It seemed like it was sheer determination and the grace of God that impelled Pope John Paul II during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Television certainly captured the physical weakness and infirmity of the Pope as he made his pilgrim way through Jordan, Israel and Palestine.
What a contrast was this great journey in the waning years of his pontificate to his first bold trips to the far-flung corners of the world, when the younger Pope captured the imagination of the world by his strong and dynamic presence.
Paradoxically, it was the slow, laborious progress in the footsteps of the Master of this very diminished Pope John Paul II that proved to be the most powerful moment of his long papal ministry.
It reminded me of St. Pauls reflection on his first visit to Corinth in 51 A.D. A few years later Paul wrote to his disciples there:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of [human] wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power
The first image of the pilgrimage was that of the young King Abdullah II of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan escorting the frail Pope from his airplane to a beautifully arranged pavilion set up for his welcome.
The King, fresh from his own pilgrimage to Mecca the week before, spoke of this special moment that witnesses a pilgrimage by a holy man to a crossroads of history and geography, where religion started and civilization first emerged.
In Jordan, in Israel, in the Palestinian Territories, it was not the head of the one billion strong Catholic Church who captured the minds and hearts of the people. It was the holy man, the prayerful pilgrim, the messenger of peace.
More than once, others tried to politicize his journey; sometimes there were bitter or hostile sentiments expressed in his presence but the Holy Father calmly, serenely and patiently ignored them all, remaining ever focused on the deep reality of his journey of faith.
I was there when he fell to his knees in silent prayer in the Grotto of the Nativity as well as when he told the Palestinians living in the nearby refugee camp, Please God it [my visit] will help draw attention to your continuing plight.
The Pope standing in supplication at the Western Wall, meditating in sorrow at the Holocaust memorial on mans inhumanity to man, preaching the word of God in the public liturgies the Jews and Muslims of the Holy Land and millions around the world saw not the powerful pontiff of Rome, but the simple man of prayer, the disciple of Jesus, the successor of the fisherman from Galilee.
Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA