Weekly General Audience May 20, 2009
During his general audience on May 20, Pope Benedict XVI offered his reflections on his recent visit to the Holy Land. He highlighted his meetings with the Christian community there, as well as his encounters with Jewish and Muslim leaders. He emphasized his mission as a pilgrim of peace, as he reminded Jews, Christians and Muslims alike of their commitment, as believers in the one God, to promote respect, reconciliation and cooperation in the service of peace.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to take a moment to reflect on my apostolic trip to the Holy Land from May 8-15. I continue to give thanks to the Lord for this trip, since it turned out to be a great blessing for the Successor of Peter and for the entire Church.
Once again, I would like to extend a word of heartfelt “thanks” to His Beatitude, Patriarch Fouad Twal, to the bishops from the various rites, to the priests, and to the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land.
I would like to thank the king and queen of Jordan, the president of Israel, the president of the Palestinian National Authority, their respective governments, as well as all the civil authorities and all the other people who in various ways worked together to prepare a successful visit.
It was, above all, a pilgrimage par excellence to the source of our faith. At the same time, it was a pastoral visit to the Church that lives in the Holy Land — a community of unique importance, since it represents a living presence in the place where the Church originated.
A Vision of the Promised Land
My first stop, from May 8 until the morning of May 11, was in Jordan, where two important holy sites are located: Mount Nebo, from which Moses was able to see the Promised Land but where he died without ever entering it, and Bethany, “beyond the Jordan,” where, according to the fourth Gospel, St. John first baptized.
The memorial to Moses on Mount Nebo is a place of great symbolic value: It speaks to us of our status as pilgrims suspended between an “already” and a “not yet,” between a promise that is so great and beautiful as to support us on our journey and a realization that surpasses us and even surpasses this world.
The Church experiences in her own being this “eschatological and pilgrim disposition.” She is already united to Christ, her spouse, but the marriage feast is for the moment only a foretaste as she awaits Christ’s glorious return at the end of the ages (see Lumen Gentium 48-50).
In Bethany, I had the joy of blessing the cornerstones of two new churches being built on the site where St. John baptized. This is a sign of the Hashemite Kingdom’s openness and respect for religious freedom and for our Christian tradition. This merits great appreciation.
I had an opportunity to express this appreciation, which is so warranted, together with my profound respect for the Muslim community to the religious leaders, the diplomatic corps and the rectors of universities who gathered together in the Al-Hussein bin-Talal Mosque, which King Abdullah II built in memory of his father, the famous King Hussein, who welcomed Pope Paul VI in his historic pilgrimage of 1964.
How important it is for Christians and Muslims to coexist peacefully and in mutual respect! This is happening in Jordan, thanks to God and to the commitment of its leaders.
I therefore prayed that this would also become a reality elsewhere, thinking especially of Christians who are living in a difficult situation in neighboring Iraq.
In Service to All
Jordan has a large Christian community, which has grown with the influx of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. Their presence in society is significant and deeply appreciated because of their educational work and their social work, which are focused on all human beings without regard to religious beliefs or ethnic background. A beautiful example is the Regina Pacis Rehabilitation Center in Amman, which welcomes a large number of people suffering from disabilities.
Visiting the center, I was able to speak a word of hope, but I also received hope through the vibrant testimony of human suffering and the capacity to share.
As a sign of the Church’s commitment in the realm of culture, I also blessed the cornerstone of the University of Madaba of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. I experienced a great joy in launching this new scientific and cultural institution, because it is a tangible expression of the fact that the Church promotes the quest for truth and the common good, offering a suitable open space to those who wish to dedicate themselves to this quest, which is indispensable for a genuine and fruitful dialogue between societies.
In Amman, two solemn liturgical celebrations took place: vespers in the Greek-Melkite Cathedral of St. George and holy Mass in the International Stadium, which provided us with the opportunity to savor the beauty of a gathering of God’s pilgrim people, who find richness in their diverse traditions and unity in their one faith.
A Pilgrim of Peace
After leaving Jordan late on May 11, I arrived in Israel, where, from the moment of my arrival, I presented myself as a pilgrim of faith in the land where Jesus was born, lived, died and rose again, and, at the same time, as a pilgrim of peace, imploring God so that all men might live as his children, that is, as brothers and sisters, in the place where he became man.
The second aspect of my trip emerged, of course, during my meetings with the civil authorities — during my visits to the president of Israel and to the president of the Palestinian Authority.
In this land blessed by God, at times it seems impossible to escape the spiral of violence. Yet nothing is impossible for God and for those who trust in him!
For this reason, faith in the one God, just and merciful, which is the most precious resource those people have, must have the power to release all its potential for respect, reconciliation and collaboration. This is what I tried to express during my visit with the grand mufti and the leaders of the Islamic community in Jerusalem, during my visit to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and to those organizations committed to interreligious dialogue, and in my meeting with religious leaders from Galilee.
