Bethlehem and the nearby villages. There’s just us, so let’s gather together. Christmas in Bethlehem often distracts you a bit–there are so many needs and events and people from all over the world. This year will be the year when we begin afresh, starting from ourselves.
What is your Christmas wish for a world once again plunged into the pandemic?
This situation is teaching us that we must return to what is essential. We have dedicated ourselves to many, many things and maybe we should stop and ask ourselves what is truly essential for our lives. I think I can say to everyone that we are celebrating a certainty, a reality that is already in our midst: Jesus, who entered our flesh. We have to learn to take the long view and ground our lives on what lasts.

Does this overcome fear?
Because we are made of flesh, we’ll always be a bit afraid. But if we listen to the Holy Spirit and to the eternal life that is already within us, the fear will at least be diminished.