The uproar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes the life of the Christian community in the Holy Land and its problems pass in silence, yet the Christian presence in those Holy Places is a duty to the past, the present and the future, says the Custos of the Holy Land.
Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who was in Rome in October to participate in the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which concluded Sunday, spoke with ZENIT about the complex reality that Christians face in the region.
In Part 2 of this interview, the Custos speaks of the importance of a Christian presence in the region.
Part 1 of this interview appeared Monday.
ZENIT: In the second press conference you said: “The times of the synod are not the times of journalists.” But shouldn’t the synod be a “walking together” toward planned objectives?
Father Pizzaballa: It’s true that the times of the Church should be faster. But they are not the times of social life, because in society there are much more rapid changes which the Church labors to direct. That there are problems also within the dynamics of the life of the Church, there is no doubt. That there is also a certain distance between the territory and the authority of the Church, is also true. However, we must not all throw ourselves too far down, have too critical a view or even be too withdrawn into ourselves.
Despite our problems, we must also look at the good that the Church succeeds in doing through her institutions, through the schools, through so many works, but above all through the many pastors, so many lay people who commit themselves, getting to work without waiting for indications from I don’t know whom, but with passion, with love, dedicate themselves to the territory and to the people who are in the territory. These persons don’t make noise, but they are those who make the Church.
The Pope used a very beautiful expression at the beginning of the synod: it is “the faith of the simple” that makes the Church strong and great. It’s true that in certain realms of authority of the Church there are too many careful examinations, too many discussions, and then it is hard to move to implementation also because the structure of the Church is rather complex, but it is necessary also to look at the territory and what emerges, what is born, and then put oneself also in a perspective of faith: It will not be our programs that save the Church, but first of all the work of God that passes through prayer, the life and passion of so many persons.
ZENIT: One of the most urgent questions for Christians of the Middle East is that of pilgrimages, which hits Arab Christians primarily. In the speeches given to the press it doesn’t seem that there was talk of this topic during the synod. Wouldn’t it be opportune, however, for the bishops of the Middle East to unite their voices to launch an appeal to the governments of the region?
Father Pizzaballa: There was no direct talk of pilgrimages to the Holy Places by Arab countries. It was spoken about indirectly in the invitation to do everything possible to attain peace in the Middle East. This is also a prospect, surely. It’s said that with Israel the Holy Places have enjoyed an irreprehensible liberty, but it’s also true that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as Israel’s conflict with Arab countries has in fact closed what traditionally was open to the whole Christian community of the Middle East, who regarded the Holy Land as a spiritual source. This is a deep wound that remains and for which we must work as Church — even if perhaps we don’t have so much power — and insist with the international community so that this aspect is kept in mind and so that these boundaries will fall as soon as possible, these barriers that are also psychological on both sides.
ZENIT: Christianity is not an abstract event. It came about at a specific time and the martyred Holy Land is it’s specific sacred space. Because of this you rightly affirmed in your intervention that “to inhabit that space is our vocation.” How can the universal Church help Christians in the Holy Land to dwell there and what change/improvement do you foresee after this synod?
Father Pizzaballa: To inhabit the Holy Places is a duty, even before it is a right of each and every Christian, but in different ways. The universal Church should inhabit those places with pilgrimages coming to the Holy Land; the Christian community, living in those places, remembering the places were Jesus was born, died and rose, living and praying, baptizing their children, getting married, burying their dead. And it isn’t fetishism, it’s not just about being in the places with sophisticated devotion, but about living in those places with vitality, inhabiting the city, inhabiting the spaces, making their own contributions as Christians.
Hence, our vocation as Christians is precisely that of raising our gaze. We do not want to be witnesses of the empty sepulcher of Christ: “ecce locus ubi posuerunt eum” (behold the place where they laid him); to say this means also to raise one’s gaze. The Christian message is not a devotional withdrawal over the Holy Sepulcher, but a leap of hope because Christ is risen and this must be our contribution.
There are problems, there are conflicts, there are misunderstandings, there is oppression, but we don’t withdraw, we look ahead, because Christ has called the world and we are witnesses of this.
ZENIT: The Franciscan presence in the Holy Land was made official with the General Chapter of 1217, and is considered “the pearl of all the provinces.” What is the significance of your presence in the region, how has this changed in the current circumstances?
Father Pizzaballa: The mission of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land is always this: to take care of the Holy Places — the stones of the memory — and the living stones — the Christian community. To be in the places isn’t popular today, because there is much talk of community, of assembly, whereas to mark the territory has an importance that, above all in the Middle East, is capital. Hence our role is to be in these places even if no one goes there, even if they are isolated, even if it isn’t gratifying, simply to be there and to celebrate the memory with prayer, first of all.
And then there is the aspect of staying with the Christian community — with the living stones — because the society is changing. Young people are changing. They have new expectations, new needs. Also, there is a strong trend toward secularism in the Middle East, and added to this is economic growth, which results in people not being as close to the Church because there is less of a need for social assistance. But, on the other hand, there are always requests for cultural assistance, and spiritual, and a very strong presence. Our mission will change in this sense, but it will always essentially remain the same.