Msgr. Fouad Twal:
“I want to sow the joy of living”
Who are you Msgr. Twal?
I am the fifth of the nine children of the Twal family of Jordan. I studied at the Beit Jala seminary, then I worked at the Patriarchat for five years as vicar before being sent to Rome to study Canon Law and International Law at the Latran Pontifical University.
The Secretariat of State noticed me, thought I could be useful, and then asked Patriarch Beltritti if he would be so kind as to release the young priest that I was at the time to become a part of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy . I spent two years there in specialized study. I was the only Arab at the Academy and everyone looked at me in a "special" way. One day they asked me, “How did you get here?” Joking, I replied, “Maybe people are saying that I own an oil well?”
Where did your diplomatic career in the service of the Holy See take you?
I started in 1976 as chargé d’affaires in Central America, in Honduras. I did not know even a word of Spanish. But that was precisely one of the reasons I was sent there: to learn the language. I spent two years there. It was a wonderful experience, if a little difficult at times. I was in charge of the Nunciature of Honduras. At the same time, Msgr. Pietro Sambi was chargé d’affaires in Nicaragua.
Together with my official duties in Honduras, I served in the poorest, but truly beautiful, parish of the country. I remember my first Mass in Spanish. It was a bit of a catastrophe because of the language. At the end, an elderly lady came to see me and asked, “¿Eres turco? Are you a Turk?” “No, no, I am an Arab.” Actually, in Central America all Arabs of the Middle Eastern origin were called “los Turcos” because in the old days they arrived with Ottoman documents.
I also accompanied the Arab community of Palestinian origin, celebrating baptisms, marriages and funerals for them.
In spite of the diplomatic function, I never cut myself off from pastoral life. I like contact with people.
It was back to the Vatican, to the Secretariat of State from 1982 to 1985, where I was made responsible for 19 French-speaking African countries. In the Secretariat of State I had a wonderful experience of the universality of the Church. The problems of the whole world end up there. The Holy See then tries to provide responses and solutions. For three years I was able to experience the wisdom of the Holy See and its patience. Nothing is urgent. Nothing. Files may arrive stamped "Urgent", but they are studied calmly and in depth.
I met many people from all over the world, from Africa, of course, but also from Arab countries. I also met foreign presidents. This really opened to me the worldwide and universal dimension of the Church.
From there I was appointed to Cairo. The Vatican saw Cairo as a capital capable of uniting the Arab world, the African continent and Europe. But we are in 1985, and because of Sadat’s visit to Israel (in 1977) almost all the Arab countries are still more or less boycotting Egypt. This political situation did not permit the Cairo Nunciature to play the role that the Holy See had hoped it would play among Arab countries.
So you returned to the Arab world?
No, because then I was appointed to Germany in 1988. I discovered in this country a strong Church, truly strong, rich and proud of itself, and at the same time an extremely generous Church. I was able to practice my German in participating in the pastoral life of a small parish near the Nunciature.
After two and a half years, in 1990, a new departure for Latin America, this time for Peru. In Lima there were thousands and thousands of Palestinian Arabs from Beit Jala, Beit Sahur, Bethlehem. And I was very happy to be their pastor. I really loved the pastoral apostolate among them, to be at their side as much at church as at the Palestinian club, where there were all sorts of sports and cultural activities, etc. I have stayed in touch with many of them and when they come to Palestine to visit their families they come to greet me. The bishop of Lima told me, “But what will we do for this community after you leave?” Actually, I was the Counselor of the Nunciature.
You were destined for a post as Nuncio then?
