image of jerusalem 2013

The Jubilee Pilgrim Comes Home! - HH Pope John Paul II Prays in the Holy Land
The unforgettable experience of praying and celebrating the sacred liturgy in places so intimately connected with the life, ministry, death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ will remain forever etched in my mind and heart, and will continue to be for me a source of spiritual strength and nourishment. It is my fervent hope that the meetings which took place with various religious leaders will increase the commitment to greater understanding and co-operation among the three religious traditions present in the Holy Land. + Ioannes Paulus PP. II, Vatican, 27 March 2000

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

It finally happened! After long years of expressing a fervent wish to visit the Holy Land, and after short months of feverish preparations to welcome him, Pope John Paul II concluded in March 2000 his week-long spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Having returned to the Vatican, the spiritual leader of over one billion Catholics world-wide sent a message of encouragement and hope to HB Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah and the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land. The message expressed in no uncertain terms his joy at having undertaken this trip during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.

However, this pontifical visit did not end the minute his plane took off! Rather, its global resonance - already audible during his time here - will continue to echo for many weeks, months and even years to come. So, what lessons can the ‘two peoples and three faiths’ of this biblical land possibly glean from this historic visit? Did this charismatic but frail leader manage to communicate to Palestinians and Israelis - Christians, Jews and Muslims alike - his four messages of church unity, inter-religious dialogue, peace as well as solidarity with the poor? How did this devout Pope of the Cross, almost always leaning on his staff in prayerful meditation, square with the challenges that were awaiting him here and which had prevented him from travelling to the Holy Land as far back as 1978?

Let me start off by underlining one obvious fact! The mere presence of the Pope here in our midst was by itself alone a clear affirmation that he carries the torch for the people of a region that has witnessed the birth of Christianity and whose ancestors trace their origin 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 roots. The Pope brought with him a public endorsement of the local Christian persona, and a strong consolidation of the presence, life and witness of all Christians here - Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant - for the last two millennia.

Despite the draconian security measures, as well as the genuine frustration felt by numerous local Christians who did not manage to see him, the very presence of this man of faith on our land and in our home should encourage us all 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 sense of true godliness, this pilgrimage should help us take our faith more responsibly, and to renew and nourish it through the word of God. It should remind us afresh of the three theological or God-centred virtues of faith, hope and charity. After all, is it not through the love of God as well as of the neighbour, made manifest in the Eucharist, that people become true and faithful witnesses?

However, this pilgrimage went beyond personal expectations. It intersected heavily with ecumenism and church unity. The Pope stressed time and again the need to work much harder toward a drawing together of the churches that cherishes the diversities of their different traditions. And his clarion call was met with attentive ears! His pontifical masses at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Mount of Beatitudes, the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth and the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, were attended by the leaders of the Orthodox and mainline Protestant Churches. Even more striking was the Ecumenical Gathering when the Pope himself visited Patriarch Diodoros I at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem. This gesture spoke volumes about the long way a great many churches have tottered toward unity in the last decade - let alone since the major schisms across history that followed the different Church Councils. At one moment during this ecumenical gathering, and having ostensibly been moved by the words of the Pope, Patriarch Diodoros I added an extemporaneous message in which he prayed that “the Lord will hear your prayers and our prayers and restore His peace to this land of peace.” With the Christian grass roots clamouring for closer fellowship, this encounter was perhaps another major step along the arduous way toward a re-discovery of the oneness of Christ.

And with ecumenical unity came inter-religious dialogue. Over the years, the Pope has tirelessly voiced his conviction that inter-religious dialogue should exist side by side with intra-Christian unity. In our land, Christianity, Islam and Judaism are integral components of the fabric of society. In the words of Pope Paul VI, this is “the earthly point where God came into contact with humankind, and where eternity crossed history.” As such, the urgency of dialogue here is not a simple commodity but a living and witnessing necessity! During many previous trips abroad, the Pope has expressed the spirit of post-conciliar years and asked for Christians to rebuild their spirituality in an atmosphere of full respect for other religions. Only a few weeks ago, when visiting St Catherine’s monastery at Jabal Mousa in Sinai, he 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’.

And it is in this context that we should understand the Pope’s inter-religious encounters. I am fully aware that some of those encounters were viewed with ambivalence and drew mixed reactions. For instance, many commentators and writers referred to the major inter-religious event at the Notre Dame Centre in Jerusalem when Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and Sheikh Judge Taysir Tamimi shifted in their own ways the direction of the gathering from spiritual to temporal by addressing their political claims and grievances. However, and although this exchange introduced a dissonant note into the gathering, its blunt frankness as much as the faith-centred response of the Pope himself, manifested to all and sundry the fragility of inter-faith dialogue in this biblical land. It put paid to the facile belief that all is well amongst the sons and daughters of Abraham. In a land where religion and politics are inextricably intertwined, it underscored the enormous work that needs to be done at all levels of society if inter-religious dialogue were ever to become a fruitful labour of love and understanding.

