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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Papal Pilgrimage of Peace

Pope John Paul II brings his message of justice and peace to the people of the Holy Land.

“We welcome you to the Holy Land as a man of peace, whose message of reconciliation and harmony continues to echo throughout the world. We welcome you as a symbol of all that is pure and noble in this life: faith and prayer to Almighty God and forgiveness for each other. We welcome you as a true reminder…that the power of love is much stronger…than conflict and hatred. We welcome you as a fellow believer in God, the Compassionate and the Merciful.”

With these stirring words Jordan’s young king, Abdullah II, welcomed Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land. The King’s greeting, delivered on a blustery Monday in March, set a spiritual course for the six-day journey – closely watched by Christians, Jews and Muslims around the world – through the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the State of Israel and Palestine.

“Your [visit] reminds us of important facts: the virtues of faith and the absolute need for forgiveness of one’s enemies,” said King Abdullah. “This is a unique and emotional moment that brings closer the meaning of tolerance and coexistence.”

The King, who had just returned to Jordan after making the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, noted that the Pope’s visit “brings the hope of a brighter future to those who have known nothing but the misery of the past. Hope for the Palestinians, who yearn for justice and stability; a promise for the Israelis of security and acceptance; comfort for the Lebanese of a better tomorrow; and hope for the Syrians that the sad chapter of war is finally over. It is also a prayer for our Iraqi brothers and sisters for a brighter new day to dawn finally upon them.”

Though Christians are a minority in Jordan, Christians and Muslims alike understood the spiritual significance of John Paul ’s 27-hour visit there. His visit to this resource-poor but stable kingdom put it on the world’s stage, if only briefly; the kingdom, like its neighbors to the west, is rich in biblical history.

John Paul II prayed at Mount Nebo, where Moses first saw the Promised Land and, later, where he died.

On Tuesday, early in the morning, hours before the papal Mass began at Amman Stadium, the beating of drums, the excited voices of children and the sound of hymns could be heard in some quarters of the modern city.

Buses packed with folks from parishes in Amman, Fuheis, Irbid, Kerak, Madaba and Zerqa and from distant villages such as Ader and Smakieh arrived more than five hours before the liturgy – all in a hurry to find seats in the cold stadium.

Some 10,000 Iraqis, most of them Chaldean Catholics seeking refuge in Amman, were among the estimated 70,000 enthusiastic participants.

While latecomers looked for seats, hymns were sung and Bedouin women greeted the Pope’s imminent arrival in a traditional Arab manner with the zaghrouti, a warbling sound that welcomes a guest or announces a grand family event.

Msgr. Robert Stern joined the local church in welcoming the Holy Father, concelebrating the Mass and later joining the Pope for lunch at the Latin Vicar’s residence in Amman. The Pontifical Mission’s Regional Director for Jordan and Iraq, Mr. Ra’ed Bahou, and his wife, Mary, were among 30 Jordanians invited to receive the Eucharist from the Pope.

As the Pope’s helicopter departed for his last, brief stop in Jordan at Wadi Kharrar, the traditional site of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River, the attention of the world seemed focused on the next leg of the Pope’s trip – his highly anticipated arrival in Israel and Palestine.

Before John Paul II’s arrival, Israelis and Palestinians had each accused the other of politicizing the papal trip. Some Israelis asserted that the Pope’s visit to Jerusalem recognized Israel’s claim to the Holy City as its “eternal and undivided capital.” Some Palestinians claimed John Paul’s visit to the autonomous Palestinian territories was the Holy See’s recognition of an independent Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital.

The Pope, however, stayed focused on his spiritual journey, undeterred by the allegations of others.

“In addition to his pilgrimage to the holiest sites in Christendom,” Msgr. Stern commented, “his visits to the Dheisheh refugee camp and Yad Vashem symbolically addressed the principal wounds of both Palestinians and Israelis – 51 years of Palestinian displacement and the Holocaust.”

Palestine. “Bethlehem is the heart of my Jubilee Pilgrimage,” the Pope said during his homily given on Wednesday from the altar erected in Manger Square, adjacent to the ancient Basilica of the Nativity. “The paths that I have taken led me to this place and to the mystery that it proclaims.”

On that cold, wet and windy day, more than 10,000 people – most of them Palestinian – squeezed into the square and excitedly awaited the Pope’s arrival; they were anxious to hear papal words of encouragement and guidance.

“Before Mass, we tried to warm up the crowd with hymns and songs,” said Joseph Hazboun, Administrative Assistant in our Pontifical Mission’s Jerusalem office, who directed a specially assembled choir for the papal Mass. “But I had my hands full with the minor seminarians!”

Minor seminarians from the Latin Patriarchal Seminary in Beit Jala, excited as any teenage boys, stirred up the crowd’s enthusiasm, waving papal and Palestinian flags and banners and chanting from the choir stage, “Viva el Baba, viva, viva, viva!” Press photographers swarmed the stage: images of young, smart-looking lads in black cassocks waving flags – the seemingly incongruous pairing of the papal and Palestinian flags – firing up the crowd as if they were at a basketball game would please audiences back home.

Meanwhile, not far from Manger Square, the President of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, welcomed the Pope to Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem. Though frail, the Pope seemed pleased to have arrived there, a place he had longed to visit throughout his 22-year pontificate:

“I express all my happiness at being here today. How can I fail to pray that the divine gift of peace will become more and more a reality for all who live in this land, uniquely marked by God’s inventions?

