JERUSALEM — In a whirlwind three-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Pope Francis will visit Jordan, Palestine and Israel, bringing a message of hope, peace and reconciliation to a region troubled by conflict.
The impending visit has encouraged Christians in the Holy Land, who are looking forward to the Holy Father’s journey.
"The feeling is indescribable," said Walid Abn, a Melkite and Arab-Israeli living in the village of Mi’ilya. "It’s a moment of history for us as Christians."
Abn said he hopes the Holy Father’s words will encourage Christians in their faith.
"With the way the lifestyle is, and the way the economy is, there are some people who are drifting away from faith," he said. Abn said he sees these changes in his own village, which he left more than 20 years ago to work in Houston’s realty market, but returned to a year and a half ago.
He added that, in Palestine and Israel, "we’re expecting him to offer some words of peace and justice."
Abn also hopes that the Holy Father’s words and actions will help both sides of Palestinian-Israeli politics to reconcile their differences and forge a lasting peace.
"Pray for them; pray for them; pray for them, and show them the right way," he said.
Peace would create the conditions for every Christian to visit freely the Holy Land sites in Israel and Palestine, especially around holy days.
"I would love to see every Christian have that right," Abn said.
Jordan and Palestine
Peace and reconciliation in the Middle East will no doubt be at the forefront when the Pope goes to Jordan, which hosts 1.4 million refugees, most of them fleeing Syria’s bloody civil war.
"Pope Francis is perfect for this," said Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace. "One of the reasons he chose the name Francis is because of who St. Francis of Assisi was: a man of peace, of the poor, who cared for creation."
"Inevitably, people will look at the visit of the Holy Father to this region that has known so much conflict as the visit of a pilgrim for peace."
When the Holy Father arrives in Jordan on May 24, he will meet first with King Abdullah II and Queen Rania, among other Jordanian dignitaries. The Holy Father will celebrate Mass at 4pm in the International Stadium in the capital city of Amman, and then he will travel to the place of Christ’s baptism at Bethany beyond the Jordan. There, he will meet with refugees, orphans and disabled young people.
The Holy Father then departs for Palestine on the morning of May 25, and he will first stop in Bethlehem, where he will meet with President Mahmoud Abbas.
A statement to the Register from the Palestinian Foreign Affairs Ministry said Abbas was "delighted" Pope Francis would be visiting Bethlehem and Jerusalem. It added that Abbas hopes the Holy Father’s trip will "bring goodness and peace to the Palestinian people" and that it will "help in alleviating [their] suffering."
The Holy Father will celebrate Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square and make a private visit to the Grotto of the Nativity. He plans to have lunch with Palestinian families in Bethlehem’s Casa Nova Franciscan Convent and greet refugee children gathered at the Deheisheh Refugee Camp.
Joining Pope Francis throughout his travels to Jordan, Palestine and Israel will be his longtime friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinic Seminary in Buenos Aires.
Gary Krupp, the Jewish leader of the nonsectarian Pave the Way Foundation, which has been active in promoting peace, understanding and mutual respect between Israelis and Palestinians, said Rabbi Skorka will play a key role accompanying the Pope. Not only will the rabbi’s friendship be a witness to peace, but it will also "provide insight" to the Pope as he navigates through the troubled waters of Israeli-Palestinian politics.
"We have a lot of delicate issues, which need to be raised carefully," Krupp said.
Recently, peace talks between Israel and Palestine have snagged over the inclusion of Hamas into President Abbas’ unity government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel won’t negotiate with Abbas’ government until either it cuts ties with Hamas or Hamas officially renounces terrorism against Israel.
"This must stop — the violence must stop," said Krupp, before Israelis and Palestinians can finally achieve the two-state solution that has been talked about for decades.
"So the Pope’s visit should be a great opportunity for the effort to end all violence there against Jews, against Christians and against Muslims."
The Holy Father’s visit has been greatly anticipated by Israeli leaders, and he will meet both President Shimon Peres and Netanyahu. Peres told Pope Francis last year that "the sooner you visit, the better," as the Holy Father’s "arrival could contribute significantly to increasing the trust and belief in peace."
Pope Francis’ efforts at interreligious dialogue will proceed with a visit with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and then move to the Western "Wailing" Wall of the old Jewish Temple, one of the holiest sites in the city for Jews. He will also lay a wreath at Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery in Jerusalem, where Christian, Muslim and Druze soldiers who fought for Israel are buried.
The trip will include a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum, as well as a visit with the two chief rabbis at the Heichal Shlomo Center in Jerusalem, which is next to the Jerusalem Great Synagogue.
The highest-profile event of the Pope’s trip in Jerusalem, and the specific reason that his Holy Land visit is taking place at this time, will be his May 25 meeting with Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Both leaders will have private meetings, sign a joint declaration and conduct an ecumenical meeting in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre to mark the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras at the same site.
"We hope that this will not just be a meeting like others, but we hope that this will give a new horizon for the relations between our two sister Churches," Orthodox Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, one of the coordinators for Patriarch Bartholomew’s pilgrimage, told Catholic News Service.
Metropolitan Emmanuel said, "We need unity" in a divided world, adding that both leaders will address "questions of common interest," from the suffering of Christians in the Middle East to the environment and defense of the traditional family.
The historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1964 led the next year to the mutual lifting of excommunications from the Great Schism of 1054 and marked a great step forward to full communion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
The Holy Father will conclude his evening in Jerusalem by celebrating a Mass with the bishops and patriarchs of the Holy Land in the Cenacle, the "Upper Room," where Christ celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples and appeared to them after his resurrection.
Colecchi of the U.S. bishops’ conference said that Pope Francis is "a great man of compassion and gestures" and that his words and, more importantly, actions during the trip will help inspire people to imagine a different future.
"The ecumenical focus of this visit is not only unity among Christians, but with Jewish and Muslim neighbors as well," he said.
"He will bring hope, and people need hope that the region can be different."