Cardinal Pizzaballa’s Meteoric Rise to ‘Papabile’

ANALYSIS: As the Holy Land again descends into violent conflict, the peacemaking Latin patriarch of Jerusalem has emerged as a respected leader of the local Church in the Middle East.

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, waves from a road, overlooking the Dome of the Rock Mosque at the al-Aqsa Mosque complex, during the traditional Palm Sunday procession at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem on March 24.
Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, waves from a road, overlooking the Dome of the Rock Mosque at the al-Aqsa Mosque complex, during the traditional Palm Sunday procession at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem on March 24. (photo: AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP via Getty Images)

“It will be a difficult Easter,” Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa told Italian television last week as he offered a grim assessment of the worsening humanitarian crisis in war-torn Gaza. Calling on the international community to quickly halt the Israel-Hamas war, he said he was thinking of the “loneliness of Jesus in Gethsemane, which is now shared by all of us.”

Pizzaballa had been cardinal for just a week when Hamas launched its devastating attacks in southern Israel last October, plunging the region — and the Italian-born Latin patriarch of Jerusalem — into a new phase of a conflict he knows only too well. 

Having planned to stay in Rome for the duration of the Synod on Synodality assembly in October, the Franciscan patriarch was forced to abruptly return to the Holy Land, his home for the past 34 years, to tend to his flock caught once again in the crossfire of an Israeli-Palestinian conflagration. 

Holed up in the patriarchate as the hostilities escalated, Cardinal Pizzaballa said the confinement gave him time to reflect on what it meant to be a cardinal there and that the cardinalate’s red color, signifying the cardinals’ willingness to shed blood, had taken on “a profound significance marked by much sorrow, by many hardships.” 

A fortnight after returning, he composed a carefully worded and finely balanced diocesan letter strongly condemning both the Hamas atrocities and the extent of Israeli retaliation and exhorting the people of the region to turn to Christ and the “courage of love and peace” of the Gospel. 

Shortly after the conflict erupted, he said he was willing to exchange himself for Israeli child hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza, creating headlines around the world and, although only 58 and a cardinal for just a few weeks, inducting him into the ranks of papabile. 

Unafraid to speak out in the face of the violence and injustice that has so blighted the region, he has striven to treat both sides with equanimity, but with arguably more sympathy for the Palestinian people, whom he sees as “still waiting for their rights, their dignity or recognition.” 

Among them, of course, are Palestinian Christians, and he considers Christians as a whole in the Holy Land to be, like Palestinian Muslims, outsiders. The heart of the Church “spiritually and theologically” is Jerusalem, he told America magazine. “Because everything was born here. At the same time, we are also kind of peripheral.”

His perspective has occasionally provoked reactions from Israelis who, most recently, criticized him for signing a statement condemning Israel’s attacks on civilians and calling for a deescalation of the conflict. 

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) also refuted the patriarch’s claim that an IDF sniper had killed a mother and daughter in a Catholic parish in Gaza, insisting that the IDF “does not target civilians, no matter their religion,” and that a review of their operational findings supported their claim.

And yet, while some Israelis might have their suspicions, he is well regarded by the nation’s president, Isaac Herzog, who has known Cardinal Pizzaballa for more than two decades. They first met when the two worked together to coordinate Pope St. John Paul II’s 2000 pilgrimage to Jerusalem — Herzog was cabinet secretary at the time, and then-Father Pizzaballa was vicar general of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem for the pastoral care of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel. 

Herzog has praised Cardinal Pizzaballa as “a brilliant person,” a leader “knowledgeable and extremely well acquainted with the complexities of our region,” who “enjoys the trust of all the concerned parties in Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and Israel.” They “respect him tremendously,” Herzog said. “His name precedes him.” 


Who Is Cardinal Pizzaballa?

But who is the cardinal really, and how has he risen to prominence in such a relatively short time? 

