The likelihood of a 2014 papal visit to the Holy Land increased Dec. 2, when Pope Francis met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the apostolic palace.
The Holy See confirmed that "plans for a pilgrimage" were discussed at that meeting, following unconfirmed reports in Israeli media that a visit will take place at the end of May next year.
In a statement, the Vatican said the 25-minute meeting focused on the "complex political and social situation in the Middle East, with particular reference to the reinstatement of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians."
The two parties expressed the hope that "a just and lasting solution respecting the rights of both parties may be reached as soon as possible," the statement said.
It added that, "aside from indicating the Holy Father’s plans for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, various questions were considered regarding the relations between the state authorities and the local Catholic communities, as well as between the state of Israel and the Holy See, in the hope that the agreement which has been in preparation for some time may be concluded forthwith."
Optimism has grown over the past year that a final agreement on tax and property rights for Catholic institutions in Israel was imminent, but a conclusion remains elusive. Talks have been continuing for well over a decade.
The Vatican said the two leaders held "colloquial discussions" at the meeting. Reporters noted how friendly the rapport was between the Pope and Netanyahu.
In the exchange of gifts that followed, Netanyahu presented the Pope with a book written by his father on the Spanish Inquisition. Entitled The Origins of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th Century and published in 1995, the work also contained a dedication that read: "To His Holiness Pope Francis, the great guardian and pastor of our common heritage."
According to the publisher’s notes, the volume denies the claims of historians that the Spanish Inquisition targeted Jews and says instead that Catholics protected Jewish people during this period.
"My Spanish is practically zero, but my father, who died last year, was a historian and knew the language," Netanyahu said on presenting the gift to the Pope.
He also gave the Holy Father a silver menorah used in the annual Jewish celebration of Hanukkah.
Pope Francis presented the Israeli leader with a large bronze bas-relief featuring an image of St. Paul the Apostle.
While the Vatican has confirmed that the papal trip had been discussed, the trip has not been officially scheduled. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters after the meeting that the Vatican would not announce a visit until an advance team of officials had visited the possible sites.