Papal visit to the Holy Land: “Not a traditional pilgrimage”
Montreal, Friday March 28, 2014 – In view of the publication by the Vatican on Thursday of the program for the Papal visit to the Middle East, the Apostolic Nuncio in Israel and Delegate in the Palestinian territories, Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, stressed in Jerusalem that the visit was not a conventional pilgrimage as conducted by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The journey, scheduled for 24 to 26 May would be very short and it was therefore not possible to fulfil the many expectations held, the Nuncio explained.
Rather, central to Pope Francis’ journey is the memory of a meeting fifty years ago between Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I, the Nuncio went on to say when he met the international Catholic pastoral charity “Aid to the Church in Need”. “That is the principal purpose of the Holy Father’s visit,” the Papal Envoy stressed.
First to Amman, then to Bethlehem
The Holy Father will begin his visit in Amman in the Kingdom of Jordan, the Nuncio said. After a courtesy visit to King Abdullah II, he will celebrate Holy Mass in the Amman stadium in the afternoon. For security reasons not more than 20,000 people will be able to take part. Then the Pope will go to the place on the Jordanian side of the River Jordan where Our Lord was baptized, the Nuncio continued, and there he is to meet Syrian and Iraqi refugees, as well as sick and disabled persons. One is talking here of about 400 selected individuals. The Nuncio said that the Pope would spend the night in the Apostolic Nunciature in Amman.
On the morning of May 25, the Holy Father is to then fly in a Jordanian helicopter directly to Bethlehem. In Bethlehem he is to be received by the Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in the presidential palace. The Pope will travel in an open car from there to Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity, where he is to then celebrate Holy Mass. The Nuncio went on to say: “This is the only opportunity for people to see the Pope close-up. In Jerusalem this will not be possible.
“But even here he will not use an armoured vehicle. The Holy Father rejects this as a matter of principle because in his view it indicates fear and sends people the wrong message.” Unfortunately only about 10,000 people will be able to take part in the Holy Mass since Manger Square cannot accommodate more, Lazzarotto explained.
This Mass will also serve as the central ceremony for all Catholics in the Holy Land, both those from Palestine and those from Israel. “Unlike his predecessors, Pope Francis will not travel to Nazareth and will also not conduct any divine services in public in Jerusalem. We will therefore have to concentrate pastorally on this Mass as best we can. But we must respect the fact that this time the prime consideration will be the meeting with the Patriarch Bartholomew.” After celebration of Holy Mass it is planned that the Pope has lunch with a number of Palestinian families in a house belonging to the Franciscans.
Welcome of the president, meeting with the Patriarch
Following a time of private prayer in the Church of the Nativity and an encounter with Palestinian refugee children, the Nuncio continued, the Pope will then fly in a Jordanian helicopter to Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, where he will be officially welcomed by Israel’s President Shimon Peres.
From there the Pope will be flown in an Israeli helicopter to Jerusalem. After his arrival the Pope will initially go to the Apostolic Delegation, where he will meet Patriarch Bartholomew to sign a joint declaration. In the meantime his entourage will enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “Thereafter the Pope will meet the Patriarch again at the entrance of the Holy Sepulchre. Symbolically both are coming from different directions in order to jointly enter the church and visit the site of the crucifixion on Calvary as well as Christ’s grave,” stated the nuncio. There, prayers are to be said and speeches will be held. When asked whether he expected concrete gestures on the part of the two church leaders, the nuncio said that this should be left to the Pope and the Patriarch to express their aspirations in this holy place.
“We must allow the Holy Spirit to do His work. I am sure that the ecumenical meeting will bear rich fruit as did that between Paul VI and Athenagoras. This will give fresh impetus to the unity of Christians, not least with a view to the pan-orthodox synod scheduled for 2016. Both will ensure that this event is not an isolated one,” the Nuncio said.
From the Temple Mount Jerusalem to the Cenacle
He went on to explain that the first day in Israel would be concluded by dinner for the ecumenical delegations in the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem’s old city. The pope would then spend the night in the Apostolic Delegacy in East Jerusalem.
According to the Nuncio Monday is to begin with a visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where it is planned that the Pope will meet the Mufti of this Islamic shrine. Then the Pope is to proceed to the Wailing Wall. Pope Francis will follow the obligatory program intended for state guests to Israel. This includes a visit to the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial. “For two years now the protocol of the State of Israel has also provided for a visit to Mount Herzl, where the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, is buried. The Pope will therefore also go there,” stated the nuncio.
After meetings with the Chief Rabbis, the President and the Prime Minister the Pope will meet privately with the Ecumenical Patriarch on the Mount of Olives. It is planned that the Holy Father then meets with members of religious orders and priests in the Basilica of Gethsemane. After that, the Nuncio continued, the Pope will celebrate a private Mass with the Bishops of the Holy Land in the Room of the Last Supper, the Cenacle. “In 2009 Pope Benedict XVI was only able to recite an Angelus here,” the Nuncio added. This will conclude the Pope’s Middle East visit and he will fly back to Rome that night.
No future for Christians without peace
Meanwhile Nuncio Lazzarotto warned against having excessively high expectations in connection with the visit. “It is a mistake to assume that the Pope will be able to solve all the problems of the region simply by coming here. But his visit is a prophetic sign, and it will certainly release fresh energy in the people here and give them new hope.”
The Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Israel, Auxiliary Bishop Giacinto Boulos Marcuzzo, expressed a similar view. He told “Aid to the Church in Need” in Nazareth that the Pope would certainly address the topics of peace, reconciliation and justice. “The future of the whole region is based on this. Without peace there can be no future for us Christians,” Marcuzzo stressed. He continued that Pope Francis will certainly also mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as had Benedict XVI. “The position of the Holy See on this question is clear. We do not get involved in politics. The parties to the conflict must come to an agreement. But the Church stresses justice and human rights.” According to Marcuzzo the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the mother of all conflicts in the region.
The Bishop criticized the fact that under the new Israeli protocol the Pope will have to visit Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. “The visit to the grave of the founder of Zionism could project a bad image to the Arab world.” In any case, Marcuzzo views Israel’s perception of itself as a Jewish state critically. “This automatically makes Christians and Muslims second-class citizens.”
Israel is also sending contradictory signals, he added. On the one hand it is conducting a dialogue with non-Jews, and on the other there is a lot of discrimination. It has to be said, however, that Pope Francis is regarded very positively in Israel. “The Pope is being accompanied by a Rabbi and an Imam,” Marcuzzo continued, “and that is a good sign.”