Tiny Flock Awaits Pope

Pope Benedict XVI is expected to focus on the dwindling Christian population in the Holy Land as he visits there May 8-15.

JERUSALEM — The primary goal of Pope Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land is to provide much-needed encouragement to the region’s fast-dwindling Christian community.

That’s according to Vatican and local Church officials.

During the visit, which will take place in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian-ruled West Bank from May 8-15, Pope Benedict will celebrate large outdoor Masses in Jordan’s capital, Amman; Jerusalem and Nazareth in Israel; and in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

In Jordan, the Pope will visit Mount Nebo, where Moses gazed at the Promised Land, and the site of Christ’s baptism on the Jordan River. Muslim leaders will greet him at the Mosque of al-Hussein bin Talal, the largest mosque in Jordan.

In Israel, the Pope will celebrate Mass in Galilee and pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. He will pray the Regina Caeli at the Cenacle in Jerusalem.

He will meet with the mufti of Jerusalem as well as Israel’s chief rabbis and visit the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, accompanied by Israeli President Shimon Peres.

The third leg of the visit will include a Mass in Manger Square and a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp, as well as a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Although the Pope will meet with political leaders from all three places and thousands of visitors from the U.S., Europe and elsewhere are expected to arrive, the Pope’s visit is seen first of all as a pastoral visit, to meet the “living stones” of the Church, said Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Franciscan custodian of the Holy Land.

The pilgrimage, only the third Holy Land visit by a pope, comes at a time of deep frustration for most local Christians, the vast majority of whom are ethnically Palestinian. Sixty percent reside in Israel, and virtually all of the rest live in the West Bank. Only about 2,500 remain in Gaza.

Israel’s security barrier, which has prevented terrorist incursions into Israel but locked Palestinians into the West Bank, has led to a great deal of frustration, Father Pizzaballa said.

The same is true in Gaza — more so even. West Bank “Christians, lawyers and architects, are leaving,” he said. “If you live in Bethlehem and want to work as a surgeon, there are no prospects. You must move abroad.”

“We hope his visit will help us to stay in our land, in our pastoral work, and to encourage us to avoid emigration,” Bishop Fouad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, told Catholic News Service when the trip was announced in March. “We hope it will encourage us toward more dialogue, more justice and more peace.”

Bad Timing?

Some Palestinians have criticized the timing of the visit, asserting that Israel should be punished for its military operation of the Gaza Strip in late December 2008. Israel entered the strip to halt Hamas rocket attacks into Israel. Both Christians and Muslims said they were disappointed that the Pope will not be visiting Gaza, but are pleased he will be visiting a refugee camp.

“If we can’t go to Gaza, we will bring Gaza to him,” Patriarch Twal said.

Some Jews are worried that the papal visit and the security surrounding it could disrupt prayer at the Western Wall. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, rabbi of the Wall complex, told Ynet, an Israeli news website, that “it is inconceivable that the Pope’s visit would hurt worshippers at the Western Wall, some of whom have been praying there daily.”

While logistics for the Pope’s visit are complex, Church and Israeli officials said, they pale in comparison to the 2000 pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II on the occasion of the Jubilee Year. Some 40,000 pilgrims joined John Paul during his visit, while 10,000 to 20,000 are expected this time around.

This promises to be a much more low-key visit, said Franciscan Father Fergus Clarke, who maintains the Catholic portion of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (The church is shared by six Catholic and Orthodox Churches.) In contrast to John Paul, he said, Pope Benedict will pray in the church but not celebrate Mass there.

Even so, Father Clarke said Pope Benedict will receive the highest honor a visitor can receive: He will be greeted by the heads of the three major Churches: Latin Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox before the closed doors of the church, which will be specially opened for the occasion by the Muslim caretaker whose family has been entrusted with the key for more than 1,000 years.

Counting the Days

Despite some turf battles between the denominations (think “six families sharing the same kitchen”), the papal visit is being celebrated by all Christians, Father Clarke said with a smile.

During a tour of the beautiful church, built on the site where Jesus was crucified and buried, Father Clarke predicted that the pilgrimage will affect everyone in the region in a positive way.

“It is good for the Israelis and the Palestinians because it will promote tourism, and tourism is good for everyone. Tourism is the antithesis of terrorism,” the Franciscan said.

Father Pizzaballa said the planned pilgrimage is already having an effect.

“It is a signal to Christians all over the world that the Holy Land is unique. Also, as we know, in recent months, there have been some misunderstandings between the Vatican and the Jewish people,” Father Pizzaballa said. “Despite some stresses, our relations with the Jewish world and the Muslim world are extremely important.”

Many Jews were upset when Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, likened the Gaza Strip under Israeli bombardment to a “big concentration camp.” They were also angered by Pope Benedict’s decision to lift an excommunication from a bishop who minimized the extent of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust.

While few Jews and Muslims appeared to know the exact details of the papal visit, local Christians are counting the days until Pope Benedict’s arrival.

“We’re so, so excited,” said a 10-year-old Catholic girl named Maryam who was buying groceries for her family in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. “I was just a baby when the first pope visited.”

Maryam said an older brother and many other relatives have emigrated in recent years. “I know they have a good life,” the ponytailed girl said, “but I don’t want to move away. Jerusalem is our home.”

Michele Chabin writes

from Jerusalem.