Dear brother bishops and priests,
Dear brothers and sisters, faithful in all our parishes and religious communities,
“Lent is a new beginning, a path leading to the certain goal of Easter, Christ’s victory over death. This season urgently calls us to conversion. Christians are asked to return to God “with all their hearts” (Joel 2:12), to refuse to settle for mediocrity and to grow in friendship with the Lord. Jesus is the faithful friend who never abandons us.” With these powerful words, Pope Francis begins his letter to the faithful on the occasion of Lent.
Since July 15, 2016, I have been at the helm of the diocese as the Apostolic Administrator. I have spent these past months learning, rooting myself in what is now our shared reality: the life of our Latin Patriarchate. For the past 170 years this Patriarchate has played and still plays an important role in the life of the Christians in the Holy Land. Our parishes, schools and many other institutions have contributed much to the life of the Christians in these lands and have strengthened our witness to Christ and his Resurrection from the dead. However, we all know that the naming of an Apostolic Administrator, someone from outside the Patriarchate clergy, was an unexpected decision, and it came as a surprise shock to many. It led to the conclusion that all is not well. Indeed, mistakes have been made and wrong decisions have been made which have affected the life of the Patriarchate, financially and administratively, mainly concerning the American University of Madaba. We had failed in some important areas, perhaps not focused enough on our primary mission: preaching the Gospel and dedicate ourselves to the pastoral activities.
Since last July, I have been meeting the bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful, and visiting many parts of the diocese. I have discovered much that is positive, encouraging and hopeful, but I have also noted that we have problems, a crisis that threatens our home, problems that led to me being named Administrator until a new Patriarch can be named, situations that we must face with honesty, courage, determination, brotherly love and, of course, with a strong faith in the Lord who is guiding us. A crisis, in fact, can be a place for death, but it can be, with help of the Holy Spirit, a place for a new life, for a rebirth in the Spirit, a place of resurrection. That is our commitment, our hope and our prayer.
I would like to share with you my joy this Lenten season that we, at the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, have indeed begun this journey in a very meaningful way. On the eve of Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, I decided to convene a gathering of all the diocesan priests of the Latin Patriarchate. I felt I was ready to start sharing with the priests some of my insights during these past months and to listen carefully to their suggestions and opinions. The priests convened on Monday, February 27 and Tuesday, February 28, in the House of the Visitation of the Sisters of the Rosary in Fuheis, Jordan. We focused mainly on the following topics: the life of the Latin Patriarchate with special attention to the priests, their life and their pastoral activity; the financial problems and their possible solution; the preparation of internal bylaws for our administration.
I can assure you that you, beloved brothers and sisters, faithful in all our parishes, you were very present, in a way or another, in all our discussions and exchanges, with your difficulties, your sufferings and your hopes.
A first joy was that the bishops and all the priests who were able to come indeed came, young and old, from Jordan, Palestine, Israel and even from the Gulf. They came eager to learn, to listen, also to speak and we spent two days together in deep and meaningful discussion about our beloved Patriarchate, about our vocation and mission but also about the mistakes that have led us to a critical situation, mainly financial.
A second joy was to see that those gathered were committed to working through these problems, willing to face honestly the reality and ready to engage whole heartedly in the necessary steps to set us back on the right path. It was moving to hear one priest, who spoke out loud and clear, saying: “The time has come to acknowledge our responsibility, each one of us, and to commit ourselves to a new beginning”. Another pointed out: “We need to discover how to transform this painful reality into a grace”. I think he meant the grace of “new beginnings”, the promise of Resurrection beyond the passion and death that many of us are living right now. We have much to do. Now is the time to begin the work of reform, reconstruction and renewal in certain sectors of our administration, but not only. Among other conclusions, in fact, we decided to focus even more on our pastoral activities and to open, for instance, new diocesan offices for the pastoral work, which will coordinate and unify our pastoral service to the community.
Although as Apostolic Administrator I have been granted the authority to change certain financial and administrative realities, I am also aware that if we do not work together, our Patriarchate will not be restored to good health. It is not the first time we have to face serious problems in our history and in the past we could always overcome the difficulties with the help of God. Today, after two days with our bishops and priests, I come away full of hope. The way in front of us will be undoubtedly difficult, the challenges great and the obstacles big. These two days, however, convinced me that if we work together, focusing on our mission to serve Christ in His Church, we will overcome also this moment. I felt that our bishops and priests were ready to “fight the good fight” and go forward with courage, difficult as the way might be. Thanks to the Lord and to your good will, I begin Lent with a sense of relief, of deep gratitude and with renewed energy that I want to share with you all.
At the end of our meeting, the priests asked to share with all of you, with transparency, our actual difficulties, that are anyway already known, but at the same time also to let you know our determination to solve all this, with the help of God and the full commitment of all of us.
I ask you all to pray during Lent that we may indeed work together, bishops, priests, religious men and women, lay men and women, youth and aged ones. Like “apostolic life” of the earliest community of believers in Jerusalem, we too must be “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32), confident that what the Lord began 170 years ago, He will continue to sustain and support.
Indeed, Lent is a journey of conversion. We, bishops and priests in the Patriarchate, are among the sinners who implore God’s mercy and beg for the grace of conversion. Our mistakes and wrong judgments are clearly set before our eyes, like the repenting Psalmist (Ps 51 (50): 5) says. We must admit that we are like cracked and broken clay vessels. We were entrusted with much but in our human fragility, we allowed much to be wasted. Yet we know that the Lord uses vessels that are fragile and providential tools in His plan of salvation. Saint Paul puts it well: “ For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair” (2 Corinthians 4:6-8). We can be certain that the treasure we have been charged with will shine through even though we are earthen vessels.
Brothers and sisters, united in prayer this Lent, we set our face to follow the Lord to Jerusalem. Yes, the way will be a hard one but let me share with you my confidence that if we persevere with Him, we will emerge in the light of His Resurrection! May the Lord bless you all in this Lenten journey!
Jerusalem, 3 March 2017
+ Pierbattista Pizzaballa