Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming pilgrimage to the Holy Land promises to be the pontiff’s most important, challenging and historic overseas visit to date.
The Pope, 82, will be visiting Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories May 8-15. There he will meet political and religious leaders across the region and visit some of the most significant historical and holy sites in Christianity.
Benedict XVI has made known he will be traveling as a “pilgrim of peace”, and has urged particular prayers for the Palestinians, whom he said have endured “great hardship and suffering.” Church officials are stressing the visit is of a spiritual rather than political nature, although they recognize a political dimension is inevitable.
It comes at a particularly precarious time for the region, following Israel's assault on Gaza at the end of last year, internal disagreements between the Palestinian faction Hamas and Fatah, Hamas’s continued aggression against Israel, and the recent election of a hawkish Israeli government under the leadership of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The Likud party leader is currently reviewing Israel’s policy on peace talks and has so far not publicly endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state. Meanwhile, the precise approach of the Obama administration towards the peace process remains unclear.
Speaking to journalists on May 4, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that in such a complex situation, “the Pope's trip presents itself as an act of hope and of trust that he can make a contribution to peace and reconciliation.” The Pope’s visit, he added, “seems to me to be a decidedly courageous act.”
Father David Jaeger, an Israeli priest and a Vatican consulter, told Newsmax that many people in the region “have despaired altogether of even speaking of peace”. So for the Pope to visit now “as a witness to peace, to say peace is possible, necessary, and that we can never despair of achieving peace and reconciliation in any kind of human situation – that should be of tremendous importance,” he said.
As well as urging a re-start of the peace process, the Pope also has three other goals: to bolster Christian communities in the Holy Land facing many hardships and emigrating in large numbers, to build on recent progress in the Church’s relations with Islam, and to help put Catholic-Jewish relations back on track after a series of controversies. “This will act as deepening of Jewish-Catholic relations, and a confirmation of the engagement of the Catholic Church with the Jewish people,” Fr. Norbert Hofmann, the Vatican’s point man for dialogue between Catholics and Jews, told Newsmax.
These most damaging controversies have been the beatification process of Pius XII, whom some Jewish groups continue to argue did too little to save Jews during World War Two, and the lifting of the excommunication of Richard Williamson, an anti-Semitic breakaway bishop whose Holocaust denials were unknown to the Pope. “These were stumbling blocks for our dialogue,” admitted Fr. Hofmann, “but we can overcome these problems.”
In view of what many consider to be missteps in Vatican communications, and the great sensitivities in the region, much care is also being taken in drafting the Pope’s messages and homilies. But already, political factions threaten to undermine the visit and manipulate it to their own advantage.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan have demanded a public apology from the Pope for his 2006 Regensburg speech which sparked anger in the Muslim world. Meanwhile, Israelis and Palestinians are squabbling over how to use to their advantage the Pope’s scheduled visit on May 13 to the al-Aida refugee camp, home to 5,000 Palestinians, near Bethlehem.
In addition, some Palestinian Catholics have already voiced their dissatisfaction that the Pope will not be visiting Gaza, a possibility ruled out on security grounds (as a compromise, the Vatican will be bussing Gaza Christians to Bethlehem to see the Pope).
Concerns for the Pope’s safety during the visit also loom large, especially as his trip to Nazareth on May 14 coincides with the anniversary of the declaration of the State of Israel and his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Pilgrimage Begins in Jordan
The Pope’s Holy Land pilgrimage will begin May 8 in Amman, Jordan, where the focus will mainly be on building dialogue and better relations with the Muslim world. Benedict XVI will meet King Abdullah II of Jordan who, together with his cousin Prince Ghazi Bin Mohammed, is lauded by the Vatican for his efforts to try to foster peace through interreligious dialogue.
The Pope will also meet with Muslim religious leaders, visit a mosque, and call in on a special needs facility that is the fruit of Christian-Muslim dialogue and collaboration. While in Jordan, he will travel to Mt. Nebo, where Moses saw the Promised Land and is believed to have been buried, before visiting the River Jordan, the site where Jesus was baptized.
On May 11, he flies to Israel where he will visit Jerusalem, and meet figures involved in interreligious dialogue. But the main focus that day will be his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial where he is likely to condemn racism and anti-Semitism, the latter of which is said to be on the rise in Europe. As with his visit to the Auschwitz extermination camp in 2006, the Pope’s German nationality will add extra poignancy to the event.
The following day, the Pope will have separate meetings with Jerusalem’s two chief rabbis and the city’s grand mufti. He will then visit sites sacred to Islam, Judaism and Christianity, beginning with the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam's holiest shrines, before moving on to the Western Wall which is sacred to Jews. The two sites have been flashpoints for Israeli-Palestinian clashes in the past.
On May 13, he will spend the day in Bethlehem, Jesus’s birthplace, which today is also the Palestinian Authority’s administrative center. The following day he will move on to Nazareth before flying back to Rome on May 15. The pilgrimage will be interspersed with meetings and liturgical ceremonies with local bishops and the local Catholic laity. In total, the Pope will celebrate four large Masses: in Amman, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.
Only two other popes have visited the Holy Land in modern times: Paul VI in 1964, and John Paul II in 2000. Both were viewed as a success, and so naturally many commentators are already speculating whether this one will be able to match them. But such an assessment would be false, Fr. Jaeger believes.
“We are not right if we try to reduce the significance of the papal pilgrimage to familiar political categories or questions of image,” he said, adding that, at least from a Catholic point of view, the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land is, above all, a witness to where God became man and walked the earth.
“Whenever this witness is given, especially by the visible head of the Church in the Holy Land, it has a unique value,” he said. “So in that sense, it is always successful.”
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