People mourn during the funeral for Israeli solider Roy Joseph Levy at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem Oct. 15. OSV News photo/Lisi Niesner, Reuters

Jerusalem Latin Patriarch’s words stand out

  • October 18, 2023

On the same day the Toronto Board of Rabbis pleaded with their co-religionists to show public solidarity, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, offered himself as one such sign.

In a statement published on their board website, the Toronto rabbis questioned the non-existent or ambiguous response of Christian and Muslim leaders to the events of Oct. 7.

“We are grateful to those of you, our colleagues, who have reached out to us…. For those who have kept quiet, we who formed Rings of Peace around your churches and mosques when terror struck your communities must ask: Where are your voices? Your silence is both sobering and clarifying,” the statement said.

In the attack by Hamas in southern Israel, between 155 and 200 Israeli hostages were captured and taken to Gaza. There are reports that about 20 are children. The hostages remain in place, despite the increasing likelihood of a ground offensive commencing in the beleaguered region.

The Latin Patriarch had called last week for a day of prayer and fasting for peace in the region on Oct. 17, but Pizzaballa shocked the world when he told Italian journalists in an Oct. 16 video call that he was willing to stand in exchange for hostages.

“I am ready for an exchange, anything, if this can lead to freedom, to bring the children home. No problem. There is total willingness on my part,” he said.

“The first thing to do is to try to win the release of the hostages, otherwise there will be no way of stopping (an escalation). We are willing to help, even me personally.”

With his background and reputation, Pizzaballa’s words cannot be discounted as mere showmanship.

A member of the Order of the Friars Minor, Pizzaballa has spent over 30 years in the Holy Land. He is fluent in Italian, English and Hebrew. Prior to his appointment as the Latin Patriarch in 2020, Pizzaballa served as Vicar General of the Patriarch for the pastoral care of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel and, since 2008, as Consultor in the Commission for relations with Judaism of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Unity among Christians.

The Franciscan was the Custos of the Holy Land for 12 years. The Custos is the superior of the Friars Minor living throughout the Middle East, responsible for the care and preservation of the holy places, those “sanctified by Jesus’ presence.”

It was during his tenure as Custos that Pizzaballa met Rabbi Yehiel Poupko.

Poupko, a rabbinic scholar at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and responsible for the Jewish community’s interfaith relations, recalls meeting the tall Italian, whom he considers a “dear personal friend,” for the first time more than 20 years ago.

“I looked up and I said, they don’t make Jews in your size,” Poupko laughed in an interview with The Catholic Register.

“He is one of the tallest spiritual leaders I have ever met,” he said, emphasizing he meant tall in stature and tall in standing.

Poupko says that Pizzaballa “is held in deep respect and affection by the government of Israel and Israeli society.”

Attuned to the difficult situation of many Arab Christians, including the existential threat that the 1,500 Catholics of Gaza face, Pizzaballa’s public words have been measured.

Poupko says that as “Christians throughout the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, are living with a jack boot on their neck,” Pizzaballa will be cautious with his words.

At the request of Pizzaballa, Oct. 17 will be a day of “prayer times with Eucharistic adoration and with the recitation of the Rosary to our Blessed Virgin Mary.”

But in response to the call of, “Where are your voices?,” Pizzaballa is offering more than “thoughts and prayers,” or even just his voice — Pizzaballa is offering his life.

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