Yes, that should have been the next step. But it was then, in 1992, that the news came from Rome: The Holy Father had appointed me bishop of Tunis. He appointed me, but at the same time he asked my opinion. I did not understand that. I was just about to be appointed Nuncio. My name was being mentioned in connection with the Nunciature of Kuwait, which had been separated from the Nunciature of Iraq after the Gulf War. I did not understand why, after all those years in the diplomatic service, I was being returned to pastoral service, but I told myself that I had to accept not understanding, and I said yes. Later I understood that the intentions of the Holy See were pastoral and political. Pastoral: There had been a post available in Tunis for two or three years, and a diocese must have a bishop; political, because the Holy See wanted an Arab bishop for a See where so many French bishops had followed one after the other . In addition, the Prelature of Tunis was still part of the French Church Overseas, although the country had become independent in 1956. So the Holy See wanted to install an Arab bishop, speaking the same language and having the same cultural tradition. It was discussed with me in terms of a three- or four-year mission. And I stayed there thirteen years. I had eight religious communities come, bringing new blood. We worked hard, restoring the cathedral, all the churches, convents and houses. After my departure the government returned the church of Djerba, which had been taken during the war of independence, to the service of the faithful.
Monsignor, we know that the Tunisian political regime is not always easy. During your bishopric, was the political aspect present? Was it strong?
It was strong. But you have to know how to deal with Arab regimes. In the Arab world, we have a certain approach to relationships, and in the end I was very well accepted. Even to the point that half an hour before I left Tunis i received a telephone call saying, "President Ben Ali would like to see you before you leave." I had to change my ticket to go meet him.
In Tunis I became aware of how much the Arab countries are against terrorism. Every six months the Ministers of Interior of the member countries of the Arab League meet in Tunis to coordinate their work and struggle against against fanaticism.
It is notably this attention to security that allowed Tunisia to develop tourism as it has done. I have pleasant memories of Tunis and the Tunisian authorities.
Did you find a Palestinian Christian community in Tunisia?
No, neither Palestinian nor Arab. All of our faithful were foreigners. Some come from the Middle East for business reasons. But we cannot speak of a local Arab Christian community.
Then, in 2005, came the news of your appointment as coadjutor of Jerusalem?
Yes. At this news, the only question that came into my head was "Why so early?" In fact, Msgr. Sabbah’s mission would continue for two and a half more years. Two and a half years is a long time. But they were useful. One progresses in knowledge of the local Church, its situation. One sees the strong points and the weak points, one prepares spiritually and pastorally in meeting priests, bishops, parishes.
You have been away from your country for a long time, and you say that these two and a half years were useful to evaluate the situation. What new things did you discover in the diocese from the religious and political points of view?
From the religious point of view, I was very happy to discover the number of religious communities: around thirty communities of men and over seventy communities of women. Twelve contemplative communities: that is admirable. It is a spiritual force on which I rely and will rely very strongly. From the pastoral and spiritual point of view it is a great treasure.
I was also happy to notice that now the priests of the Patriarchate and the Franciscans who are in charge of parishes in the diocese making their monthly retreat together. That is new. As I told the Custos, it is beautiful that all the pastors who are engaged in the same pastoral apostolate are united in this way. Every year the priests of the Patriarchate also make a retreat together with the Melkite and Maronite priests. There, too, is a beautiful testimony to the unity of the Catholic Church in the diversity of its rites.
In terms of the political situation, the wall of separation, which I saw under construction, shocked me. In the first years of my priesthood, I served in Jordan, but also in Ramallah. This tension did not exist then. Certainly, there were the Jews on one side and the Arabs on the other, but not this tension.
I was not here for the two uprisings that are called Intifadas. But I do see the consequences. I also see the efforts that are being made on all sides. At the Patriarchate I received visits from citizens of the Territories, but also from local authorities, political leaders. I noticed that there are many speeches, promesses, presentations, and at the same time I see that we are not making much progress. The situation stays more or less the same.
What, Monsignor, will be the place of politics in your mission?
Me, I prefer to act as a bishop. I like to emphasize the pastoral and spiritual aspect of our Patriarchate, our parishes, our parishioners, our religious communities and the pilgrims who come to us. Of course, I cannot forget that everything that touches mankind touches the Church. Politics concern me to the extent that they affect people’s lives, dignity and security.
