Catholic communities in Israel are praying for the success of Pope Francis’ visit, but excitement and joy are tinged with disappointment that the visit is so short, and that only one event on his schedule west of the Jordan River is truly open to the public.
The pontiff lands in Amman on May 24, visiting Bethlehem and Jerusalem, before leaving on May 26. (John Paul II visited for five days in 2000, while Benedict XVI visited for eight days in 2009.) The principal goal of the visit, the Vatican has said, is unity of the churches: The Pope’s meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Eastern Orthodox Archbishop of Constantinople in Jerusalem, marks 50 years since the historic encounter between Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch Athenagoras I.
Aside from a mass in Amman on May 24, a mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square the following day is the only scheduled event of the trip that the faithful can attend. With space limited to an estimated 10,000 people, and more than 160,000 Catholics in Israel and the Palestinian territories, according to estimates cited by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, many will miss out.
The fact that the pope has so little time “is very sad for a lot of people,” says Rev. Father David Neuhaus S.J., patriarchal vicar for Israel’s Hebrew-speaking Catholic communities. “We are hoping that he comes back again so he can meet the faithful.”
The decision not to include a visit to Nazareth and the Galilee, where there is a prominent Christian community, is also a sore point among Christians in the area. “It is no secret that people in the Galilee aren’t happy,” says Wadie Abunassar, who heads a think tank in Haifa and was involved in media for the two past papal visits, “But they say, we respect the decision.”
Despite the disappointment of some, there is also “lots of excitement and expectation, as there would be of any pope,” says Neuhaus, who witnessed the two previous visits. The difference, he says, is that Pope Francis is perceived as warmer and more spontaneous, and “people will be playing close attention to gestures and words.”
At an annual procession in honor of the Virgin Mary in Haifa on Sunday, May 11, participants carried posters of the pope, he says, and there was much enthusiasm for the visit.
One person lucky enough to land tickets to the Bethlehem mass is Beatrice Abuso, a migrant from the Philippines. “Wow, I can say wow. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us, I’m really, really, really excited, and looking forward to this visit,” she says.
Abuso’s church, Divine Mercy Chapel, near Tel Aviv’s central bus station, has a congregation of around 1,000, mainly from the Philippines, and others from India, Sri Lanka and Eritrea. Abuso is organizing five buses to transport the lucky 100 ticket-holders, and another 150 non-ticket holders who want to at least be in Bethlehem for the event. “Everyone is just dying to go,” she says.
Tickets were divided between parishes, and a set of criteria agreed upon so people active in church communities will be first in line. Tourists are not eligible.
Unity of the churches
With ecumenism the focus of the visit, Catholic communities are organizing a nine-day prayer initiative starting May 14, raising awareness of the need for community prayer, praying for the success of the pilgrimage and the meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew.
Pupils at the Terra Sancta School for Girls at Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate will be taking part, says its principal, Sister Frida Nasser. Sister Nasser was 16 at the time of an historic 1964 papal visit, and she remembers the excitement. “Everyone was out on the road to greet him,” she recalls.
In preparation this year, posters of Pope Francis decorate the school playground and classrooms. Meanwhile, teachers have talked to students about the Pope’s position in the church, his significance to Christians, and the fact that church unity is the aim of the visit.
Christians in Israel live their day-to-day lives together regardless of denomination, says Firas Abedrabbo, from Beit Jala, who works at the media office of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the issue of church division is close to his heart. “My own family has Orthodox Christian members through marriage, there is no rigid separation,” he says. It pains him, he says, to see division at the level of leadership and dogma, and he hopes the visit will help.
Pope Francis is coming to Israel at a complex time, with recently collapsed peace talks, inter-faith tensions and hate crimes hitting the headlines.
“There are going to be blessings from this visit, and we don’t want to live according to tensions of the extremist fringe, or political tensions,” says Neuhaus. They also believe the visit will benefit Christians, Muslims and Jews alike, and the peace process. “We are hoping he will bring words of wisdom for leaders of the country,” he says.
One person feeling particularly upbeat about the pope’s pilgrimage is a young Venezuelan student who won a Tourism Ministry contest to visit the Holy Land at the same time as Pope Francis. Gustavo Adolfo Franco Picaza, 22, will be traveling with his mother on the all-expenses paid trip. Franco Picaza “cried, jumped and danced with joy” at the news, he told Haaretz. But will he get the opportunity to see or meet the pontiff?
“I sincerely hope I will have the opportunity to see him, and above all to meet him. I would like to bring him a message of love, and pray together with him,” he says.
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