Furthermore, I also hope that the inter-religious dimension of the papal visit will not be viewed as one that contrasts (or, worse, pits) the relationship of Christianity with Judaism versus Islam. After all, the Pope’s openness and empathy had a profound effect on Muslims and Jews alike. However, we must accede to reality! On this crowning journey of his pontificate, John Paul II wanted to erase once and for all the Christian libel against the Jews who were destined, according to St Augustine, to suffer for their deicide by wandering the world and witnessing the triumph of Christianity. This Pope, who has always condemned anti-Semitism, is determined that the Jews should be recognised and respected as a venerable religion and race. I accept his stance since I do not think that it is antithetical either to Christianity or Islam. It is focusing on an issue of faith. It is neither pre-judging politics nor defining nationalism. By the same token, I also welcome the forgiveness he sought for all those erring actions undertaken by members of the Catholic Church over two thousand years. The apology of the Pope for acts of violence and oppression during the Holocaust, as well as the methods of coercion employed during the Inquisition as much as for the Crusades, will certainly help eradicate some of the scars of past wounds. It will also contribute to the promotion of a peace culture based in part on the courage to utilise the lessons of the past for building a more peaceful future. The Israeli journalist Gideon Levy picked up this thread in Ha’aretz on 26 March 2000, when he wrote that the Palestinian people also deserve now some recognition by Israel of the wrongs that were inflicted upon them. He pointed out that such recognition should be followed by an admission of responsibility and a request for forgiveness.

Perhaps one reason why some people observed wryly that the encounters the Pope held with Jewish leaders garnered a higher public profile was simply due to the lack of a clearly-defined agenda that bound local Muslims to this particular visit. I cannot help but remember the PASSIA forum that discussed the visit of the Pope a few days prior to his arrival here. Dr Adnan Husseini, Director of Islamic Wakf, and HE Archbishop Pietro Sambi, Apostolic Delegate, had been invited to discuss this pilgrimage. It became clear to me quite rapidly that there was an absence of any specific faith-bound item on the agenda save the traditional courtesy, hospitality and warmth of the Palestinian host to a distinguished guest. I hope that this void will be addressed in the future - not only to strengthen further the relations between Christian and Muslim Palestinians who live back-to-back in this land, but also to avoid any negative or irresponsible interpretations of the role of the Pope or the Catholic Church world-wide. I simply do not wish to see this visit misconstrued, nor do I want to hear different media outlets distorting it to suit their own pre-conceived programmes.

Finally, the Pope also carried with him his message for peace and re-affirmed the long-held position of the Vatican about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the territorial status of Jerusalem. Not once did he lapse into issues of sovereignty over Jerusalem. Yet, he made it abundantly clear on a number of occasions that he exhorts both sides to seek a peace that is based on justice, dignity and security, taking into consideration the political pain of the Palestinian people across the decades.

This proactive attitude of the pontiff echoed strongly as he stood up for the rights of the Palestinian refugees at the Dheishe camp, telling them quite explicitly that he understood their frustration and shared their pain of displacement let alone their need for a homeland. Had his address been translated into Arabic, I am quite confident that the refugees would have applauded with appreciation and gratitude. After all, did this man not say that “throughout my pontificate, I have felt close to the Palestinian people in their sufferings”? Did he not speak of “the sad memory of what you were forced to leave behind”, of the “degrading conditions in which refugees often have to live”, and of the “urgent need for a just solution to the underlying causes of the problem”?

I believe that the pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to his spiritual home set in motion a movement and possibly even a momentum. For a Pope who carries enormous moral authority, to articulate the concerns of both Palestinian and Israeli communities is an achievement in its own right. To stretch a fraternal hand to the followers of Christianity, Judaism and Islam is a profession of love. This man of profound and abiding faith, of robust and contagious devoutness, who slowly climbed up all the stairs leading to the Calvary and who hobbled almost mystically through a trying spiritual week, is one of the very few religious leaders world-wide who gets my unqualified vote.

In the final analysis, and when all is said and done, the papal visit reminds me of the parable of the sower. “Once there was a man who went out to sow grain. As he scattered the seed in the field, some of it fell along the path, where it was stepped on, and the birds ate it up. Some of it fell on rocky ground, and when the plants sprouted, they dried up because the soil had no moisture. Some of the seed fell among thorn bushes, which grew up with the plants and choked them. And some seeds fell in good soil; the plants grew and bore again, one hundred grains each.” (Lk 8: vv 5-9).

I trust that the seeds this Polish Pope planted in our land will bear many grains in the future!

Dr Harry Hagopian is Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches and Co-ordinator of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee (JICC 2000).

He was member of the Local Church Commission on Media Relations and covered the papal visit for BBC (World), SkyNews (UK), RTE (Ireland), A5 (France) and many other TV and Radio outlets.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2000   |   March


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