Papal Pilgrim

In his historic visit to the Holy Land, Pope John Paul II once again captured the imagination of the world. The stooped figure in white with shaking hands somehow projected a strength beyond reason, a spiritual strength that came from an absolute faith in his mission to proclaim God’s love and Christ’s kingdom of justice and peace.

Many commentators had earlier labeled his visit to Castro’s Cuba as the pope’s last hurrah. The constant stream of media stories focusing on his health had given the impression that John Paul’s papacy was on its last legs. But the pope continues to surprise the media and to wear out both them and his entourage with his exhausting schedule. Undoubtedly he has a few more surprises for us.


The pope had four goals for his trip to the Holy Land. First, the Vatican insisted that it was a personal pilgrimage, and so it was. As a man who had read and prayed over the Scriptures all his life, he longed to see and walk on the sacred land of the Bible. Alas, the poor man was given little time or solitude for personal prayer. On Mount Nebo, for example, he had only about 10 minutes for prayer and two minutes to look at the view. He then spent almost an hour greeting officials and the children’s choir at the site where Moses first spied the Promised Land. At holy site after holy site, he was hardly ever left alone. On his last day, when he was supposed to be resting, the pope made an unscheduled second visit to the Holy Sepulcher so that he could pray. One is reminded of Jesus sneaking off in the morning to pray, only to be tracked down by his disciples who made him go back to work.

A second goal of the pope’s visit was to help the peace process in any way he could. It was not lost on him that negotiations were continuing during his visit between Israel and Syria and between Israel and the Palestinians. His message of reconciliation and peace was therefore very much needed. With evenhanded words and gestures, he negotiated a political minefield that has damaged many others, most recently the French premier. As the pope who established diplomatic relations with Israel, John Paul clearly acknowledged Israel’s right to exist and be secure, but he also spoke of the human and political rights of the Palestinians. He met with Israeli and Palestinian officials alike, but he refused to acknowledge Jerusalem as the sole capital of either. It is a city that belongs to all three faiths, he insisted. He spoke of a homeland for the Palestinians, but avoided the word "state," which would have antagonized the Israelis. He balanced his visit to the Holocaust memorial with a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp.

The third goal of the trip was to foster interreligious dialogue between Catholics and Jews, between Catholics and Muslims and among all those who share Abraham as their father in faith. While there was still some grumbling about Pius XII, most Jews appeared deeply moved by his presence at Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, and his visit to the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem. Here a television picture was worth more than a thousand words. The Jews of Israel saw a pope who truly mourned the victims of the Holocaust and greeted by name survivors he knew personally. They watched him follow the example of thousands of Jews who had left their prayers at the Western Wall. These images, more than any papal document, brought home to Israelis how much the Catholic Church had changed in its attitude toward the Jewish people.

Also of significance was his visit to the offices of the chief rabbinate. Although prior to his visit the media reported rabbinical opposition to his visit, when John Paul met with the rabbis there was a spontaneous outpouring of affection from them. For the Orthodox rabbis, who have not been keen on dialogue with Christians, the pope’s coming to them (rather than insisting on their coming to him) was taken as an important and significant gesture.

Nor were the Muslim religious leaders slighted in the pope’s visit. He met with them, as he had in Egypt. He also visited the Dome of the Rock, Islam’s sacred site in Jerusalem. Alas, his hopes for a three-way dialogue did not bear much fruit because of political differences that divide Muslims and Jews. But John Paul planted the seed and will continue to nurture it.

The fourth goal of the pope’s visit, which received little publicity, was to support and strengthen the declining Christian population of the Holy Land, who are pressed economically and politically from all sides. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Christians have departed since the birth of Israel in 1948. Arab Christians now make up only 2 percent of the population of Israel and the West Bank, and young people are leaving at every opportunity. The pope also stressed the importance of ecumenism among Christian churches, which often scandalize pilgrims with their turf battles over sacred sites.

The visit of Pope John Paul II to the land of Abraham, Moses and Jesus will be long remembered as a high point of this jubilee year. Along with the pope, we pray with faith and hope that his pilgrimage continues to bear fruit in the years ahead.

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