But I want to pay close attention. We have three or four groups of believers before us. Christians and non-Christians, Jews and Muslims. Among Christians, there are the Jordanian Christians, Palestinian Christians (who are the ones who suffer the most), European Christians who are here to help, work, study or make pilgrimage, and there are also Israeli Christians, Arabs or of Jewish origin. All these groups do not share the same sensibility, including their vision of the conflict. Hence, the difficulty in speaking. Because the bishop is everyone’s bishop, absolutely everyone’s. Either we want our discourse to touch everyone or we favor one group - which is the easiest - or we have as many discourses as groups, which is not possible. But if you want to touch Jews, Muslims, Christians, Jordanians, Palestinians, Cypriots, Europeans all together… then you have to consider every comma.
I am well aware of the complexity of speaking out, whether it is a speech or a sermon.
And how do you see coping with this difficulty?
Spiritually! You might say that that is the easiest, but it is also the role of the Church to attract mankind toward the things above.
But you will be asked for a political message. Journalists aren’t satisfied with the spiritual!
Ah, journalists… When I was the bishop of Tunis, they asked me about Islam. One day I said to them, "I am waiting for someone to ask me about Christ." I am truly waiting for someone to ask me about Christ, the Church, the essence of our Christian life, our presence in the Holy Land. Perhaps I will disappoint journalists in politics, but once again, politics touch us in that they touch mankind. That being so, there is another dimension. And exactly that, everything that we experience, including the difficulties engendered by the conflict, should send us to the Gospel. We should take the Gospel literally. When the Gospel speaks to us of the Cross, of suffering, when we see Jesus fall… and get up again. We should reflect that the disciple is not better treated than the master. And that we follow the path that he followed before us. But when in spite of everything we are moving forward, when in spite of everything we find the strength to live and the joy of living, the joy of preaching, the joy of proclaiming the Gospel, it is not because of the geopolitical conditions that surround us, for by their nature they change: one day they are favorable, the next day unfavorable. No, this joy comes to us from the Gospel. This joy comes to us from the One who tells us: "Fear not, I am with you… I give you my peace, MY peace." His peace, which is interior serenity, which is interior joy, which is joy in living, joy in encounters, joy in accepting others, all others, just as they are, with their limits, with my limits. Our joy is not founded in an improvement of the situation; the reason for our joy is meeting Christ himself in prayer and in meeting others and being in solidarity with them.
If not journalists, there are others who will court you in political territory.
I am inclined to meet everyone, to receive everyone. I have no complexes. I spent, may I remind you, eighteen years in diplomatic life. Those years taught me a few little things… Moreover, they opened my mind, my heart. And my faith, my mind, my heart, my charity, my love do not limit themselves to the borders of the diocese. We must love everyone. All the citizens of the countries covered by the diocese are my citizens. All the residents of the Holy Land are mine, in one sense. Before God, before history, I feel responsible for everyone. And at the same time, I am 100% aware of my limitations. I know that I will never work a miracle, but I want to sow seeds, I want to work with my brother bishops, with the priests, the religious brothers and sisters and the faithful, leaving the results to the good God… as He desires, when He desires. In the present, very complicated situation, it is perhaps better to love more, pray more and speak less, even if this is not the joy of our journalist friends.
You speak of sowing seed… And what seed are you going to sow, Monsignor?
The joy of living! The joy of living as a Christian. The Holy Land is a country that teaches us patience. I told you that when a file comes to the Vatican Secretariat of State marked "Urgent", one always takes as much time as necessary. The Church does not live in urgency; it has all of eternity before it. In the diplomatic service, one is sometimes reproached for having spoken too much or too soon… One is never reproached for having remained silent. It is also true that too much prudence runs the risk of paralysis, and I don’t like that either. We must join prudence with the courage to speak. And know our limitations. Faced with the complexity of the situation, it is necessary to accept, listen to and be acquainted with all points of view. Above all, it is necessary to entrust all of this to the good God in prayer and silence.
And in the pastoral field, what seed will you sow?
I would like to increase contact with priests, parishes, the faithful and the religious communities. I would like to be present to the diocese. The Patriarch of Jerusalem is much in demand from the outside for conferences, celebrations, all sorts of meetings. I will decline many invitations so that I can remain here, carrying out my job as a bishop, being with our faithful. I will have to find the courage to say no, to express gratitude for invitations while declining them and asking for everyone’s prayer. It is hard to say no. But local needs are often the priority.
