ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Paul VI and His Flock in the Holy Land

The Pontifical Mission for Palestine is a living testament to the vision and action of one man.

Although Pius XII was the pope at the time of the founding of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine in 1949, the labors of his special assistant, Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, loom large in the history of the mission. He is the central figure in the story of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

Msgr. Montini, who later became Pope Paul VI, had an intimate knowledge of the Pontifical Mission, dating back to its origins. During the Second World War, Msgr. Montini had organized and directed the Vatican’s refugee relief efforts. It was he who signed the document authorizing the operations of the Pontifical Mission and mandating it to serve Palestinian and all refugees without distinction of religion.

After his election to the papacy in 1963, Pope Paul VI announced that he would make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January 1964. Paul singled out the people of Palestine for his first pastoral visit abroad. He manifested a special concern for the Palestinians “because they are people of the Holy Land.” They live in the land where Jesus preached, cured, was crucified, and rose from the dead.

Paul VI saw their homeland as the spiritual home of people of faith. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam weave a complex tapestry of religious traditions in this land. This place and its rich spiritual heritage remind us of the human family’s basic unity as spiritual heirs to Abraham bound up in belief in the same one true God.

Pope Paul VI was the first pontiff since St. Peter to return to the land of Jesus. He came bringing the gospel’s message of peace to a land sorely tried by animosities and hatred. He sought to bring reconciliation and peace. On the common ground of a faith heritage, he met with Eastern Catholics. He also initiated ecumenical efforts with estranged Orthodox brethren by dramatically embracing and praying with the Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras I. King Hussein of Jordan cited the importance of this trip for improving relations between Muslims and Christians. Jewish leaders applauded Paul’s journey as a hopeful sign.

In addition to meeting with political and religious leaders, Paul gave support and comfort to the poor and outcast. He had noted as he began his journey to the land of Jesus, “We will bring to the Holy Sepulchre and to the Grotto of the Nativity the desires of individuals, of families, of nations; above all, the aspirations, the anxieties, the sufferings of the sick, the poor, the disinherited, the afflicted, of refugees, of those who suffer, those who weep, those who hunger and thirst for justice.”

As a result of Pope Paul’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January of 1964, he called for new and creative efforts on behalf of Palestinians and the Church in Palestine. He initiated major rehabilitation and development projects, including Bethlehem University, the Ephpheta School for the Hearing Impaired, Tantur Ecumenical Institute, and Notre Dame of Jerusalem Pilgrimage Center.

The world was amazed by this bold, courageous action of the Holy Father. These actions showed clearly that the substance of the Second Vatican Council was deeper than words. Paul’s efforts for respect, dialogue, development, and cooperation have inspired numerous religious volunteers to continue their long-term service to the Arab community to bring these projects to fruition.

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Pontifical Mission, Pope Paul VI wrote to Msgr. John G. Nolan, then president of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine: “The work of the Mission for Palestine has been one of the clearest signs of the Holy See’s concern for the welfare of the Palestinians, who are particularly dear to us because they are people of the Holy Land, because they include followers of Christ, and because they have been and are still being so tragically tried. We express again our heartfelt sharing in their sufferings and our support for their legitimate aspirations” (16 July 1974).

Also in 1974, the Holy Father noted in Nobis in Animo that the Holy Land “is also a country in which, besides the Shrines and Holy Places, a Church – a community of believers in Christ – lives and works. Were their presence to cease, the Shrines would be without the warmth of the living witness and the Christian Holy Places of Jerusalem and the Holy Land would become like museums.”

Cardinal Jacques Martin, a co-worker of then Msgr. Montini for many years in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, in speaking of Pope Paul VI noted, “The thing that most struck those who were close to him was that he gave himself entirely to the service of the Church, without second thoughts, without holding back any of his time or energy. At one a.m. the light was often still burning in his office. He was a man consumed by his work, a man who gave himself entirely.”

This pontiff was deeply moved by the great tragedies affecting the community of the faithful in Palestine, the birthplace of Christianity. From the very beginning of partition he labored long and hard, as Cardinal Martin noted was his way, to bring peace and justice to the turmoil besetting the land where Jesus lived, died and rose in triumph.

Pope Paul, of course, was doing Christ’s work. His personal secretary during the last four years of his pontificate was Msgr. John Magee, now bishop of Cloyne in Ireland. Bishop Magee has said “the first time I had the sensation of seeing the person of Christ it was in Paul VI. Christ was transparent in his every gesture.”

As assistant to Pope Pius XII, Msgr. Montini was drawn to serve the poor, the outcast, the displaced, particularly those of the Holy Land. He was able to expand and develop the service of the Church to them when he became pope.

Even his last will and testament dwells on these themes which animated his life and pontificate. He wrote: “How can I worthily celebrate your kindness, O Lord, for … having the joy and mission of serving souls, brothers, youth, the poor, the people of God…”

Service was the keynote of his life’s ministry: “Concerning the world: Do not think the church can help it by assuming its thoughts, customs, tastes, but rather by studying it, loving it, serving it.” His will also conveyed “A special blessing and greeting to the Holy Land, the land of Jesus, where I was a pilgrim of faith and peace.”

A humble man, Giovanni Montini wanted no monument to mark his grave. The Pontifical Mission for Palestine may be the most appropriate memorial: a living tribute to this Christlike man, to this great servant.

With this issue of Catholic Near East Michael Healy concludes four years as editor.

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