Praying With the Pope

Follow in the footsteps of Pope Francis as he touches down for a whirlwind Mideast tour.

AFP

Papal pilgrimages to the Holy Land are hardly a tradition: The first incumbent ever to make the journey was Paul VI, in January 1964. Jerusalem was still a divided city back then, and the Vatican did not officially recognize Israel. But times have changed. Diplomatic relations were established in 1994, and the visit of Pope John Paul II in 2000 was seen by many as a triumph. Will the same be true of Pope Francis’ much-hyped visit to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan this week? Haaretz offers a few observations on selected events in the pope’s frenetic schedule.

Saturday, May 24, 7 P.M.: Visit to the Baptismal Site at “Bethany beyond the Jordan”

Given Jordan’s bid to attract more Christian pilgrims, King Abdullah of Jordan is no doubt pleased to have secured a meeting with the pope at this site. It has often been assumed that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist on the Palestinian west bank of the River Jordan, perhaps at the so-called Qasr el-Yahud, a modest site now restored by Israel. But the Gospel of John (1:28) specifically relates the event to “Bethany beyond the Jordan” (in the Hashemite Kingdom of today). New churches on the Jordanian side of the river bear witness to the growing popularity of that identification.

Sunday, May 25, 11 A.M.: Holy Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square / 3 P.M.: Private visit to the Grotto of the Nativity

The Christian population of this Palestinian city has dramatically diminished in recent decades. A high-profile outdoor Mass will surely encourage the Catholic faithful; but Bethlehem’s believers speak with many voices, and it is uncertain whether the pope’s visit will ease the precarious situation of smaller denominations, given their dwindling numbers.

The Grotto of the Nativity, shared by the Latins (Roman Catholics) and Greek Orthodox, enshrines the birth narrative of Jesus. The cavernous 6th-century church above it is the oldest standing church in the Holy Land.

Sunday, May 25, 6:15 P.M.: Private meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in Jerusalem / 7 P.M.: Ecumenical meeting in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher

“The main purpose of this pilgrimage of prayer,” said Pope Francis, when he announced the Holy Land trip in January, “is to commemorate the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, which took place … exactly 50 years ago.” The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople — a Greek — does not have the decisive authority of a pope, but he is ‘first among equals’ of the Eastern Orthodox bishops. He has prerogatives in several areas, among them ecumenical relations with other branches of Christianity. The 1964 meeting of the pope and the patriarch turned back the clock, rescinding the mutual excommunications that were issued when the church split dramatically in 1054. On the current visit, the several public and private meetings between Francis and the incumbent Patriarch Bartholomew I are designed to underscore the reconciliation between two great branches of Christendom.

The Holy Sepulcher is venerated by the majority of Christians as the site of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Six different denominations share the huge 12th-century church, often uneasily, with the Greek Orthodox visibly playing the lead role. The strict choreography of who possesses what, prays where and holds processions when is determined by the Status Quo Agreement of 1853, but altercations between groups have occurred as recently as 2008.

Monday, May 26, 9:10 A.M.: Western Wall / 9:45 A.M.: Wreath-laying on Mount Herzl / 10 A.M.: YadVashem (Holocaust memorial)

The separate meetings of Pope Francis with the president and prime minister of Israel are important, of course, but his visits to the nation’s most revered sites will probably provide the more dramatic photo ops. The Western Wall defines the edge of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City. With the destruction of the Jewish Temple 19 centuries ago, the wall became venerated as its proxy site. Mount Herzl, on Jerusalem’s western rim, is the national cemetery for Israeli leaders and thousands of the nation’s fallen soldiers. Yad Vashem is a campus, museum and memorial, dedicated to the millions of Jewish victims of Nazi terror. All three are concerned with Jewish memory, sometimes reaching back millennia, sometimes only decades.

In addition to the usual entourage of top-level clerics, Pope Francis will be accompanied by two old friends from his native Argentina, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim Sheikh Omar Abbud. “Although there won’t be specific inter-religious meetings,the whole trip will be so,” said Fr. Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office.

Click here to view the full itinerary.