“No one can ignore how much the Palestinian people have had to suffer in recent decades,” Pope John Paul II continued. “Your torment is before the eyes of the world. And it has gone on too long.

“The Holy See has always recognized that the Palestinian people have the natural right to a homeland, and the right to be able to live in peace and tranquillity…. My predecessors and I have repeatedly proclaimed that there would be no end to the sad conflict in the Holy Land without stable guarantees for the rights of all the peoples involved, on the basis of international law and the relevant United Nations resolutions and declarations.

“Only with a just and lasting peace – not imposed but secured through negotiation – will legitimate Palestinian aspirations be fulfilled.

“The promise of peace,” the Pope added, “will become reality for the world only when the dignity and rights of all human beings made in the image of God are acknowledged and respected.”

“These were words worth waiting for,” said one Palestinian, a business student at Bethlehem University, who listened to the speech as it was later read in Manger Square.

The scheduled visit later that day of Pope John Paul II to the Dheisheh refugee camp, a squalid quarter that borders Bethlehem to the south, brought thousands of journalists to the camp. Groups of boys – more than half the camp’s 10,000 residents are under the age of 15, and more than half are male – gathered around reporters and photographers. The journalists were eager for a new twist to the story.

The camp’s residents, most of whom are impoverished and all of whom are Muslim, greeted the Pope enthusiastically, although some did not understand exactly who it was they were receiving.

“He’s an important minister,” one youth told Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., Pontifical Mission’s Regional Director for Palestine and Israel, who with Msgr. Stern participated in much of the papal program.

As the Pope and his entourage came to the courtyard of the United Nations-run camp school, the women greeted him with the zaghrouti, expressing their joy and pride.

“You have been deprived of many things,” the Pope said, “proper housing, health care, education and work. Above all you bear the sad memory of what you were forced to leave behind, not just material possessions, but your freedom, the closeness of relatives and the familiar surroundings and cultural traditions which nourished your personal and family life.”

Pope John Paul II cited the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) for its response to the needs of these refugees; he also expressed how “particularly pleased” he was with “the effectiveness of the presence of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.”

Msgr. Stern, who as the President of the Pontifical Mission was positioned at the Pope’s side, beamed as President Arafat led an enthusiastic round of applause.

“Dear refugees,” the Holy Father continued, “do not think that your present condition makes you any less important in God’s eyes! Never forget your dignity as his children! Here at Bethlehem the divine Child was laid in a manger in a stable; shepherds from the nearby fields were the first to receive the heavenly message of peace and hope for the world. God’s design,” the Pope emphasized, “was fulfilled in the midst of humility and poverty.”

“The Church,” he concluded, “through her social and charitable organizations, will continue to be at your side and will continue to plead your cause before the world.”

Israel. Expectations of what the Holy Father might say about the Holocaust dominated the news surrounding his Holy Land journey. Yet it was the haunting silence that accompanied his Thursday visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s principal Holocaust memorial, that captured much of the world’s attention.

“In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence,” he said after several minutes in silent prayer. “Silence in which to remember. Silence in which to try to make some sense of the memories which come flooding back. Silence because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.

“I have come to Yad Vashem,” he continued, “to pay homage to the millions of Jewish people who, stripped of everything, especially of their human dignity, were murdered in the Holocaust. As Bishop of Rome and Successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church…is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place.

“The Church,” he added, “rejects racism in any form as a denial of the image of the Creator inherent in every human being.”

With warmth, empathy and openness, Prime Minister Ehud Barak linked this Polish Pope with the fate of more than three million Polish Jews, all of whom perished at the hands of the Nazis:

“You, Your Holiness, were a young witness to the tragedy…. When my grandparents, Elka and Shmuel Godin, mounted the death trains at Umschlagplatz near their home in Warsaw, headed toward their fate at Treblinka – the fate of three million Jews from your homeland – you were there, and you remembered.

“You have done more than anyone else,” the Prime Minister continued, “to bring about the historic change in the attitude of the church toward the Jewish people, initiated by the good Pope John XXIII, and to dress the gaping wounds that festered over many bitter centuries.”

For millions of people, images of the Bishop of Rome, the world’s preeminent Christian, with the Prime Minister of Israel remembering together the tragedy of the Holocaust will be difficult to erase.

Equally powerful are the images, taken on Sunday, the final day of the papal pilgrimage, of the Holy Father at the Western Wall, all that remains of Herod’s Temple.

“God of our fathers,” read the prayer that the Pope placed in the Wall, “you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the nations: We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant. We ask this through Christ our Lord.”

The Pope at prayer was the overwhelming image of the pilgrimage. Israeli television captured hours of solemn liturgies – not only in Bethlehem, but at the site of the Upper Room, on the Mount of Beatitudes, in the Basilica of the Annunciation, and, finally, on Sunday morning in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

“Here at the Holy Sepulchre and Golgotha, as we renew our profession of faith in the Risen Lord,” prayed the successor of Peter, “can we doubt that in the power of the Spirit of Life we will be given the strength to overcome our divisions and to work together to build a future of reconciliation, unity and peace? Here, as in no other place on earth, we hear the Lord say once again to his disciples: ‘Do not fear; I have overcome the world.’”

The fearless pilgrim Pope returned to Rome to continue his special ministry of strengthening the faith of the Church – and of the whole world.

Michael J.L. La Civita is Executive Editor of Catholic Near East.

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