When the Franciscans of the Holy Land elected their new superior last spring, they opted for renewal. The custos or guardian, so called because of the Franciscans’ traditional role in protecting the holy places, is a 39-year-old Italian priest, Pierbattista Pizzaballa. With just 14 years in the order, he takes over one of the Franciscans’ most important trusts. In choosing a priest who has ministered primarily to Hebrew-speaking Israeli Christians, the custos said, the friars, who are predominantly Arab, “showed their freedom.” “There are no walls between us,” he added. “It was a beautiful sign” of the bonds of charity reaching across the ethnic divide. The custos spoke at the Catholic Near East Welfare Association in New York in October.
Father Pizzaballa’s fluency in Hebrew has already changed the relationship between the Custody and the government of Israel for the better. Asked whether there had been improvement in the approval of visas for Franciscans entering Israel--a significant problem for the last three years--he replied diplomatically, “There are no more problems.” In fact, he had found ways around the problem.
Many of the rejected visa applications came from potential novices and seminarians from Arab countries seeking to come to Israel and Palestine to study. For security reasons, after 9/11 the Israelis have been reluctant to permit young Arab men, especially from countries like Syria and Lebanon, which are still technically at war with Israel, to enter the country. The problem became moot when the Custody moved the novitiate from Ein Kerem, outside Jerusalem, to Italy; and seminarians were assigned to study philosophy and theology in their own or neighboring Arab countries.
Asked what major issue he faced, Father Pizzaballa identified the integration of social work and evangelization in the friars’ ministries. In the absence of government services, particularly in Palestine, the friars carry out many social ministries in housing, job creation and the like. In the custos’s view, the friars need to express better “the unity” of their social work and their preaching of the Gospel.
In an attempt to foster renewal throughout the Custody, which includes Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt as well as Israel and Palestine, Father Pizzaballa intends to have his provincial counselors, or discretorium, meet in each country to learn about the local situation and discern what aggiornamento would mean for each community.
The custos retains a special concern for the witness of the small Hebrew-speaking Christian community in Israel and for the spiritual seekers who flock on Saturdays to the country’s monasteries, like the Trappist community at Latroun, the dual Olivetan Benedictine monastery at Abu Gosh and the Sisters of Sion in Ein Kerem. “Israeli society is open,” he says. “People want to learn and understand” Christianity.
Over the last couple of years, under the post-9/11 rules for guest workers, Father Pizzaballa reported, the immigrant Catholics from Romania and Latin America--to whom some looked for Catholic growth in Israel--have virtually disappeared. The Latin church in Jaffa, which used to be crowded for Sunday Mass, now houses only a tiny congregation. Under pressure from immigration authorities, even the once numerous Filipino population is fast declining, he said.
The only remaining Catholic immigrant group of any size consists of Ukranians from the former Soviet Union, who are Israeli citizens by virtue of their Jewish ancestry. These, Father Pizzaballa said, “live in an entirely Jewish environment. They don’t come to church. The church must go to them.”
Among Israelis, he explained, the friars’ outreach must be different than in Palestine or the Arab countries, where religious practice is taken for granted. In Israel “people live in a completely secular environment. They need to learn even the most basic things,” he said, “like how to pray.”