The City of Peace
Jerusalem is the crossroads for the three great monotheistic religions, and its very name — “city of peace” — is an expression of God’s plan for mankind: to make it one large family. This plan, which was foretold to Abraham, was entirely fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who St. Paul calls “our peace” because he broke down the wall of enmity through the power of his sacrifice (see Ephesians 2:14).
All believers, therefore, should leave behind any prejudice and any desire for domination, and practice in one accord the fundamental commandment: to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
This is what Jews, Christians and Muslims are called to bear witness to, so as to honor through their deeds the God to whom they pray with their lips. This is exactly what I had in my heart, in prayer, as I visited Jerusalem’s Western Wall — or Wailing Wall — and the Dome of the Rock, symbolic places for Judaism and Islam respectively.
My visit to the Yad Vashem memorial, which was built in Jerusalem in honor of the victims of the Shoah, was a moment of intense recollection, as well. There we paused for a moment in silence, praying and meditating on the mystery of a “name”: Each human being is sacred, and his name is written on the heart of the eternal God.
The great tragedy of the Shoah must never be forgotten! Indeed, may it always be in our memories as a universal reminder of sacred respect for human life, which always possesses an infinite value.
The Catholic Community
As I already mentioned, the primary goal of my trip was to visit the Catholic communities in the Holy Land, and this happened on various occasions in Jerusalem, in Bethlehem and in Nazareth.
In the Upper Room, where our thoughts were fixed on Christ, who washed the feet of the apostles and instituted the Eucharist, as well as on the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church on the day of Pentecost, I was able to meet with, among others, the Franciscan custodians of the Holy Land, and reflect together on our vocation of being one, of forming one body and one spirit, and transforming the world with the gentle power of love.
Of course, such a call encounters particular difficulties in the Holy Land. Therefore, with the heart of Christ, I reminded my brother bishops of Christ’s own words: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
Later, I briefly greeted the men and women religious living the contemplative life, thanking them for the service that they offer to the Church and the cause of peace with their prayers.
The culminating moments of communion with the Catholic faithful were, above all, the Eucharistic celebrations. In the Valley of Josaphat, in Jerusalem, we meditated on Christ’s resurrection as a force of hope and peace for this city and for the entire world.
In Bethlehem, in the Palestinian Territories, Mass was celebrated in front of the Basilica of the Nativity, which the faithful from Gaza also attended, whom I had the joy of personally consoling, assuring them of my special closeness.
Bethlehem, the place where the heavenly hymn of peace for all mankind resounded, is a symbol of the distance that still separates us from achieving that promise: insecurity, isolation, uncertainty, poverty. All of that has led many Christians to move away.
Yet, the Church continues her journey, sustained by the power of faith and bearing witness to love through concrete works of service to the brethren, such as the Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem, which dioceses in Germany and Switzerland support, and the humanitarian work in the refugee camps. In the one I visited, I assured the families there of the closeness and support of the universal Church, inviting everyone to seek peace through nonviolent means, following the example of St. Francis of Assisi.
The Value of Family Life
I celebrated my third and final Mass with the people last Thursday in Nazareth, the city of the Holy Family. We prayed for all families and for a rediscovery of the beauty of marriage and family life, the value of domestic spirituality and education, and attentiveness to children, who have the right to grow in peace and serenity.
Later, in the Basilica of the Annunciation, we proclaimed in song our faith in the creative and transforming power of God, together with all the shepherds, consecrated religious, Church movements and dedicated laypeople from Galilee. There, where the Word became flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, an inexhaustible spring of hope and joy arose, never ceasing to inspire the heart of the Church, a pilgrim throughout the course of history.
My pilgrimage came to a close last Friday with a visit to the Holy Sepulcher and with two important ecumenical encounters in Jerusalem: one at the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate, where all the ecclesial representations of the Holy Land gathered together, and, one, finally, in the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchal Church.
The Path to Unity
I am pleased to be able to recapitulate the entire journey I was able to make under the sign of Christ’s resurrection. Despite the many events that have had their effect on the holy sites over the centuries, despite the wars, the destruction and, unfortunately, the conflicts among Christians, the Church has continued her mission, moved by the Spirit of the risen Lord.
She is on the path toward full unity so that the world may believe in God’s love and experience the joy of his peace.
On my knees, on Calvary and at the Holy Sepulcher, I invoked the strength of the love that arises from the paschal mystery, the only force capable of renewing man and orienting history and the cosmos toward its end.
I ask you also to pray for this objective, as we prepare to live the feast of the Ascension, which we here in the Vatican will celebrate tomorrow. Thank you for your attentiveness!