I intend to dedicate time to Jordan as well as to Palestine and Israel. Jordan is the heart of the Latin Patriarchate: it includes two thirds of our faithful - half of whom are of Palestinian origin - and provides the diocese with 80% of its seminarians. In spite of its stability, this part of the diocese is also in crisis, especially economic crisis, with the influx of Iraqi refugees. Christian emigration has started to strongly affect the Jordanian population, too; we must work, as we do here, to give them hope, reasons to hope, to remain Christians in the Middle East.
On the other hand, it is quite normal to give particular attention to the most wounded member of the diocese, Palestine. But the patriarchal diocese is Jerusalem, it is Palestine, Israel, Cyprus and Jordan and there are needs everywhere. They all have equal right to our prayer, our love, our plans, as, for example, the construction of homes for young couples. Throughout the diocese, we must plan; care for, rather than heal.
From my contact with priests and faithful over the last two and a half years, the need to reform the diocesan administration somewhat has also become apparent. My predecessor did a great deal of good. But new blood brings new ideas. In the Church there is no cloning. Diversity is wealth.
Interview by Marie-Armelle Beaulieu
From sedentary Bedouin to nomadic pastor.
Monsignor, we read that you were a Bedouin. Is that so?
Yes and no. Mine was a Christian Bedouin tribe, and it is thanks to an Italian missionary, Manfredi, who accompanied then as they crossed the desert 120 years ago, more or less, that we embraced the Latin rite. We were nomads, then we became semi-nomads. But we were sedentary when I was born, so that I was born in a house with a roof.
Mother, who saw me change missions and move from one continent to another when I was in the diplomatic service of the Holy See, would say, "This boy was born a nomad and he’ll always be a nomad". But now I have returned to the large tent of the Patriarchate that protects all of us.
On religious communities
The religious communities consist, for the most part, of foreigners. Do you find them sufficiently integrated into the diocese?
I told you how well I think of all these communities. With that, I would like to see more people involved in the actual pastoral ministry of the diocese. It must be admitted that many in the past worked and sowed seed. I think particularly of the Betharram Fathers who constituted the clergy of the Patriarchat before, thanks to their work, local diocesan vocations were born. In itself, having communities made up of foreigners does not present a problem. Jerusalem is for the universal Church. They are the roots of us all, Christians of the whole world. But I will call for other communities to be integrated into the diocesan pastoral work.
Jerusalem: local Church and universal Church
Is there a tension between the double reality of Jerusalem the local Church and the universal Church?
I think that it is the same reality. The local Church is not foreign to the universal Church, and vice versa. The universal church is well inside the local church, with the members who constitute it, with the foreign members of the clergy, in the heart of the Custody and the other religious communities, who are an integral part of the local Church and the universal Church. I do not see any antagonism; on the contrary, there is complementarity. It is wealth. The universal Church is very much present in us and we are very much present in the universal church. Thus, when I go to Europe or elsewhere I do not feel like a stranger. And I hope that others, when they come to see me, feel at home, in their own home, in their Church.
It is often shocking for western Christians to hear our Christian faith prayed in Arabic…
Happily, there is a shock. That is very good. I like that. I would like there to be even more shocks so that hearts and ways of thinking open. If it is shocking to meet an Arab and Jordanian bishop and patriarch, I find this shock beautiful. And it is beautiful that we can communicate with everyone.
Relations with the Custod
Do you have a message for the Custody of the Holy Land?
First of all, I would like to express my gratitude to the Custody and to each of its members for all the good that they do. During these two years, every time that I had occasion to go down to the Holy Sepulcher, accompanied by the Franciscan "custodians" who guard me, I was very happy to get to know them. But of course, I would like there to be even closer relationships and collaboration. To this end, I will meet with the superiors. But they are doing an indispensable work, I admire them, encourage them, and thank them from the bottom of my heart. Truly, I wish for more collaboration and even more friendship. I already find our Arab priests of the Custody very nice. They surround me with their attentions, and I them with my paternal affection.