Introduction: A much desired and criticised visit
Most probably none of the 90 visits of the Holy Father John Paul II has been preceded by as many invitations as his visit to the Holy Land. Since some four to five years, the Catholic Hierarchy in the Holy Land had started inviting him repeatedly to come. Every now and then, some representative of the last three successive governments of Israel visiting the Pope in the Vatican extended to him an invitation. And often we heard that the Pope had even accepted the invitation and that its date was announced. The same happened when different members of the PLO Executive Council and particularly Chairman Yasser Arafat met the Holy Father. So, it seems that all the Civil Authorities in the area as well as most categories of its population anxiously desired this visit.
When John Paul II announced, on June 29, 1999, his intention to visit
with an accompanying letter explaining its itinerary and significance,
we heard some timid voices approving the project but we did not hear the
expected enthusiastic and warm welcome. I know and suppose there are many
reasonable voices and even some admirers, but they are silent and consequently
not heard. On the contrary, we read and heard, in the press and in other
media, many comments of disapproval, criticising if not offending the visit
and the Pope himself. Television showed even an open indifference to its
importance refusing an appropriate cover up. It is sad to say that such
critics came mostly from religious people and out of religious or political
feelings with no disapproval or correction, while responsible sides in
the Country are keeping strangely silent.
I hope nevertheless that when the visit’s time comes all sides will put aside all misunderstandings and personal interests and will show a higher degree of responsibility in front of such an important event to this area, like in other countries if not better. And then this visit will be read in its real and actual perspective and will remain a source of new vision and future relations in our society and area.
It is very easy to misunderstand such events and difficult to give it
the appropriate significance. It is not enough to comment upon events out
of one’s own feeling, knowledge and mindset. They must be taken in their
own reality and context. In this case we have a clear explanation given
by the Holy Father himself in the accompanying “Letter” of June 29, 1999
(referred to hereafter as the “Letter”). May be we should read it very
attentively. I am going to quote it abundantly since I cannot find better
words. On the other hand, his background and many former visits have shown
how well intentioned, sincere and frank John Paul II remains so as to deserve
the best credibility and respect he has enjoyed everywhere.
At the same time, we have to remember that the Holy Father is mainly and first of all a Shepherd for his spiritual flock. This is how the first Pope,- although he has never been called so,- Saint Peter, was installed to this responsibility by his Master Jesus Christ: “Feed my lambs... Look after my sheep... Feed my sheep” (cf Jn 21:15-19). Therefore, although the fact that he is also the head of a state in the city of the Vatican presents him sometimes as a politician, he is and tries to remain mainly and first of all the Successor of Peter and the Shepherd of his flock in the Catholic Church. His ideal is the good shepherd as in Psalm 22 and in the gospel of John, chapter 10. All his visits are first of all pastoral visits to meet the local believers and to confirm them in faith and Christian life. (Cf Lk 22:31-32).
Special Jubilee Pilgrimage
The Holy Father remains faithful to his often expressed religious intention
about the history of humanity and of Christianity in particular. He does
not forget that Christianity is celebrating the Great Jubilee of conversion
and reconciliation with God and with our neighbour, on the occasion of
the 2000th anniversary of Jesus Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. This reconciliation
will be expressed by a march, a pilgrimage back to the religious sources
with the aim of purifying and reviving faith in God. Under this aspect,
and fully aware of representing in himself all the Church of Christ (particularly
the Catholic Church), his visit to the Holy Land will be a part of what
he calls his “Special Jubilee Pilgrimage”(Letter 1).
John Paul II uses different expressions to explain the stations of this pilgrimage, that he began by living it in his spirit. He writes in his “Letter”:
“My meditation therefore turns to the ‘places’ in which God has chosen to ‘pitch his tent’ among us (Jn 1:14; cf. Ex 40:34-35; 1 Kgs 8:10-13), thus enabling man to encounter him more directly.” (Letter 1).
