In the consistory of September 30, Pope Francis named twenty-one new cardinals (eighteen of whom will be electors) in an attempt to cement his legacy. One of the most interesting selections is that of Pierbattista Pizzaballa, OFM, an Italian who was born in 1965 and has served as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem since 2020, presiding over Latin Catholics in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Cyprus.
Fluent in Hebrew and previously the custodian of the Holy Land, Pizzaballa is the first Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem to become a cardinal and to reside in Jerusalem. (The position was created by the crusaders in 1099 against the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and restored in the mid-nineteenth century.) All since 1847 have been of Italian origin, except Michel Sabbah (1987-2008) and Fouad Twal (2008-2016), who were the first two native speakers of Arabic, the language of the majority of their flock, to occupy the post.
The fact that the Patriarch of Jerusalem is now a cardinal means there will be a stronger relationship between Rome and Jerusalem, and more of a voice for the Church of Jerusalem in both Rome and the global Church. It also signals the Vatican’s desire to play a more active role in the Middle East. Of course, just what that means now—with Israel declaring war on Hamas after its October 7 attack on Israel—is up for question. The appointment of Pizzaballa couldn’t have come at a more delicate moment.
This was demonstrated the very day of the attacks, when the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem issued a joint statement noting that the city “is currently mired in violence and suffering due to the prolonged political conflict and the lamentable absence of justice and respect for human rights.” The statement did not take a direct position on Hamas, saying only that “we unequivocally condemn any act that targets civilians, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, and faith.” Two days later, Israel’s Embassy to the Holy See responded with a written statement condemning the “immorality of using linguistic ambiguity in such circumstances.” After noting that “it is especially unbelievable that such a sterile document was signed by people of faith,” the statement made a direct reference to Pius XII and the Holocaust, and to the apparent failures of Catholics to learn from the history of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. Pizzaballa himself then issued a more forceful condemnation of Hamas on October 11.
But tensions between the Israeli government and the Vatican were still on display in the following days. Foreign Minister Eli Cohen slammed the Vatican for its focus on the situation in Gaza and what he perceived as the failure of the Holy See to condemn Hamas clearly and unequivocally. Then, on October 16, the day after Pope Francis called for the release of hostages and the creation of humanitarian corridors to help those under siege in Gaza, Cardinal Pizzaballa offered himself in exchange for those being held by Hamas.
How do the appointment of Pizzaballa, the war, and the diplomatic tension between Israel and the Vatican impact Catholic-Jewish relations in the ongoing globalization of Catholicism? Something to consider first is a shift in historical narratives. Though the relationship between Jerusalem and Rome has become stronger, it’s happened as the globalization of Catholicism has led to a shrinking of the “Jewish prism” in the historical and theological understanding of Christianity. For Catholics far beyond the Mediterranean, the journey of Christianity out of the Holy Land to Athens and then to Rome has less resonance than other historical-theological narratives. Also, the centrality and uniqueness of the Holocaust in the twentieth century—as historically and theologically conceived—is being relativized and redefined in terms of the horrors of slavery and colonization that preceded it. The point of comparison for the extermination of Jews during World War II is no longer just Stalinist Communism, but also the founding of Christianity in the Americas, with the arrival of devastating diseases and the cultural genocide of Native and First Nations people; and in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, with genocides by starvation. This development will need careful monitoring by both historians and theologians, as it is different from the ways in which, in the 1980s, German historians Raul Hilberg, Arno Mayer, and Saul Friedländer questioned the place of the Holocaust in history.