AMMAN: Pope Francis named Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa as the 10th Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem on Saturday, but there has been mixed reaction to the appointment of a non-Arab to the high-level post.
Pizzaballa, who is Italian, follows Jordanian patriarch Foad Twal and Palestinian Michel Sabah.
Sabah, who was appointed in 1987, was the first Arab to hold this position in the Latin Patriarchate.
Pizzaballa has been apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate since 2016 while the patriarch office remained vacant. His appointment ends the wait for around 293,000 Latin Catholics in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and Cyprus for a new patriarch.
Pizzaballa told parishioners in a message he understood there would be difficult moments and complex choices ahead. “I am sure that together we will be able to look to tomorrow with confidence, as it has been until now,” he added.
The Latin Patriarchate was facing financial debts of more than $100 million when Pizzaballa became apostolic administrator. But he reorganized its financial management, implemented new controls, introduced greater transparency. He paid off 60 percent of the debts by selling Nazareth church property.
Johnny Mansour, a Palestinian academic from Haifa, called the papal decision a form of religious colonialism. He said the Vatican had rewarded the person who sold church lands in Nazareth instead of holding him accountable.
“It reflects a lack of respect to the people of the land who live (in) a difficult and painful period with the occupation and oppression. This is religious colonialism.”
Wadie Abu Nassar, a senior media advisor to successive patriarchs, said that while the local parish would have loved to see an Arab in the role, there was also a need to understand the universal nature of the church.
“The church of Jerusalem has a special place that makes its borders much wider than the geographic borders,” he told Arab News. “It is the church of Christians around the world. We as members of the Jerusalem diocese and the believers of the holy land, are honored to be sons of the mother church and to pray with believers from around the world. We will not grow if we keep the Jerusalem church a national one. It is a holy institution that belongs to all nations and is above nationality. Believers in the church are all equal, regardless of their geographic background or national affiliation.”
Pizzaballa speaks Italian, Hebrew and English but does not speak Arabic, which has been a point of contention among some.
Nasri J. Rabadi, a member of the faculty of engineering at Jordan University, said: “The mistakes of those who preceded him justified the mistake of the Vatican in bypassing Arab priests in this appointment.”
But a former school teacher and principal in Jerusalem, Ibrahim Deabis, rejected criticism of Pizzaballa’s appointment. He said that the pope was the head of the church and had a right to make the appointment. "The problem is not in the citizenship of the patriarch but in his works and values.”
Pizzaballa was born in 1965. He joined the Franciscans in 1984, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1990. He was vicar of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem for the pastoral care of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel, overseeing the publication of the Roman Missal in Hebrew in 1995.
The Latin Patriarchate welcomed Pizzaballa’s appointment. “May His Beatitude be granted good health and divine blessing to continue serving our Local Church, while promoting peace, justice, and reconciliation.”
Pizzaballa’s appointment as patriarch by the Holy See was a reflection of his honesty and sincerity for over 35 years, according to Father Firas Abed Rabo from the Latin Patriarch. “This doesn’t violate the biblical-based church principles in choosing its bishops and leaders and we should not be surprised if it contradicts the principles of the world that are called democratic.”