Then he draws a short summary of his pilgrimage plan, and expresses his deep and general intent. He writes:
“For this reason, in the perspective of the two thousandth anniversary of the Incarnation, I have a strong desire to go personally to pray in the most important places which, from the Old to the New Testament, have seen God’s interventions, which culminate in the mysteries of the Incarnation and of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.”(Letter 3)
“It is in this spirit, God willing, that I intend on the occasion of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 to follow the traces of the history of salvation in the land in which it took place. (Letter 5).
1) First stage: On the footsteps of Abraham
The different stages of this Jubilee pilgrimage are linked to biblical places and persons, all of them very important in our religious history of salvation. The first person is Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees (the present day Iraq). Like for Jews and Moslems, the Holy Father affirms that “For us too Abraham is our ‘father in faith’ par excellence. (cf Rom 4; Gal 3:6-9; Heb 11:8-19).”(Letter 5). With Abraham God starts revealing himself and his plan of salvation and love for humanity. In the Pope’s letter we read this:
“The first stage of the journey which I hope to make is linked to Abraham. In fact, if it be God’s will, I would like to go to Ur of the Chaldees ... the city where, according to the biblical account, Abraham heard the word of the Lord which took him away from his own land, from his people, from himself in a sense, to make him the instrument of a plan of salvation which embraces the future people of the Covenant and indeed all the peoples of the world: The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go from your Country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you...’ (Cf Gn 12:1-3). With these words, the great journey of the People of God began.” (Letter 5).
A number of reasons did not allow the Pope to undertake this visit. He felt so sad for that. At the end of February last, I was in the Vatican and heard that he was complaining, “I cannot go to Sinai before going to Ur”. Therefore, he insisted on having at least a symbolic and spiritual pilgrimage to Ur through a special liturgical celebration arranged in the Vatican, so as to give real meaning to the other stages of his pilgrimage.
Second stage – The events of the Exodus
In the first stage, God was asking humanity, through Abraham, to live in faith and to believe in him and in his promise. In the second stage God starts revealing his Holy Name and sealing his Covenant with his people, thus assuring the fulfilment of his promises. This stage is constituted by three moments linked to the three main places (three geographical peaks) of the Exodus, “charged with mystery”, and to the personality of the Great Moses. These are:
a) Mount Horeb (Sinai) where God reveals his Most Holy and ineffable Name to Moses. (Ex 3:14).
b) Again it is in Sinai with the sealing of the Covenant between God and his people accompanied by the gift of the Ten Commandments (or the Ten “Words”) to Moses. (Cf Ex Chap. 20, 24).
c) Finally at the end of the Exodus, it is on Mount Nebo where Moses received the assurance of having reached the Promised Land and saw it. (cf Dt 39:49).
“I would like at least, please God, the Pope wrote, to visit Ur, the place of Abraham’s origins, and then go to the famous Monastery of Saint Catherine, on Sinai, near the mountain of the Covenant, which in a way speaks of the entire mystery of the Exodus, the enduring paradigm of the new Exodus which was to be fully accomplished on Golgotha.” (Letter 6).
The echo of his visit to Egypt and to the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Sinai (February 24-26) is still resounding in our spirits with exalting joy. It was a wonderful privilege for me to meet him in the Vatican, on Sunday February 27, the morning after his return and to see him extraordinarily radiant with spiritual light and satisfaction!
Third stage - Visit to the Holy Land (n. 7)
As we could understand it, the two first stages of the Pope’s visit would not fulfil the aim if he could not follow what he calls “the new Exodus which was to be fully accomplished on Golgotha” (n.6). His pilgrimage cannot end without reaching the Holy Land, the land of the Incarnation (in Nazareth) and the Nativity of Jesus Christ (in Bethlehem) and of the full accomplishment of the new Exodus on Golgotha (in Jerusalem).
