Pope Francis is set to make a historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land from May 24 to 26. The prime aims of the trip is to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem. The Holy Father will visit Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.
‘We are working non-stop for the visit of Pope Francis: he wants to meet the poor, the disabled, the ill, orphans and the elderly. He will meet 400 of them in Bethany beyond the Jordan, the site of the baptism of Jesus. This will be followed by a mass with 35,000 worshippers in the stadium in Amman. He will certainly come with his smile, his humility and his humanity. Nobody can predict what he will say: he will give us his surprisesÖ’. The Achbishop Maroun Lahham, Vicar for Jordan of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, is looking forward to 24th May, the day of the Popeís arrival in Jordan, with trepidation.
The Christians in Jordan are a small minority, about 220,000 out of just over 6 million inhabitants, 2.8-3% of the total population. Of these 220,000, about half are Orthodox and the other half, are Catholics, mostly of the Latin rite. ‘The Christians of Jordan are a small but growing community; one century ago, in the 1920s, there were about 15,000 of us, in the 1950s, we numbered 150,000 and today there are more than 200,000 of us. This number is growing in absolute terms, through decreasing as a percentage, because our Muslim fellow citizens have more children and grow more quickly’, said Archbishop Lahham.
Talking about the dialogue with Islam, the Archbishop said: ‘In Jordan, dialogue with Islam is possible, which we do in three ways: dialogue of life, intellectual dialogue and spiritual dialogue. The dialogue of life takes place, for example, in the Catholic schools, where half of the pupils are Muslims: the youngsters grow up together, know one another, respect one another and become friends. Then there is the intellectual dialogue, that of the conferences and scholars: it is an important dialogue because it lets you exchange ideas, although generally it goes no further than mutual compliments. Lastly, there is spiritual dialogue, which is the finest, because you speak about your experience with God, a dialogue of prayer and spirituality. Here in Jordan I know some Muslim sheikhs who, I would say, only need baptism…’
The motto for the pilgrimage is, ‘So that they may be one’. Since the beginning, The Holy Father has insisted that the meeting with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and the heads of the Churches in Jerusalem will be at the centre of his pilgrimage. This is to commemorate and renew the commitment to unity expressed by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople 50 years ago in Jerusalem.
Bartholomew, who became the first ecumenical leader to attend a papal inauguration since the Schism, will join Francis in Jerusalem. The 74-year old leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church travelled to Rome for Francis’ inaugural Mass in March 2013.
On 25 May, in the afternoon, the two religious leaders will meet privately at the Apostolic Delegation in Jerusalem, and will sign a joint declaration. Then, they will pay a visit to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. An ecumenical meeting will take place and the heads of local Churches will also attend.
The Progress So Far
Since the 1964 meeting between Paul and Athenagoras, much progress has been made in terms of overcoming the prejudices and misunderstandings between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. For one, both leaders lifted the mutual excommunications imposed by the Eastern and Western Churches, which were a consequence of the Great Schism in 1054. In recent times, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has also sent delegations to Rome for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. The Church of Rome, on the other hand, has been reciprocating this filial gesture by sending its representatives to Turkey on the Feast of St. Andrew, Patron of the Patriarchate.
Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have also visited the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Turkey in 1979 and 2006, respectively. Meanwhile, Bartholomew made it clear that advancing Orthodox-Catholic relations is among his priorities, by attending Pope Francisí installation as Bishop of Rome, the first such gesture by an Ecumenical Patriarch since the 11th century Schism.
Most importantly, formal dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, which began in 1980, continues to this day. In October 2007, the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, during its 10th plenary session in Ravenna, Italy, issued what observers called a ‘breakthrough’ document in terms of the advancement of the ecumenical cause. In that ‘Ravenna document’, member-theologians unanimously recognized the Bishop of Rome as the protos, the bishop of the ‘first diocese’, as he used to be regarded in the Church in the first millennium.
A Brother’s Embrace
Very early in his papacy, Francis also underscored the importance of continuing the dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox Christians. In fact, the Popeís first words in his urbi et orbi address (‘to the city and to the world’) upon his election as the successor of St. Peter on 13 March 2013, hinted at his desire for unity and dialogue between estranged Christians. In his first remarks from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Holy Father repeatedly referred to himself as the ‘Bishop of Rome’. Although many perceived this merely as Francis’ commitment to become a more visible and active pastor of his diocese, which his predecessors may have overlooked by exercising their office more on the international level, some observers believe it is a signal to move the ecumenical dialogue forward. Pope Francis went on to say that he is the bishop of ‘the church of Rome, which is the one that presides in charity over all the churches’, who begins his journey of ‘brotherhood, love and trust’ with his flock.
A week after this, during the audience with representatives of the various churches and religions a day after his installation to the Petrine Ministry, Pope Francis referred to Patriarch Bartholomew as ‘my brother Andrew’. St. Andrew, Bartholomew’s predecessor was, in fact, St. Peterís sibling. In the same audience, the Holy Father renewed his call for unity among the Christian Churches.
Continuing his journey, on Monday 26 May, Pope Francis will pay a visit to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, Palestinians’ leading religious figure, at the Great Council on the Esplanade of the Mosques. He will then go to visit the Western Wall, arguably the most sacred Jewish site, and lay a wreath at Mount Herzl or the Mount of Remembrance, the site of Israel’s national cemetery and Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem.
Francis will also visit and speak at Yad Vashem before meeting Israelís two chief rabbis, Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau, at the Heichal Shlomo Centre next to the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem. He will then meet Polish-born, Israeli President Shimon Peres at the presidential palace before his appointment with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Notre Dame Centre.
In the afternoon, Pope Francis will meet again with the Patriarch Bartholomew in his residence on the Mount of Olives. After that, he will celebrate Mass at the Cenacle (the site of Jesus’ Last Supper) together with the Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, as John Paul II did in 2000. From there, Pope Francis will end his trip, leaving Tel Aviv for Rome, concluding a tour that many hope will solidify the bonds already strengthening between the Catholic and Orthodox communities.