Why can’t we choose our own Patriarch?’

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New Custos Fr Francesco Patton, centre, takes part in a procession in Jerusalem (AP)

The Pope has appointed Franciscans to two of the most prestigious posts in the Holy Land. Neither speaks Arabic, so what’s going on?

Why has the Pope suddenly parachuted two Italian Franciscan priests into the most prestigious Catholic posts in the Holy Land? Both men are non-Arabic speaking.

On May 20, Fr Francesco Patton took over as Custos of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Last week, the Pope announced that Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who had been Custos for the past 12 years, was to be made an archbishop and apostolic administrator sede vacante of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which covers Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories, Jordan and Cyprus.

Impressive though Fr Pizzaballa’s credentials are, the placement of a non-Arabic speaking priest to sit in the throne at the Latin Patriarchate has taken the local Arab Christians aback – especially as the election of a replacement for the retiring Patriarch Fouad Twal may take 18 months. Nearly 95 per cent of the clergy attached to the Patriarchate are either Palestinian or from neighbouring Arab lands.

Unlike the Patriarchate, the Custody of the Holy Land has retained its international character, so the appointment, though a surprise, is not controversial. Its 285 brown-habited friars with rope belts knotted in imitation of their master, St Francis, come from 39 countries. Since the 13th century they have cared for pilgrims and maintained the Christian holy places and shrines connected to the birth, ministry and death of Jesus.

It is very different with the Patriarchate, which is run by Arabs. One senior priest told me: “With all respect to Pizzaballa, his appointment comes as a shock. Jerusalem is the mother Church, the birthplace of Christianity. We’re not like other dioceses.” He added that he and other priests hoped that an Arab would be elected as Patriarch before Christmas.

Another Latin Catholic priest, echoing some of the dissatisfaction among the clergy, said: “Why can’t we chose our own Patriarch, temporary or not? It’s not as if Jerusalem isn’t mature enough to administer its own organisation. We’re not back in the 1950s.”

Since the early 1970s, the Patriarchate, like other Holy Land churches, especially the Melkites (the Greek Catholics), the Lutherans and the Anglicans, has followed the trend to promote and empower Palestinians and other Arabs. The laity, too, have become more involved in running their churches. Michel Sabbah of Nazareth, who in 1987 became the first native Palestinian to be appointed Latin Patriarch, was a fearless advocate for Palestinian rights and an end to the occupation. His successor, Fouad Twal, a Jordanian who took over in 2008, kept a lower profile but still stood up for Palestinian rights.

The comments I heard raise the question of whether the new appointment from Rome indicates a shift away from the Arabisation in the Patriarchate and the beginning of more control from Rome. But perhaps the appointments need to be seen in a political context. Making Fr Pizzaballa the temporary occupant of the Patriarchal throne may reflect the urgency of having a powerful man who can negotiate with the Israeli authorities in the face of more unsolved arson and “price tag” attacks on churches.

Not only is Israel expanding its settlements in and around Jerusalem, but there have been more attacks on churches and other Christian holy sites. Last year a fire ripped through the famous Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee, gutting the roof and burning prayer books. Graffiti in Hebrew called for exterminating “idolaters”, an expression used by Jewish extremists for Christians. The attack was just one of dozens carried out against Christians and Muslims in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Last week more extremists, shouting “You are evil,” attacked Christians during Pentecost prayers in the Room of the Last Supper.

Perhaps having two Franciscans in the top Jerusalem posts in the Patriarchate and Custody of the Holy Land will mean a more united front. Yet no matter how popular the new leader, Fr Patton, becomes, his appointment from “outside” the Jerusalem community was a surprise.

Every three years the Discretorium, the governing body, is elected with candidates from the different linguistic groups: Italian; Greek and Slavic; Spanish and Portuguese; French and German; English; and Arab and other Middle East languages. And every six years the friars vote for a new Custos in what is called a Consultation. The final choice is sent to Rome for approval. However, this year their choice was overturned and Fr Patton was sent from Rome. This was in contrast to Fr Pizzaballa’s elevation: after eight years as a member of the Jerusalem community, he had been elected by his fellow friars.

Whatever the motives of Rome, it will be fascinating to see whether there is a shift in church-state relations and a move away from the Arabisation of the churches in the Holy City – and how long it takes for Fr Pizzaballa to augment his fluent Hebrew with Arabic.

This article first appeared in the July 1 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.