On the other hand we all know the deep veneration and love that John Paul II holds for the Holy Land. In his Letter he quotes what he has already written in the Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee “Incarnationis mysterium” (n.2) of November 29, 1998, repeating what he already proclaimed in his Apostolic Letter “Tertio millennio adveniente” (n.55) of November 10, 1994:
“The Jubilee, celebrated at the same time in the Holy Land, in Rome and in all the local Churches throughout the world, will have, as it were, two centres: on the one hand, the City where Providence chose to place the See of the Successor of Peter, and on the other hand, the Holy Land, where the Son of God was born as a man, taking our flesh from a Virgin whose name was Mary.” (n.10)
At this point, I have just to quote the Pope’s own words talking about the Holy Places he intends to visit and their significance (in n. 7):
“These and other itineraries of the Old Testament are full of meaning for us, but clearly the Jubilee Year, the solemn commemoration of the Incarnation of the Word, draws us above all to the places where Jesus lived his life.
a) “First of all, I very much want to visit Nazareth, the town linked to the actual moment of the Incarnation and the place where Jesus grew ‘in wisdom, age and grace before God and men’ (cf Luke Chap. 1 and 2)...
b) “And how could I not then visit Bethlehem where Christ was born, and the shepherds and the wise men gave voice to the adoration of all humanity? At Bethlehem too there rang forth for the first time that greeting of peace which, spoken by the Angels, would continue to echo from generation to generation until our own day.
c) “Especially charged with meaning will be the visit to Jerusalem, the place of the death on the Cross and of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
“Certainly, there are many other places associated with the earthly life of the Saviour and so many of them deserve to be visited. How can we forget the Mount of Beatitudes, or the Mount of the Transfiguration, or Caesarea Philippi... In the Holy Land, from north to south, we may say that everything recalls Christ. But I will have to be satisfied with the more important places, and Jerusalem in a sense sums them all up. There, please God, I intend to immerse myself in prayer, bearing in my heart the whole Church...
“There my wish would be to cry out once more the great consoling certainty that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (Jn 3:16).” (n.7)
I will have to visit the Upper Room, where Jesus instituted the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Church’s life... The visit to the Upper Room is thus meant to be a return to the very origins of the Church.” (n.8)
Fourth stage – With the First Christian Community (n. 9)
As a completion and conclusion to this pilgrimage on the paths of God’s revelation, the Holy Father likes to pause in two cities linked to the story of Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles. The Holy Father writes:
a) “I am thinking first of all of Damascus, the place which recalls his conversion” (cf Acts chapter 9). This event marks actually the opening of the Church to the gentiles first and then to all peoples of the world. Then, he says:
b) “It would be nice to be able to visit Athens, where Paul gave his magnificent speech in the Areopagus (cf Acts 17:22-31) ... That speech of Paul’s can be considered the very symbol of the Gospel’s encounter with human culture.” (n. 9). Actually Greece played a very important “role in shaping the culture of the ancient world”.
Meeting with other Christian Churches (n. 11)
John Paul II asked all Catholic believers to prepare for the Great Jubilee “in an attitude of fraternal cooperation with Christians of other denominations and traditions, as well as of grateful openness to those religions whose representatives might wish to acknowledge the joy shared by all the disciples of Christ.” (TMA 55).
He himself is now able to undertake this unique pilgrimage to the Holy Land to visit the places linked to the life of our Lord Jesus Christ and to meet, as is obvious, “with special joy the Catholic communities” living around them. Yet he does not exclude anyone from his vision and gives the example of openness, cooperation and love he asks for. This is the spirit that inspires him on this journey.
“In this journey... great is my desire to be welcomed as a pilgrim and brother not only by the Catholic communities, whom I shall meet with special joy, but also by the other Churches which have lived uninterruptedly in the Holy Places and have been their custodians with fidelity and love of the Lord.
“More than any other pilgrimage which I have made, the one I am about to undertake in the Holy Land during the Jubilee event will be marked by the desire expressed in Christ’s prayer to the Father that his disciples ‘may all be one’ (Jn 17,21).” (Letter 11).
Inspired by such spirit, his program includes an ecumenical meeting at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate with the Heads of all Christian Churches in Jerusalem.
