Papal Visits to the Holy Land
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By Judith Sudilovsky
The message of peace and reconciliation Pope Benedict XVI will bring with him on his May pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a harbinger of hope for Palestinians and Israelis of all religions in trying times. There are high expectations for the visit including a renewal of the peace talks, an economic boost to the area with the anticipated influx of pilgrims, and a spiritual re-strengthening of the local faithful.
The biblical Holy Land—which encompasses what is today the Palestinian Territories, Israel and part of Jordan—holds deep religious significance for Christians, Muslims and Jews. Some of the holy cites such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron are venerated by all three faiths. For Christians, Jerusalem is the site of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. For Muslims it is considered the third holiest city after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia since it is believed to be the site where the Prophet Mohammed ascended into the heavens. Jews consider Jerusalem sacred as their biblical capital and the location of their temple.
Despite the historic and religious significance of the area for Christianity, the Christian population there is rather small. Estimates vary as to the numbers of Christians living in the Holy Land today but most statistics indicate there are about 90,000 Christians in the Palestinian Territories including Gaza and the West Bank, and some 190,000 in Israel. Christians make up about two percent of the population in both areas. In Jordan estimates of the Christian population vary more widely, ranging from three to seven percent of the population which would constitute some 400,000 Christians living in Jordan.
The gold-covered Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount complex is seen in this overview of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives April 6. Pope Benedict XVI will visit the Dome of the Rock during his May 8-15 visit to the Holy Land. The Islamic shrine holds significance to Muslims, Jews and Christians.
(CNS photo/Debbie Hill)
Though most of the Christians in Israel are Arab, many Christians have arrived from the former Soviet Union with their Jewish spouses during a wave of immigration in the 1990's, creating a new sort of non-Arab Christian community in Israel.
The Pope’s Purpose:
While Pope Benedict's May 8-15 pilgrimage will combine both spiritual and secular aspects, the pilgrimage's focus is mainly a pastoral one, said the Vatican representative to the Holy Land. "(The pope's intention) is to express his solidarity and closeness to the people of Israel and of Palestine and through them to all the peoples of this region," said Papal Nuncio Archbishop Antonio Franco at a March 10 news conference announcing the pope's pilgrimage.
"There will be no discussions on one topic or another. There will be courtesy visits and courtesy discussions. (Perhaps) the Holy Father will say some words which can have political implications but the visit is not political. The visit is religious," he emphasized.
Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Yigal Palmor said the mere fact of the pope's presence in the Holy Land is significant. "His message of peace and outreach is not only to the Christians here but a message to members of all faiths," said Palmor.
The pope's pilgrimage comes towards the end of the Jubilee Year of St. Paul declared by the pope in June 2008 to celebrate the 2000th year of the Evangelist's birth. For the most part, the pontiff will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor Pope John Paul II's first papal visit to the Holy Land. Pope Benedict XVI's itinerary will include visits to holy sites as well as meetings with religious and state leaders in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Pope Paul VI was the first pope to visit the Holy Land in 1964, but his was only a brief 11-hour visit at a time when the Vatican had no official relations with either the Israelis or the Palestinians.
Pilgrims process around what is believed to be the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, April 4. The tomb is generally accepted as the place where Jesus was placed after his crucifixion
(CNS photo from Reuters)
(Vertical April 5, 1999)
"Each visit reflects a different stage in the historical process," said Rabbi David Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee's Department for Interreligious Affairs. "Pope Benedict comes at a time where we have been (the) beneficiaries of John Paul II's papacy and when (Catholic-Jewish) relations have never been closer..."
Though no one expects any specific statements from the pope, his presence will affirm the deep bond between the Church and Jewish people and his "deep desire for peace in the Holy Land," said Rabbi Rosen.
Catholic Palestinian parliamentarian Bernard Sabella said Palestinians were eager to welcome the pope but there was a desire that the pope would "touch the pain of Palestinian Christians and Muslims."
