Pope Benedict XVI’s May 8-15 visit to Jordan and Israel will hold deep significance. . .
Pope Benedict XVI will visit the Holy Land in May
Pope Benedict XVI will see many contrasting images on his first papal trip to the Holy Land — the soft hills of Israel’s countryside and the security wall cutting through Palestinian territory; ancient churches built over biblical sites and bullet marks on the church of the nativity.
It’s a reminder of the deep spiritual heritage of this land as well as the ongoing strife between Palestinians and Jews. Against this backdrop, the Pope’s every word and gesture during his May 8-15 visit to Jordan and Israel will hold deep significance.
One of the primary reasons for any papal visit is to strengthen local Christian communities — and the Holy Land’s Christians are in dire need of support. Israel is home to about 150,000 Christians — less than 2% of the population. About 35 years ago, Christians made up 80% of Bethlehem’s population; today they are 9%. The decades-long conflict has caused a mass migration.
Additionally, unemployment in Gaza and the West Bank tops 85%. Besides poverty, Christians also face harassment by Muslim neighbors.
“They can’t baptize anyone but their own children, and they can’t build churches,” said Sandra Keating, theology professor and interreligious dialogue expert at Providence College. “They cannot live as Christians where they are, just as martyrs. Many have simply left, and those left behind are in a worse situation.”
The security wall in the Palestinian territories was built to keep suicide bombers from entering Israel, but it has also trapped innocent Palestinian Christians.
Steve Ray, a registered tour guide in Israel and At Large Legatus member from Michigan, knows its effects firsthand.
“My friend Raji’s brother had a heart attack,” he said. “They went to a checkpoint and were held up for three hours before they could get to a hospital. The brother ended up dying. If the wall hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have happened.”
During this trip, Pope Benedict will visit sites that are sacred to Jews like Mount Nebo and the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. He will also meet Israel’s two chief rabbis.
Pope John Paul II prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 26, 2000
Like John Paul II, who visited the Holy Land in 2000, Pope Benedict will lay a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and meet with Holocaust survivors. However, his stop will avoid the memorial’s museum, which includes a controversial placard denigrating Pope Pius XII’s efforts to aid Jews during World War II.
“The placard is a huge problem and scandal,” said Ray, a best-selling author and evangelist. “It presents Pope Pius as being silent at best or collaborating with the Nazis.”
The Vatican’s relationship with Jews was strained in January when the Pope lifted the excommunication for a Lefevrite bishop who was later discovered to be a Holocaust-denier. Since then, the Pope has clarified the Holy See’s position on the Holocaust and apologized for the lack of a better background check.
“Though this caused a ruckus with the Jewish community, enough good will already existed from years of dialogue,” said Keating. “This issue has really passed.”
Besides Jews and Christians, Pope Benedict will also meet with Muslim leaders. He will visit mosques in Jordan and Israel, including the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem — the third holiest Muslim site after Mecca and Medina.
“This is a major event for the Muslim world,” said Keating. “It is the place where Muslims believe that Mohammed made a night journey to heaven by the help of angels.”
The Dome of the Rock is one of the most challenging issues for Israel because it forms the basis for Muslim claims to the Holy Land. It’s built on the site of the Jewish temple destroyed during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
“Our Holy Father has done an outstanding outreach to the Muslim world,” said Steve Colecchi, director of the USCCB’s Office of Justice, Peace and Human Development. “He invited Muslim scholars to the Vatican in response to an open letter written by Muslim leaders to the Christian world in 2007. They met in the Vatican in November 2008. The Pope will be well received by Muslim leaders.”
The open letter written by 138 Muslim scholars to Christian leaders was the first time a group of high-profile Muslims united to call for peace. The Pope’s visit to the Holy Land is expected to help build the Church’s relationship with Islam.
Call for peace
Another relationship on the Holy Father’s mind will be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Pope Benedict continues to call for peace and dialogue despite talks being at a standstill. In his Urbi et Orbi message on Easter Sunday, he said that “reconciliation — difficult, but indispensable — is a precondition for a future of overall security and peaceful coexistence” in the Middle East. His trip should give renewed energy to the peace process.
The Pope is also expected to reach out to the Israeli government. The Vatican is asking for protection of Church lands, a clear juridical status for Church entities in Israel and tax exemptions for property. Discussions on these issues have been at a standstill since 1993 when the Fundamental Accord between the Vatican and Israel was established.
Pope Benedict will carry the weight of these troubles as he travels the land where Jesus walked. When Pope John Paul II traveled to Israel in 2000, he won over both Israelis and Palestinians. He is especially remembered for slipping a prayer note into the crevices of the Wailing Wall.
If the past few years are any indication, Pope Benedict will certainly win over the region’s heart with his humility and sincere concern for its people.
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is a staff writer for Legatus Magazine.
Legatus Holy Land pilgrimage
Legatus will host a Holy Land pilgrimage from Oct. 10-19 with expert guides Steve and Janet Ray — the writers, producers and hosts of the award-winning documentary series The Footprints of God.
“The pilgrimage will spend 2.5 days in Galilee, one day in Bethlehem, three days in Jerusalem and one day in the south visiting Masada, Qumran and Jericho,” Ray said.
There will be memorable experiences for participants every day.
“We’ll renew baptismal vows at the Jordan River,” he explained. “Depending on the priest, we may get water sprinkled with a branch — or we may be asked to walk in up to our knees.
“We’ll walk the Via Dolorosa and we’ll all get to touch Mount Calvary. In Cana, we renew wedding vows. We’ll go on a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. In Capernaum, we’ll have Mass at St. Peter’s house where Jesus lived for three years.”
Three must-see sites include Bethlehem, the Holy Sepulchre and Nazareth. “We would not have the Incarnation without Nazareth,” Ray said.
“It was a village of 30 caves — and Mary lived in one of them.”
In Bethlehem, pilgrims will visit the Church of the Nativity, the only major church in the Holy Land that survives intact from the early Christian period. Depending on crowds, Legates may be able to touch the actual spot where Jesus was born.
With regards to safety, Ray notes he has traveled to the Holy Land more than 60 times.
“I have never felt danger,” he explained. “I cannot over-emphasize this. The violence is in Gaza, which is one little corner of this country. Since the security wall was built, there have been no problems.”
To register or for more information, visit legatus.org or call (313) 565-8888 ext 121.