Born in Cologno al Serio near the city of Bergamo in northern Italy in 1965, Pierbattista Pizzaballa entered the Franciscan minor seminary in Bologna in 1976 and made his perpetual vows at the age of 24 in 1989. After achieving a bachelor’s degree in theology from the Pontifical University Antonianum, he was ordained a priest in 1990 by Cardinal Giacomo Biffi of Bologna. 

The young Franciscan then went on to study biblical theology, taught biblical Hebrew in Jerusalem, and, in 2004, at the young age of 39, was appointed custos (custodian) of the Holy Land — effectively the major superior of the Order of Friars Minor living throughout the Middle East. 

His main task, in addition to animating the life of the friars, was to ensure the “custody” of the holy sites in the region, as well as coordinate and direct the reception of pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. A popular custos, Father Pizzaballa was elected three times to that role. 

Giampiero Sandionigi, an editor for the Franciscan-run, which has often worked with Cardinal Pizzaballa, told the Register that his qualities “are there for all to see: the frankness, courage, non-clerical style, openness to meeting other people, and alacrity assisted by good health.” 

Acknowledging his diplomatic skills and expertise, Pope Francis gave him a key role in organizing a prayer for peace in the Vatican Gardens in 2014 that brought together Israel’s then-President Shimon Peres, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, the Pope, and Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew. 

A month after stepping down as custos in 2016, Father Pizzaballa was appointed by Pope Francis as bishop and apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which had been plagued by large debts — problems that by 2020 he had effectively resolved by setting up an economic advisory board made up of financial experts, and launching a successful appeal through the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, of which he is grand prior.  

Other positions of responsibility also beckoned, first becoming a member for the Congregation for Oriental Churches in 2017 and then, in October 2020, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, serving Latin Rite Catholics across a wide area: Cyprus, Jordan, Israel and Palestine. Three years later, Pope Francis elevated him to the cardinalate. 

Italian author Graziano Motta believes it was undoubtedly Pizzaballa’s “knowledge of the Jewish language and religious culture” that placed him in such good stead, giving him a “crucial extra point” in the dialogue with Israel. “But, above all,” Motta told La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, he was recognized for his grasp of the “Arab-Islamic religious and political reality of the region” and the challenges facing the small Christian community.

Jesuit Father David Neuhaus, a convert from Judaism and former patriarchal vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, noted that Cardinal Pizzaballa is “an Italian, steeped in Jewish and Israeli society and culture for many years,” who is now “the pastor of a Church that is predominantly Arab and Palestinian.” 

“Yet, even when striving to find words in this very uncomfortable position, seeing always both Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs, he is aware that he is pastor in Jerusalem, and thus observed by all Catholics, all Christians everywhere.” 

Overall, he told the Register, Cardinal Pizzaballa “is a leader, a man oriented in the world, intelligent, reflective, a man of prayer.” 

“When I think of him,” he added, “I am struck by his ‘catholicity.’ He is the type of universal Catholic who has in many ways transcended his own context and opened himself to the Church Universal.” 


A Churchman of ‘Great Stature’

François Vayne, director of communications for the Grand Magisterium of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, has known Patriarch Pizzaballa well for 10 years. Speaking to the Register having just returned from a weeklong pilgrimage to the Holy Land with the cardinal, he said he is a Churchman “of great stature, with very clear ecclesiological and missiological ideas.” 

Missiology is the area of theology that studies the mandate, message and work of the Christian missionary. 

“There is no confusion in his theological thinking, which is authentically Catholic, harmoniously combining fidelity and openness,” Vayne added. “Quick, efficient and direct, he exercises his natural authority in respectful dialogue with his advisers.”

“His acute sense of reality,” he added, “is an asset in pastoral government, which he handles with discernment and decisiveness, like a Lombard farmer.” 

Noting how he helped not only to resolve the patriarchate’s dire financial situation, Vayne also observed that he restored it to having “a new apostolic dynamism.” 

“Integrity and unity,” Vayne said, “make him a worthy spiritual heir to the first Latin patriarch, Giuseppe Valerga, appointed by Pius IX.” 

