Pope Francis’s visit to the Holy Land ended up being a truly historic visit. On Sunday, shortly before 7 in the morning, I left my home in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and started making my way to Bethlehem for what I knew would be the beginning of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I made it to the presidential complex in Bethlehem to witness the official welcome of the pope to the State of Palestine — the first-ever head of state to arrive in Palestine without first entering Israeli-controlled territory. Around 9:30, the pope arrived in a modest VW Jetta and was formally received by the Palestinian leadership. A few minutes later, I was one of eight Palestinian Christians scheduled to meet His Holiness and to speak about the Christian presence in the Holy Land, about our challenges, aspirations and our many contributions to society through our schools, health care programs and social service initiatives. His Holiness was very warm and wanted to learn more. But due to the limited time, we handed him a letter on behalf of the Palestinian Christian community, asking him to do what he can to help to improve our situation and lead to our freedom and independence.
After attending the press conference of Pope Francis and President Mahmoud Abbas, we were rushed to Manger Square through Bethlehem’s narrow back roads so as to make it in time before Mass. Little did we know that as we were being escorted, Pope Francis went through Bethlehem’s main roads and spontaneously stopped at the separation wall to pray.
A few minutes later he arrived at Manger Square in his open car, cheerfully waving at the crowds before stopping in front of the beautiful altar that was set up specifically for the occasion. The backdrop featured a large mural depicting the Christ Child in the manger, surrounded by several saints and the previous popes who have come to Bethlehem: Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Manger Square itself was filled with more than 10,000 people from all over the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza and the Galilee. The liturgy of the “Christmas Mass,” which emphasizes the needs of children, was memorable and the atmosphere was uplifting. As the Mass was ending, the midday Muslim prayers started from the mosque at Manger Square, reminding us of the diversity of our Holy Land. The sounds coming from the choir and the call of prayer from the mosque blended together in a display of the interfaith spirit we all wish to see strengthened.
Once the papal Mass ended, we headed to a special luncheon. Joseph Hazboun, who works in our Jerusalem office, and his family were among the five families to share a meal with Pope Francis and personally tell him about the challenges facing Palestinian Christians. As for me, I had lunch with President Abbas along with his top leadership and several other guests, including the Maronite patriarch of Antioch, Cardinal Peter Bishara; Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim; Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius; the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III; and the emeritus Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Michel Sabbah.
Once lunch was over, I rushed back to Jerusalem to make it to the next event, the ecumenical meeting at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre between Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew. We had to congregate at 4:30 pm to make our way through the stringent Israeli security measures. Once inside the church, we were seated around Christ’s tomb in two main sections reserved for Catholics and Orthodox.
One could immediately feel the historic gravity of the event with so many cardinals, patriarchs, bishops, priests and many members of religious congregations. The speeches were uplifting and articulate; the call to Christian unity was sincere. A half century has passed since the historic gathering on the Mount of Olives between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in 1964, and we have advanced tremendously when it comes to Christian unity. But we are still far from it. My hope is that this historic visit will be the inspiration for the local church leaders to work for this unity on the ground, day in and day out.
As I was leaving the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I was stuck at the same checkpoint in the Old City along with our guest from Lebanon, Cardinal Patriarch Peter Bishara. We were permitted up the ancient steps that lead toward the Christian Quarter road. There again, security had blocked the quarter and we were directed through the long way back through the Christian Quarter up through the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate road to Jaffa Gate, where he was residing at the Maronite complex. We strolled together for and I had the opportunity to talk with him about the Christian Quarter, the Old City, the daily hardships of life under occupation, the travel restrictions and access to our churches during Holy Week, and the general situation of Palestinian Christians. He was a compassionate listener whose heart is with the weak and marginalized as well. He is facing much criticism for visiting Jerusalem while it is under occupation. I encouraged him during this walk and he encouraged me. We both promised to pray for each other.
This was a day I shall never forget. I will be proud to tell my grandchildren that I was there to witness it all!