“Something has broken. I hope not irreparably. But it will take a long time and a lot of effort to rebuild”. Something that had already been cracking for some time: “The scaffolding was certainly shaky, and we worked on it with great difficulty. Every now and then, a plank would fall. Now the entire scaffolding has come down. We will have to start all over again”.
Speaking with “L’Osservatore Romano”, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, looks back at this time of war which started on 7 October. “That morning”, the Patriarch recalls, “I was at my mother’s house in Bergamo. It had been just a week since the Consistory in which Pope Francis made me a cardinal. The week had passed in celebrations and festivities in Italy, and nothing could have foreshadowed the terrible things that would happen a few days later. That Saturday, I had a meeting with the municipality in the morning and a Mass in the cathedral in the afternoon. While I was at home, I received a phone call from Jerusalem, from one of my collaborators at the Patriarchate, asking me, ‘What do you say? Should we issue a statement?’. I was taken aback and replied, ‘Statement about what?’. ‘Your Eminence, do you not know anything? Look, the situation here is horrible’. At that moment, I thought it might be one of the usual missile attacks that the Gaza border has accustomed us to over the years. And with the public commitments I was attending, it didn’t seem necessary to keep checking my phone for updates. So, it wasn’t until the evening that I began to realize the gravity of the situation. Seeing the horror of those images that were coming in, I had no hesitation in immediately finding a way to return to Jerusalem. There were no flights, so I had to wait two days to fly to Amman and then reach Jerusalem in a rather adventurous car journey. I say adventurous because the border between Jordan and Israel was closed, and I had to request a special permit”.
And finally, you reached Jerusalem.
Yes, only when I arrived here did I begin to grasp what was happening: the horrible civilian casualties, the war declared in response, the sirens sounding the alarm, the distant explosions. It wasn’t easy to understand and listen, because everyone was talking only about their own concerns and dramas.
The last time we spoke here in Jerusalem at the end of September before you went to Rome for the Consistory, you expressed your concern about the escalating violence and killings in the West Bank and here in Jerusalem, but nothing could have predicted an outcome like this. Were the events of October 7th absolutely unpredictable for you?
Yes, “L’Osservatore Romano” has reported on my alarm in recent months about a situation that was deteriorating day by day. I did not exclude the possibility that the conflict could become even more complex and more brutal, but I certainly did not imagine something like this.
Did the Gaza parish priest not notice any signs?
No. He had also come to Rome. If he had had even the slightest suspicion, he would have told me.
So, the first few days in Jerusalem must have been difficult.
Yes, because besides listening and trying to understand, there were many practical things to do: ensuring the safety of our communities and, of course, finding a way to help the Christians in Gaza. And there was also the need of the Israeli community, which was complaining, ‘No one is talking about us; we are terribly hurt as well’. In short, there was great confusion in which it was difficult to navigate while addressing everyone’s demands. Everyone wanted my attention. With the great difficulty of making them understand that pushing for peace does not mean being neutral, as Pope Francis says, not equidistant but ‘equiclose’. But in these moments of pain and anger, not everyone understands it.
We have seen the controversies that followed some statements from the Churches.
Exactly, we were criticized by both sides. Emotions were running high, and at the beginning, we also had difficulty in understanding the extent of the events. But we never shied away from re-establishing dialogue with anyone, and we never will.
Then, 10 days later, the massacre at the Gaza hospital happened.
That was a truly shocking moment. Also because after the horrendous massacres committed by Hamas on October 7th, we thought we had already seen the worst. I have been here for 34 years, I have experienced many things in this country, and not all of them are the best things that can happen to a man. However, I must say that what I experienced, and am still experiencing today, since October 7th, deeply affects me. Over the years, I have built many relationships, both within and outside “our” world. I’m not talking about political relationships, but human relationships, with Palestinians and Israelis, relationships that suddenly became impossible. Something has broken, especially between them. And you, who have dedicated your whole life to being a bridge, a facilitator, can no longer put the pieces together. You feel useless because you’re not suited to confrontation. When logic fails, emotions take over. And there’s a temptation from the evil one that assails you: to feel powerless in the face of evil. You ask yourself, how can you live as a Christian in such a crisis? Then your people seek you out, expecting a word from you, just wanting to see you, and that brings you back to reality. They look for you, and you have to be there because Christians live their life in the fight against evil.
All of this is evident in the letter you wrote to your diocese, a letter that has also had a significant impact beyond this land.
I wrote that letter on a Sunday afternoon. I felt the need to write not only to my brothers in faith but also to myself. To organize my thoughts, to understand my role and the role of Christians in this land. Without any presumption, I felt that for many, my words were expected as an existential value. You see, being a Christian here is not like in Europe. Here, it’s a sign of belonging, a way of life that accompanies you throughout your life, every moment of your life. You never forget it, and if you were to forget it, others would remind you. And I wanted to be clear in my words, not like in interviews where you can’t fully express yourself, and you are often misinterpreted, and they try to push you to one side or the other. It was necessary to speak with truth, prayerfully and with reflection.
I imagine there is still the difficulty of having to provide a third party’s perspective while predominantly being the pastor of one of the two parties.
Not at all. The Christians in this land are a much more diverse reality. Among the three Abrahamic religions, we are the only ones who do not identify with a single ethnic group. Let me give you an example: at this moment, there are Catholic soldiers who, under Israeli banners, are in Gaza. They are also part of my flock. There are also Hebrew-speaking communities, foreigners, and immigrant workers. That’s why I was saying earlier that it takes an extra dose of courage to maintain unity despite our differences. Even among the priests, there are different situations, and those who have first-hand experience of the situation certainly have different sensitivities. I wanted to meet and listen to them. Although there are different positions, it’s important to let everyone speak and to know how to listen. But in my letter, and in all my communications, I wanted to say only and always that we need to start with the Gospel and end with the Gospel. Perhaps, in this range of positions, my words were not always understood or well-received, but it was necessary for me to speak the truth and reaffirm that only the Gospel is our compass. We must never forget that we are, first and foremost, Christians, and we must ask ourselves how to live as Christians in this situation. It’s a question that I’m primarily asking myself. After an initial moment of confusion, the situation is now clearer, sadly clearer. However, many questions remain open about what comes next, and how to rebuild this fabric of human relationships.
Speaking of what comes next, how will we emerge from this war?
The war will end sooner or later, but the consequences of this war will be terrible. You see, there are two issues that seem particularly worrisome to me. The first is that both sides seem to lack a strategic vision that goes beyond the annihilation of the other. Even the land itself appears to have taken a back seat with respect to the desire for mutual destruction. There is no exit strategy. The second is the difficulty of distancing themselves, even emotionally, from the heavy past of both peoples, the Shoah and the Nakba, which was evoked on October 7th.
The emotional impact is enormous, especially for the Israeli population.
You must consider that Israel has had years of economic prosperity and a Western lifestyle that has pushed the conflict into the background. And especially consider that Israel is a small country for which 1,400 deaths are a great many. If you compare it proportionally to the populations of European nations, it’s as if 15,000 people were killed in Rome, London, or Paris in a single morning. Very few voices from the two sides are, for now, able to think without being influenced by this emotional impact.
At a certain point, you offered yourself in exchange for the hostages.
To tell the truth, a journalist at a press conference asked me if I would be willing — if it were a possibility — to offer myself in exchange for the hostages. And I responded: certainly yes, a Christian — and a bishop, no less — is always called to offer their life for others. It’s nothing extraordinary; it’s following in the footsteps of Jesus, who did it for all of us. Unexpectedly, the news then spread around the world; in this polarized climate, some liked it, and some did not. Needless to say, I would have said the same for Palestinians. But, I repeat, there’s nothing extraordinary about it.