First and foremost, however, said Tantur Ecumenical Institute rector Father Michael McGarry, C.S.P., is to remember that the pope is coming to the Holy Land on a personal pilgrimage, despite any attempts by the media to put a different spin on the visit. "We should allow the person who is making the pilgrimage to define it," said Father McGarry.
The Pope’s Pilgrimage:
On the first leg of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land the pope will visit Mt. Nebo, one of the most important Christian sites in Jordan and a traditional site for Christian pilgrimage. From there, according to the Old Testament, Moses was permitted only to view the Promised Land. According to Jewish and Christian tradition this is also Moses' burial site, although the actual location of his grave is unknown.
Remains of a Byzantine church and monastery were uncovered here in 1933 by the Franciscan fathers who own the site and on his pilgrimage in 2000, Pope John Paul II planted an olive tree next to the chapel as a symbol of peace.
While in Jordan, the pope will visit a baptismal site recently restored on the banks of the Jordan River. Numerous Byzantine and Roman-era archaeological finds have been uncovered there including baptismal pools, churches and monasteries. Almost within arm's reach across the river, is an Israeli baptismal site which is also undergoing a facelift in anticipation of the pope's visit. Both claim to be the site of the New Testament Bethany, where John the Baptist is believed to have baptized Jesus. The pope will bless two new churches at the Jordanian baptismal site, one Roman Catholic and the other Melkite.
Arriving in Jerusalem on May 10, the pope will have the opportunity for a private moment of prayer at the Cenacle in the Old City which is venerated by both Jews and Christians. Jews believe the ground floor of the structure marks the site of King David's tomb while Christian tradition holds that the second floor is the site of the upper room, where Jesus held the Last Supper with his disciples and introduced the Eucharist. It is also the site where Christians believe the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples on Pentecost.
An Orthodox priest passes between huge marble columns and shafts of bright light in the nave of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. he church is raditionally recognizedas the site of Jesus' birth.
(CNS photo from Reuters)(Dec. 21, 1999)
The pope will have another private visit at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem towards the end of his pilgrimage. Believed by Christians to be the site of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, the original church was built in the fourth century by Roman Emperor Constantine. Having undergone many transformations since then, the cavernous church today is shared by the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church represented by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, the Armenian Church, the Coptic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
The pope will also pay respects to two religious sites of Muslim and Jewish importance in Jerusalem.
At the Dome of the Rock he will be accompanied by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. While for Muslims this is the spot where the ascension of the Prophet Mohammed took place, for Jews this is the site of their temple. According to Dominican Father Jerome Murphy O'Connor, professor of the New Testament at the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem, the rock now enshrined inside the Dome of the Rock is likely to have been the foundation of either the Herodian temple's Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the temple building, or the altar of sacrifice.
Pope Benedict XVI will also visit the nearby Western Wall, the only intact remnant of the Jewish Temple Mount, which today stands below the Haram el-Sharif esplanade of Dome of the Rock. This was once the retaining wall of the Jewish Temple Mount and is today considered Judaism's holiest site.
While in Israel, the pope will hold his main public mass on Mount Precipice, just outside of Nazareth--Israel's largest Arab city and the place where Jesus spent the majority of his life. According to Scripture an angry mob attempted to throw him off the cliff (Luke 4:16-30) at Mount Precipice.
The pope will also hold a large public mass in Bethlehem in Nativity Square, just outside the fourth century Church of the Nativity which Christian tradition holds marks the birthplace of Jesus. The same Christian denominations with traditional rights in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher administer the Church of the Nativity. Here too, the Roman Catholic Church is represented by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land which maintains the separate adjacent chapel of St. Catherine, where Midnight Mass is broadcast around the world on Christmas Eve.
With the papal visit to the Holy Land encompassing all the inhabitants of the land, Maronite Archbishop Paul Nabil Sayah of Haifa said at the March press conference, Pope Benedict XVI wants to nevertheless send the message that the "Christian presence in this part of the world and the Holy Land in particular is of vital importance to the Holy Father as a witness" to the universal church.