Vatican Spokesman, Fr. Rosica, Shares Important Background on Holy Land Pilgrimage

Vatican City, May 23, 2014 (Zenit.org)

Over the past week, I have received numerous questions from journalists regarding Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to Jordan, Palestine and Israel. In the text below, I have tried to answer each of the questions by providing some historical and pastoral context to the Pope’s visit.

Pope Francis will arrive in the Holy Land after the historic visits of Pope Paul VI in 1964, John Paul II during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 and Benedict XVI’s eight-day visit in 2009. The memorable visit of Pope Paul VI, 50 years ago in January 1964, took place during the Second Vatican Council. The most significant meeting that was held by Pope Paul VI during that visit was with Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras (the most prominent of the spiritual leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church) and Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Benedictos. These meetings were the first in the establishment of a dialogue between the two branches of the Church, Latin and Greek, formally separated since the schism of 1054.Official logo for Pope Francis' Holy Land trip

The visit of Pope Francis will be a pilgrimage of ‘prayer and penitence.’ One of the highlights of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Voyage to the Holy Land will be his meeting with Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, a meeting that will be followed by a joint ecumenical celebration at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The ceremony will include representatives of the five Christian communities who maintain an historic presence at the major Christian holy sites – including the Holy Sepulcher The relations between the Latin (or Catholic) community and the Greek, Armenian, Coptic, and Syrian communities, and between the Christian communities and the local government authorities, are maintained according to an arrangement known as the “status quo.”

The ‘status quo’ applies principally to the shrines, four to be exact, that are shared by the various Christian churches in the Holy Land and it came about through a decree of the Ottoman Emperor in 1852, which “declared that these shrines should remain in their present state and no change should be effected by any of the Christian communities, or even the government for that matter.”

The ecumenical ceremony which will take place during the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land is an exception to the “status quo,” made possible by an agreement between the various Christian communities.

A Papal visit is also made up of diplomatic relations that the Roman Pontiff has with the heads of state with whom he will enter into contact, the leaders of Jordan, Palestine and Israel. These aspects are present now, just as they were present on previous occasions. The difference is that this time the State of Israel has imposed conditions sine qua non and has asked to introduce new diplomatic aspects and protocols.

During Pope Francis’ pilgrimage, there will be a visit to the Western Wall, to the great rabbinate and to Yad Vashem, but the visit will also include the laying of a floral wreath at the tomb of Theodore Herzl, as well as two official visits to the Head of State and the meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

The local bishops of the Holy Land, with the exception of the papal entourage and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, will not be able to take part in all those moments of Monday morning, May 26, including the visit to the Mosque of Omar and the meeting with the Muslim leaders.

The approximately 450,000 Christians who live in the Holy Land are anxiously waiting the arrival of Pope Francis with devotion and curiosity because this visit confirms that they are a living part of the universal community of the Church.

It is regretful that in Jerusalem the Christian faithful will not be able to see the Pope because when and where the Pope goes is decided by restrictions set forth by security forces. There will only be a meeting at Gethsemane with priests, religious and seminarians, and the Holy Mass at the Cenacle, as well as the central moment of the pilgrimage: the meeting at the Holy Sepulcher with the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, and other Eastern patriarchs and bishops. The pastoral aspect of Pope Francis’ pilgrimage however, will be highlighted very well during the journey to Amman, Jordan, and to Bethlehem.

Pope Francis travels to the Holy Lands accompanied by a Rabbi and a Muslim leader from Argentina.  The three have a long friendship not born of formal theological dialogues but of deep, human relationships. With the rabbi, Pope Francis wrote a book of reflections. There are great expectations of this visit from Christians, Jews and Muslims, Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis. Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations are the theme of this visit in a world that has shown the fragmentation of Christians and the hostility between religious groups due to religious extremism. The Christians who live in Israel (about 130,000) have been threatened by fundamentalist groups, but they have also received the solidarity of their fellow-citizens, both Muslims and Jews.

Francis is a pastor with his ear to the ground and his feet on the ground.  The Muslims’ response to Francis’ prayer vigil for peace in Syria last September was extremely positive.  Muslims see in Francis a man of peace, a pastor and friend. To all in the Middle East, Pope Francis is a peacemaker, an ambassador with a desire for a true justice and a lasting peace for the world, especially for the peoples of the Middle East.