As had been rumored almost from the time of his election, Pope Francis recently announced that he would visit the Holy Land May 24-26. The apostolic journey will include stops in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. In his announcement Jan. 5 during the Sunday Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, the pope declared that his “principal goal” in going to the Holy Land is to commemorate the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras I, that occurred 50 years ago. The pope called the trip “a pilgrimage of prayer.”
It will be Francis’ first visit to the Holy Land as pope and will be only his second trip outside of Italy since his election last March. He attended World Youth Day in Brazil last August. Notably, the future pontiff visited Israel as a priest in 1973 during his preparation for the demanding role of provincial superior of the Jesuits in Argentina.
While the list of goals includes outreach to Muslims, a plea for peace and giving encouragement to the Christians in the region, the papal pilgrimage will have as its centerpiece a spiritual encounter with Patriarch Bartholomew I, the current Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
The genesis of the journey began with Patriarch Bartholomew on March 19 last year at the installation of Pope Francis in Rome. In an extraordinary gesture of goodwill, Patriarch Bartholomew chose to attend the pope’s inaugural Mass, the first time that an ecumenical patriarch had attended a papal installation since 1054 and the start of the schism that has divided the Catholic and Orthodox churches ever since. After the Mass, Patriarch Bartholomew suggested to Francis that they make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land together and remember the meeting between their predecessors in 1964.
‘To be again “one”’
|Pope Francis waves to crowds in St. Peter’s Square as he leads the Angelus at the Vatican Dec. 26. CNS photo
Pope Paul’s journey to Jerusalem in 1964 was one of the most dramatic events of his pontificate and, occurring during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), it was also one of the watershed moments in the start of the modern era of ecumenical outreach. Pope Paul met with Patriarch Athenagoras in the Garden of Olives in Jerusalem and embraced him in an unprecedented gesture. The next year, the pontiff and the patriarch issued a joint declaration that officially lifted the mutual excommunications of their predecessors in 1054 and pledged mutual commitment “to overcome their differences in order to be again ‘one’ as the Lord Jesus asked of his Father for them.” Since then, ecumenism has been a major enterprise for the Church, and Pope Paul’s successors have used their own journeys to the Holy Land to push for further progress in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.
Blessed John Paul II made an important trip during the Jubilee Year 2000 with the hope of advancing reconciliation between Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Middle East, and to promote ongoing dialogue with the Orthodox. Pope Benedict XVI visited Jerusalem in May 2009 and stopped at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and the Al-Hussein Bin Talal Mosque in Amman, Jordan.
Pope Francis will join the ecumenical patriarch at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, one of the most sacred sites in Christendom that is shared among Catholics and Orthodox. He also is scheduled to meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman and will call for greater dialogue between Muslims and Christians when he talks with Jordanian religious and political leaders. He will then travel by helicopter from Amman to Bethlehem where he will speak with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
The Christian presence
Pope Francis is expected to celebrate Masses in Bethlehem’s Manger Square and in Jerusalem, and an open-air Mass in Amman. The Masses will be part of the pope’s effort to give encouragement to the Christians in the Holy Land, a minority that has grown even smaller in recent decades in the face of persecution, economic hardships and chronic strife in such countries as Iraq, Egypt and Syria, as well as the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Last June he expressed his concern for peace in Syria and assured the Christian communities there.
“The Church supports the members of these communities who today find themselves in special difficulty,” he said. “These have the great task of continuing to offer a Christian presence in the place where they were born. And it is our task to ensure that this witness remain there.”
The plight of the Christians is tied intimately to the call by the pope for peace. Francis has issued several pleas for peace in the Middle East, most so in Syria, which has been torn apart by a bloody civil war. He said in his Urbi et Orbi speech at Christmas: “Too many lives have been shattered in recent times by the conflict in Syria, fueling hatred and vengeance. Let us continue to ask the Lord to spare the beloved Syrian people further suffering, and to enable the parties in conflict to put an end to all violence and guarantee access to humanitarian aid. We have seen how powerful prayer is!”
‘Christ is our peace’
Pope Francis will travel to the Holy Land with a remarkable international standing after barely a year as pope. He demonstrated that during the Syrian crisis last fall when his intervention changed the entire dynamic of an impending U.S. attack on Syria and helped the push for a diplomatic solution to the civil war. He will need that influence in the face of the long-standing strife across the Middle East.
As he said at Easter last year, Pope Francis places his trust for the region to prayer: “Yes, Christ is our peace. ... Peace for the Middle East, and particularly between Israelis and Palestinians, who struggle to find the road of agreement, that they may willingly and courageously resume negotiations to end a conflict that has lasted all too long. Peace in Iraq, that every act of violence may end, and above all for dear Syria, for its people torn by conflict.”
No trip by the pope would be complete, of course, without expressions of concern for the weakest and most vulnerable and his gift for symbols and gestures that point to God’s loving mercy.
He will make a special visit to the Jordan River, for example, to mark where Jesus was baptized. The pontiff will then share a meal along the river with Syrian refugees, the handicapped and those living in poverty. It will be a chance to show his solidarity with all refugees in the region and will give very visible expression to his plea for peace.
Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.