The Holy Father trusts that all Christians “will see, he says, in my pilgrim steps in the land travelled by Christ a “doxology” for the salvation which we have all received, and I would be happy if we could gather together in the places of our common origin, to bear witness to Christ our unity (cf Ut unum sint, 23) and to confirm our mutual commitment to the restoration of full communion.” (Letter 11).
Meet with Judaism and Islam (n. 10)
The Holy Father, John Paul II, speaking about the Jubilee, has always expressed clearly the importance and absolute necessity to stress relations and dialogue between the believers of the three monotheistic religions. Actually,- and this I heard in the Vatican at the end of last February,- he never forgets the sad experience when he saw his young polish friends, Jews and Christians, disappearing in the concentration camps. In the Apostolic Letter “Tertio millennio adveniente” of November 10, 1994, that deals with the preparation and celebration of the Great Jubilee, he affirms that “the eve of the year 2000 will provide a great opportunity, especially in view of the events of recent decades, for inter-religious dialogue, in accordance with the specific guidelines set down by the Second Vatican Council in its Declaration “Nostra Aetate” (October 28, 1965) on the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions” (cf TMA n. 53). He insists also on arranging joint historic meetings with both Jews and Muslims in significant places such as Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Mount Sinai. He remains consequent with his historic background and his continuous Christian teaching. Since on this land, we: Jews, Christian and Moslems, are summoned to share living side by side and to compete in love for the Holy City of God, the Holy Father is eager to meet with the representative authorities of these religions, looking for ways of cooperation and dialogue.
“While this focus on the Holy Land expresses the Christian duty to remember, it also seeks to honour the deep bond which Christians continue to have with the Jewish people from whom Christ came according to the flesh (cf Rom 9:5)... The Jubilee must be another opportunity to deepen the sense of the bonds that unite us, helping to remove once and for all the misunderstandings which, sad to say, have so often through the centuries marked with bitterness the relationship between Christians and Jews.” (Letter 10)
“Nor can we forget that the Holy Land is also dear to the followers of Islam, who look to it with special veneration”... “There may be a strengthening of the grounds for mutual understanding and esteem, as well as for cooperation in the effort to witness to the value of religious commitment and the longing for a society more attuned to God’s design, a society which respects every human being and all creation”. (Letter 10).
That is why he is planning to hold in Jerusalem an inter-religious meeting with both Jewish and Muslim religious Representatives.
Concluding his words about this pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the Pope says:
“I would be happy if this plan could be put into effect at least in its main points. It would be an exclusively religious pilgrimage in its nature and purpose, and I would be saddened if anyone were to attach other meanings to this plan of mine. Indeed, spiritually I am already on this journey, since even to go just in thought to those places means in a way to read anew the Gospel itself; it means to follow the roads which Revelation itself has taken.” (Letter 10).
Who could resist such pure, open and well-meaning intentions? Why not see in this papal pilgrimage, as it is actually meant to be, an invitation to all humanity and particularly to us here in this Holy Land,- so dear to us as well as to the many followers of our three monotheistic religions in the world,- an invitation to undertake such a journey of conversion, reconciliation, peace and love. Let us join the Pope in what he calls “that inward journey which seeks to move us away from whatever in us and around us, is contrary to God’s law...” (Letter 12). What better way to promote understanding, confidence and trust as to install peace and brotherhood for the utmost benefit of the inhabitants of this troubled Holy Land, and for all who long to come and meet God in His City, in Jerusalem! Our responsibility does not allow us to miss this wonderful opportunity! How can we know that it will come back again in a near future?
Jerusalem, March 13, 2000.
+ Kamal-Hanna Bathish
Vicar General of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem
N.B.: This text was presented at the Seminar: “The Holy See, Jerusalem
and the Holy Places” (March 13, 2000) held by the “Jerusalem Institute
for Israeli Studies” (JIIS) in Jerusalem, on March 13, 2000.