03/06/2022, 12.40
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Jerusalem, Patriarch Pizzaballa: A Lent of communion to counter war and pandemic

by Dario Salvi


Israel has reopened its borders welcoming the first groups of pilgrims after two years of closures due to Covid-19. The Latin Primate reflects on a time in which "we have come to terms with fragility and solitude", but the desire "to start again" defining "objectives and prospects" is strong. The importance of a "synodal path" of "participation and mission". 


Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - An image of hope, in a world marked in the last two years by the daily victim count, contagions and restrictions imposed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. A world which, in recent days, has woken up to a new conflict on Europe's doorstep triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the risk that it could turn into World War III fought with devastating atomic weapons.

In this reality of shadows and fears, a glimmer of light arrives in the first groups of pilgrims who are once again animating the streets of the old city in Jerusalem and the holy places of the Christian tradition. From the desolation of the coronavirus to prayers, in the Lenten period, when in the past tens of thousands of faithful would retrace - as pilgrims - the footsteps of Jesus. 

The rebirth linked to the spring season that has just begun is accompanied by the resumption of trips to the holy places, thanks to the reopening decided by the Israeli government. The go-ahead was expected at Christmas, but the emergence of the Omicron variant prompted the authorities to seal the borders again. Thanks to a massive vaccination campaign and the lower incidence of hospitalisations and victims - in proportion to the number of cases - with an easing of hospital pressure, the leadership of the Jewish State has put the emergency phase behind them, aiming at a gradual return to (new) normality. Hence the reopening, on March 1, of the air space to tourists (including non-vaccinated) of all ages, subject to a negative molecular swab on departure and a new negative test on entry into the Ben Gurion international airport in Tel Aviv. 

The main tourist attractions and places of worship are accessible and the Green Pass (Tav yarok) is no longer required to enter Israel, one of the first countries in the world to adopt the controversial measure. The requirement to wear a mask remains, especially on public transport where the device is still compulsory. Nevertheless, the city has come back to life and the first groups of pilgrims are visible, as happened at the end of February when the patriarchal vicar emeritus Mgr Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo welcomed some fellow countrymen from the diocese of Treviso (in northern Italy) and a representation of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. They are small groups," confided the prelate, "of 20 or 30 people at the most, a sign of a trend that we can define as positive. And for the whole of Lent and Holy Week we foresee a good influx, which should increase in the period following Easter". 

Silence, fragility, solitude

One of the most symbolic and meaningful events of the first phase of the pandemic is the celebration - almost in solitude - of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa on the slopes of the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday. A rite that replaced the traditional procession inside the walls of the old city, with the government - in line with the measures adopted in much of the world - imposing a hard lockdown on the population. Today, two years later, the atmosphere has changed and there is expectation for the Lenten celebrations, while bookings for groups of pilgrims, one of the driving sectors of the local economy, especially for the Christian component, are growing at the same time.

Patriarch Pizzaballa reminds AsiaNews "For two years have had to witness silence, the almost total closure of the borders, the dramatic economic situation for many families in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and other areas of the Holy Land. Unlike in the West," he adds, "we have not seen churches being emptied, but there have been serious repercussions in the academic and scholastic worlds. We have come to terms with a lot of fragility and loneliness, but in these months I have also seen a great desire to restart. We too are wondering what the before and after of the pandemic will be like, there are no certain answers yet, but I believe that we must first of all work. There are no definite answers yet, but I think we have to work first of all. We'll see what happens in the future, but for now it's important to be there and to maintain our presence. The objective for the coming weeks is to celebrate "a normal Lent" as far as possible, leaving behind "closures and restoring all the normal and customary activities of prayer, fasting, which is very important for us," he said.

A community on the move

Patriarch Pizzaballa also anticipates the central theme of the Easter message, which is to continue on "a synodal path" that is made up of "communion, participation, mission: this - he explains - I believe is the most important point after two years of restrictions... to meet and make community". From this point of view, the progressive openings and the return of the faithful from all over the world are fundamental: "The borders have been reopened, from March 1st also to the non-vaccinated - confirms the primate - so we can look to the future with cautious optimism. Of course, we do not expect record numbers immediately", as recorded in the two years preceding the pandemic, "but we look forward to a recovery, with the awareness of being able to define objectives and prospects. Reorganising the opening of sanctuaries and places of worship takes time, but we know that we are moving in that direction".

Regarding the situation of the Church in the Holy Land, the Latin Patriarch underlines that "we do not have the vocations of 20 years ago in numerical terms, but they are still there and come from all over the territory. The profile has also changed, because before they were very young while today there are many people entering the seminary from the world of work or university. These are more mature vocations, which require different training programmes" in a situation where "the migrant component" remains a significant presence" and capable of surviving "despite the many problems".

Finally, on the tensions that still characterise the area and two years of pandemic have not abated but contributed to exasperate Patriarch Pizzaballa does not want to give in to pessimism: "The Middle East and the Holy Land in particular are a reality of 'et...et', not of 'aut...aut'" and after the violence of recent months, with the blitzkrieg in Gaza and disputed areas such as Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem "we welcome the permits that the Israeli government has granted for the Strip. We need relations, relationships, and for Gaza the situation seems to have improved recently. Changes do not happen overnight because they require steps that are also cultural as well as legislative, they require commitment and patience" such as "citizenship", which can be the basis for a peaceful "coexistence" in the region.  

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