Father Neuhaus said that what “undoubtedly” keeps him focused “is his devotion to meditating on the word of God,” and he observed that his “teaching and preaching, his public addresses and his messages have at their very core the Gospel.” 

Cardinal Pizzaballa is close to Pope Francis, partly evidenced through his steady and relatively rapid rise through the ecclesiastical ranks during this pontificate, but also through his public support of the Pope. For his part, the Pope recently described him as “a crucial figure” who “moves well” and tries to mediate, and the two have kept in regular contact during the current conflict.

He has shown support for Francis in many areas, especially regarding interreligious dialogue. The patriarch has been supportive of the Pope’s 2020 encyclical  Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All), and his controversial “Human Fraternity” document signed in 2019 by Pope Francis and the grand imam of Al-Azhar University. Such gestures have had an “enormous impact” on Arab public consciousness even if, Patriarch Pizzaballa said with characteristic frankness, no one in the Arab world reads such documents. 

He was also supportive of the Pope’s environmental encyclical Laudato Si (Care for Our Common Home), telling a conference in 2015 that scientific research into a fair distribution of common goods such as water and energy “cannot be divorced from” the message of the encyclical, “which points to the socialization of these fundamental goods.” Access to energy and especially water is often regarded as central to understanding the conflict in the Holy Land. 

In his homily on becoming a cardinal, Patriarch Pizzaballa expressed his respect for the office of Peter while at the same time frankly recognizing current problems. He noted how Peter was able to “discover love within [his own] failure” and urged the faithful, together with Peter, to “look anew to Christ.” In these “times of great disorientation and confusion,” he said, “the Church is called to start again from Christ, Master and Lord.” 

Church observers have described the cardinal as “modern,” and he has a decidedly fashionable view of the cardinalate similar to that of Pope Francis, remarking that “cardinals in our time are no longer the princes of the Church, but its servants and those of the people of God.” 

But he also appears to be willing to uphold tradition, at least if Rome does too. 

“The cardinal is very meticulous in liturgical celebration and has no problem with the traditional Mass,” said Father Neuhaus, adding that he “carefully adheres to the instructions from the Holy See.” 

Even so, Father Neuhaus believes the issue is “rather moot” as the cardinal is immersed in “the great diversity of rites within the Catholic Church (Latin, Byzantine, Maronite, Syrian, Armenian).” But when demand for the traditional Mass arises, usually from foreigners, Father Neuhaus said the cardinal “has a handful of priests (one diocesan and a few religious) who can celebrate the traditional Mass when the need arises.”


Reluctant to Enter Public Disputes

Still, much remains unknown about the cardinal-patriarch, especially his thinking on contemporary issues, as he is generally wary of being drawn into Church disputes over doctrine, theology and ecclesiastical politics. 

On peace, however, he has plenty to say. Writing the afterword of a new book called Francis of Assisi: A Restless Life by Franciscan Friar Massimo Fusarelli, he underlined the need for a holy “madness” to achieve peace, similar to the approach St. Francis of Assisi took when he met the sultan in the Holy Land in 1219 during the Crusades.

St. Francis’ mission, Cardinal Pizzaballa said, “did not resolve any of the political problems of the time” but showed a method of “encounter” that, he said, remains relevant to the conflict in the Holy Land today. 

Such willingness to surrender “something of one’s own, a vision, an opinion, an expectation” requires “courage and madness” and “a path of conversion.” It’s about “changing your way of thinking,” he said, “freeing your heart from the spirit of violence, conquest and revenge” and overcoming “ethnic, religious and identity boundaries” that are “very rigidly written in the conscience of these populations.” 

He said it is his dream that such a “madness” among Christians would make a difference, where the “other is not a rival; he is a brother.” 

For us, he added, “Christian identity is not a bulwark to defend, but a hospitable home and a door open to the mystery of God and man, where everyone is welcome.”  

“The Poverello of Assisi, eight centuries ago, showed us that this madness is still possible,” he concluded. “It is up to us, now, to decide whether to courageously choose to live this evangelical madness.”