image of jerusalem 2013

The Pilgrim Pope Visits the Holy Land
Three weeks ago, I wrote an article in which I tabulated a wish-list of five items that I would like to see happen during the spiritual pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land...

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

... Today, with the world-wide leader of the Catholic Church halfway through his pilgrimage here, I would like to highlight four messages that embody the ministry of this Pope and which he brings with him to our biblical land.

However, before I propose those four messages, let me start off first by repeating that the mere presence of the Pope here in our midst is a clear affirmation that he carries the torch for a region that has witnessed the birth of Christianity and whose ancestors trace their roots to the Church of the First Pentecost. After all, it is in these hills, valleys and waters that Jesus undertook his ministry, and it is to this land that the Christian world often looks for its spiritual enlightenment. He brings with him a reminder and a consolidation of the presence, life and witness of all the local Christians in this land - Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant - for the last two millennia.

First, and before all else, I believe that the Holy Land welcomes in its midst a man of peace. Indeed, the whole pontificacy of this Pope has been dedicated to the pursuit and promotion of peace across the world. Be it in the Middle East or elsewhere in our ever-shrinking global village, Pope John Paul II has pursued his visionary quest for peace with true prayer and relentless determination. He challenges us all to use our inner spiritual and human resources to choose the path of peace - incidentally, something, which is much harder than making war. And where else to start but in this land where we ‘talk’ the irenic languages of peace and reconciliation but still ‘act’ with the vengeful languages of war and hatred!

With peace, the Pope has also underscored the need for unity within the whole Church of Christ. In his travels abroad - in Europe, the United States, Africa, South America or the Middle and Far East - the messages of unity, fellowship and ecumenism have been his unwavering lodestars. He has combined those messages of peace and unity to translate the very words articulated in St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians to “do your best to preserve the unity which the Spirit gives by means of the peace that binds you together” (Eph 4:3). In a sense, I believe he finds encouragement in a passage from the Gospel of St Luke where Jesus tells Peter, “But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith will not fail. And when you turn back to me, you must strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32 [b]). I hope his time here will enhance the sense of drawing together of all the Churches of the Holy Land so that Christians can become more faithful and coherent in their communal lives.

Christians also applaud today the faith-centred and heart-warming solidarity of this papacy with the poor of our world. Be it in his native Poland, at Yad Vashem, at Dheisheh camp or elsewhere, he has consistently shown through word and deed that he stands with those who have been disempowered or marginalised - the refugees, the poor, the oppressed and the down-trodden. They too are the children of God, and certainly remain worthy of the Kingdom of heaven. The Bible, after all, should not only be read literally as a compilation of Jesus’ teachings and statements, but also be viewed as a social manifesto challenging injustice, inequality, discrimination, subjugation and domination. In the passage on the Final Judgement in the Gospel of St Matthew, Jesus taught his disciples, “I tell you, whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me.”? (Mt 25:45).

Finally, the Pope has stressed tirelessly over the years that inter-religious dialogue should exist side by side with intra-christian unity. In our part of the world, where Christianity, Islam and Judaism are integral parts of the fabric of society, this need is not a simple commodity. It is a living and witnessing reality. In his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the Pope expressed the spirit of the post-conciliar years and asked for Christians to rebuild their spiritual unity in an atmosphere of full respect for other religions. Only a few weeks ago, as he visited St Catherine’s monastery at Jabal Mousa in Sinai, the Pope called again upon Christians and Muslims to join together in “the building of society and consolidating peace between communities, and in managing the common good in an honest way”. During the prayer service later, he invited Jews, Muslims and Christians to enter into dialogue together in their service of humanity. He stressed his belief that in God they could find “their point of encounter”.

We in the Holy Land - Christians, Muslims and Jews alike - ought to learn how to join hands with him in this inexorable task as we too look up to the spiritual forces that undergird mutual respect, peace and understanding. Do we not share also his belief that the future of humanity is bound up with the reconciliatory efforts of the ecumenical movement as much as those of inter-religious dialogue do? Today, at the cusp of a new millennium, the narrow and self-isolating concepts of insular religions or nation states can only lead to chauvinism, jingoism and possibly even war. If we Christians are tempted to disregard - or are perhaps coerced by sheer circumstance to disregard - the need for maintaining contact with Islam and Judaism as equal partners, I fear that relations between the different communities here will fester further and spiral into renewed tension, violence and bloodshed. We do not need to look too far to see this phenomenon already rearing its ugly head! As we Christians walk through a ‘cloud of unknowing’, we should also remember the declaration of the Second Vatican Council stating that the Catholic Church “rejects nothing which is true and holy in the great religions of the world”. Nonetheless, it is implicit that this openness would only prevail if we have corresponding partners in Islam and Judaism who are equally open to this dialectal trek and who are not taken up by polemical and rhetorical needs or hidden agendas.

As a Christian Armenian from Jerusalem, and as someone who advocates true tolerance and conviviality, I add my voice too countless others in welcoming the Pope to this land. Much as I hope that he will find reward and fulfilment in his own spiritual pilgrimage, I also believe that his ministry here will find its ferment and encouragement in the Sermon on the Mount as expressed in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Mt 5: 1-12 and Lk 6:20-23). It is with this set of biblical challenges of a faith steeped in humility that I join HB Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries and all Christians who profess an attachment to their faith, in embracing this spiritual pilgrim and in echoing a collective Ahlan wa Sahlan from our land of oriental warmth, tradition and hospitality.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2000   |   March


Print or download a copy of this article.


Google: Yahoo: MSN: