image of jerusalem 2013

A Spiritual Pilgrimage: The Pope Visits Jordan, Israel & Palestine
Ever since I returned to Jerusalem from Europe some three years ago, I had been hearing constantly about a ‘possible’ visit by His Holiness Pope John-Paul II to Jordan, Israel and Palestine - or what is known collectively these days as the Holy Land!...

March   |   2000   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... Many people were wondering whether this visit would indeed take place during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. Will his frail health allow it, they asked? And equally importantly, will the political and religious tensions assist such a visit to take place? After all, its symbolism was evident as the first pontifical visit to this biblical land since Pope Paul VI came to Jordan in 1964 and met with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras at the Mount of Olives. Besides, the Pope is not any ordinary priest since he inherits the mantle of his moral authority directly from St Peter. In the Gospel according to St Matthew, Jesus says, “Peter, I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. What you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven, and what you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven” (Mt 16:19).

So, it was with a sense of joy that I learnt late last year that the Vatican had confirmed the spiritual pilgrimage of the Holy Father. We were told that he will be in Jordan, Israel and Palestine for eight days during the latter half of March 2000, visiting key sites of pilgrimage at Mount Nebo, on the river Jordan, at Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth and many other parts of the Galilee. He will also say public mass in Amman, at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth and at the Mount of Beatitudes in a special mass for youth. After all, this old man retains his charismatic traits and is known to communicate eloquently with young people - as was evidenced in Paris, Beirut and elsewhere in past years.

But what is the true significance of a visit that the Vatican has insisted will be solely a ‘spiritual pilgrimage’ devoid of any political trappings? I believe many reasons explain this outpouring of joy, expectation or excitement. After all, this visit takes place during a Jubilee year of grace, joy, action and repentance. It will affirm in no uncertain terms the life, presence and witness of local Christians in the Holy Land - all those Christians who were born here and trace their ancestry to this biblical land. However, instead of coming up with a number of abstract interpretations that will surely prove inadequate, let me write down five points I would wish to see come out of this peerless pilgrimage.

First, this visit should encourage Christians, as much as followers of the two other monotheistic religions of Judaism and Islam, to turn anew toward the Father. At a time of spiritual and religious decline, where the land of the First Faithful often seems parched and desiccated of any true sense of godliness, this pilgrimage should help encourage people to take their faith more responsibly.

Second, the unity between the various churches should be strengthened so that their diversity will enrich them and not lead them toward further fragmentation. As Jesus himself prays to the Father in the Gospel according to St John, “I pray that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21). It is high time that we overstep our man-made hang-ups and human dissension, seeking instead fellowship and forgiveness in our relations with each other. Ought we not realise at long last that forgiveness is the true foundation for peace? Through forgiveness, we are liberated, become stronger and re-discover the Christian sense of joy. In short, we reclaim hope through obedience to the Father.

Third, this visit should renew and nourish the faith of all Christians through the word of God. Faith is not antithetical to science or modernity, nor is it a weakness. True faith is salvific and invigorating. Intangible though it might seem at times, it opens a window to inner serenity and joy.

Fourth, this visit should remind us of the three ‘theological’ (in the sense of God-centred) virtues of faith, hope and charity. It is through the love of God as well as the neighbour, made manifest in the Eucharist, that people become true and faithful witnesses.

And finally, the spiritual pilgrimage of the Pope to the Holy Land should also underscore the all-abounding mercy of God that comes from His boundless love to all His children - irrespective of their creed, race, gender, colour or orientation.

These are the five ecumenical wishes - or refreshers - I offer today. It is my hope that this pilgrimage will renew the whole Church of Christ and help cement further the relations between its thirteen traditional churches. I pray that we can all be faithful to the grace of the Holy Spirit, and that we can cast aside - for one measly week - our human foibles, self-promoting designs and human rivalries. Let us render our minds alert and our hearts vulnerable to the uplifting message this man will bring with him. After all, it is the message, more than the messenger, that we are welcoming in our midst.

I will conclude with a quotation from the First Letter from Peter written by the apostle to encourage Christians in times of trouble and urge them to live as people who belong to Christ. “All mankind are like grass, and all their glory is like wild flowers. The grass withers, and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 P 24-25). Can we Christians of the Holy Land - whether we live in Karak, Jifneh, Ibillin or Jerusalem join hands with HB Patriarch Michel Sabbah and the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries to give a truly faithful welcome to this man of faith?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2000   |   March


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