Certainly, for those who look for signs, the fact that one Saturday morning you received the red beretta in St Peter’s, a symbol of a life offered to the point of shedding blood, and the following Saturday a war broke out in your land, has something extraordinary about it.
I’m not sure if it’s extraordinary. I could have done without both events.
It’s obvious that I have thought about it as well. There is a sign, but I’m not sure how to interpret it. I don’t know what the Lord is saying. I only know that a clear, strong word is needed now to provide guidance. With the cardinalate, you declare that you are offering your life even to the point of martyrdom. My people are now experiencing that martyrdom. As for myself, I feel a commitment to give my life like never before. After all, if you don’t give your life, there is no life. It’s the law of the Christian. In the first few hours after October 7th, I felt inadequate. Now, especially through prayer, I’m trying to discern the will of the Lord. What’s very clear to me is my love for my people, all of my people, with all their contradictions. There’s a passage that has always struck me, from a letter St Francis wrote to the Minister General who was complaining about the difficulty of “managing” the friars, and the Saint responded something like this: go back to your friars and love them, and don’t expect to turn them into not only better friars but better Christians. For now, I understand that the primary need around me is to be able to read the events of these days in the light of the Gospel. A word from the Gospel that helps you live this situation, and even more so, the situation that will be — even though we don’t know what it will be. All we know is that it won’t be the same as before. Being able to listen to the various demands around us, understand them, without judging them, and understand what they contain, and where they come from. Being able to listen to everyone in order to be able to speak with everyone.
Do you talk to terrorists too?
We talk to everyone. If it were possible, even with them. After all, if we didn’t speak to sinners, the whole story of Jesus wouldn’t make sense. Be clear with everyone, but talk to everyone.
Can one love everyone, here and now?
One must love everyone. That’s the great challenge we have as Christians here. To be able to love the Jew and the Muslim, the Israeli and the Palestinian, even when they don’t acknowledge our love.
Is there also the need to rebuild unity among the Christians in the Holy Land?
The Christians in the Holy Land are not divided. They are confused, yes, tired, but not divided. Confused because the emotional impact we talked about earlier has also affected them. For example, the Hebrew-speaking community reacted poorly to the first letter from the Patriarchs, and the Arab community can say the same about other aspects. For me, the important thing is that they see that their bishop is present. The bishop may be liked at times and disliked at others, but he is present. When the time is right, they will have to talk and understand each other. It won’t be easy, but we will do it. This will also need to be done more broadly in the societies that inhabit these lands. And then, this small Christian community must be able to say something to everyone. But for now, it is still too early because there is still a lot of pain, and when there is pain, there is less room for analysis and reflection. Pain absorbs a lot of energy, so it will take time. One thing I have understood in these days (and maybe I am a little weak on this) is that there is a great need for closeness and affection. I was actually asked, “Tell us that you love us.” This is important and should not be underestimated.
This also applies to the cardinal, I imagine?
Certainly, but the cardinal is more fortunate because he has felt a lot of your affection and your prayers. Besides, when you have a responsibility, a certain degree of solitude is necessary and also beneficial. You have to protect it. Needless to say, the closest and most comforting presence has been that of Pope Francis; he even called me a couple of days ago. I would like to add one more thing about the orientation of our Christian community. Certainly, the polarization that has affected it hurts me, but in the end, Christians are human beings like everyone else, and like everyone else, they are also driven by emotions. If something similar had happened in Italy, Spain, or France, would Christians have reacted differently? And then this tragedy offers, if I may say so, the opportunity to rethink one’s identity. Just this morning, they called me to tell me that the spiritual orientation courses we had promoted in the premises of our seminary in Beit Jala are overflowing with registrations; there is a great need for a sense of meaning.
Words of meaning that a flock expects, especially from its shepherd.
At no time such as this have I so clearly understood that my role implies, more than responsibility, a high degree of fatherhood. A father is someone who listens, guides, directs, advises, corrects, preserves, and protects. The father is the one who gives life. And here, now, there is a great need to generate new life.
By Roberto Cetera — Jerusalem