The Vatican has put its longtime protector of Church holy sites in the Middle East in charge of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem — a sensitive position that serves as the chief clergyman to the local Catholic population.

The Vatican on Friday said that Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa would serve as the temporary caretaker of the patriarchate. Pizzaballa, a Franciscan priest, replaces Fouad Twal, who reached the mandatory retirement age of 75. The church did not say how long he would hold the post.

The appointment was unexpected. For the past three decades, the patriarch has been a native Arabic speaker, helping serve the local population.

The Italian-born Pizzaballa is well-known in the Holy Land. The 51-year-old Italian has headed the Custody of the Holy Land for the past 12 years.