A History of Papal Visits to the Holy Land

On the eve of Pope Francis' visit to Israel this week, we retrace the steps of the three previous papal tours, which usually started in Jordan.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Pope Paul VI on Mount Tabor, 1964.
Pope Paul VI on Mount Tabor, 1964.Credit: GPO
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Pope Francis I will be visiting Israel for the second time this week, but hopefully this time his visit will not be marred by war.

The visit marks the 50th anniversary of the first papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Arriving May 24, Pope Francis will be meeting with Jewish and Muslim leaders and visiting important Jewish sites – and will wrap up the three-day stay with a Holy Mass.

His visit will be quite different from the first, half a century ago, when most of the holy sites, including Bethlehem, weren’t under Israeli control at all. Until 1967, they were controlled by Jordan.

With his flight to the Middle East, Pope Paul VI made history in more ways than one. Just elected a few months earlier, not only was he leaving Rome, in itself quite rare; not only was he leaving Italy, an event that had only happened a few times in papal history; he was leaving Europe – and that was unheard of. Thus Paul VI became the first globetrotting pope.

More about the pope's visit: The gospel according to Francis: Nir Hasson | A Jewish pope? Elon Gilad | Great expectations, great disappointment? Ariel David | What the pope won’t see in Bethlehem: Judy Maltz | Protecting the pontiff: Allison Kaplan Sommer | Too cozy with the church? Anna Momigliano | Israel and Vatican strive to resolve tensions: Ariel David | Jews 'have nothing to discuss' with Vatican: Anna Momigliano | Did the pope say that?!? An interactive quiz | A history of papal visits to the Holy Land: Elon Gilad.By early afternoon that day, Paul XI was walking onto the tarmac of a Jordanian airport outside Amman, where he was greeted by King Hussein.

From Amman, the Pope was driven to Jerusalem in a bulletproof car, stopping at the River Jordan to pray on the banks of the river where tradition holds that Jesus was baptized. After a ceremony at the Apostolic delegation to the Jerusalem, the pope proceeded to the Old City.

Greeted by multitudes

The great multitude that came to greet him in Damascus Square, many with palm fronds in hand, blocked his way into the Old City through Damascus Gate. The Jordanian Police resorted to using whips to clear a way through the crowd.

The pope walked down the Via Dolorosa – the route along which Jesus is said to have carried his cross down to Golgotha, the hill on which he was crucified, where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built.

At the church, the pope held mass, after which he returned to the house of the Apostolic delegation, where he received private audiences. In the evening, he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, which is where Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss and Jesus was taken into custody, according to the gospels of Mark and Matthew.

Pope Paul VI taking leave from members of the Israeli government, the diplomatic corps and President Zalman Shazar (holding book), January 1964. Photo: GPO

At the site of Armageddon

The next day the pope left the Apostolic delegation early, making his way up the West Bank northward, with stops in Nablus and Jenin. Palestinian protesters periodically blocked the motorcade, chanting “Palestine for the Arabs,” “Return our homes,” “Return our land!”

One upshot was that the Israeli leadership was stuck for over an hour waiting for the pope in the freezing January cold outside the Megiddo Museum, at the site where Armageddon is supposed to begin.

When the pope arrived, he and his accompanying cardinals shook hands with Israeli President Zalman Shazar, then with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and other ministers and dignitaries. The two delegations sat across from one another and Shazar gave a speech welcoming the pope to Israel, which was simultaneously translated from Hebrew to French.

When the president finished, the pontiff donned his glasses and read his speech, which was simultaneously translated from French to Hebrew. He ended his speech with “Shalom, shalom” (Hebrew for "peace”), to which the crowd responded with enthusiastic applause.

Pope John Paul II is aided by two unidentified Vatican officials during a wreath laying ceremony at the Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust in Jerusalem,March 23, 2000. Photo by AP

After the short speeches, the pope and president exchanged gifts. The whole ceremony lasted less than half an hour.

Then the pope left for Nazareth, which had renamed its main street after the pontiff and decked it with Israeli and Vatican flags for the occasion.

After a ceremony at the Church of the Annunciation, the pope went down into the church grotto, where tradition has it that the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus. In the small underground cavity, he held a televised mass, followed by a speech.

After breaking his fast at the adjacent Franciscan monastery, the pope proceeded to leave the city. As he was making his way to the car, he was mobbed, but was carried away to safety by a police officer. He entered the car and the motorcade left the city for Mount Tabor, which is believed to be the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus.

From Mount Tabor the pope continued to Capernaum, site of a series of miracles described in the gospels, as well as home to St. Peter. He ate "a simple pilgrim" lunch in the Franciscan monastery on the nearby Mount of Beatitudes, where the famous Sermon on the Mount is said to have taken place. Then he was taken to West Jerusalem, where he was welcomed in a ceremony by Mayor Mordechai Ish-Shalom and city dignitaries.

Rescinding a 1,000-year old excommunication

From there he proceeded to Mount Zion to visit the Upper Room, traditionally said to be the site of the Last Supper. After praying there, he continued to the Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition for another ceremony, after which he crossed the border back into Jordanian East Jerusalem, held some audiences and turned in.

Pope Benedict XVI prays before the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem, May 12, 2009. Photo by Bloomberg

The next morning, the pope held an early morning mass at the Church of the Nativity, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, and then met with Eccumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople on the Mount of Olives. It was a historic meeting between the leaders of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, after hundreds of years since the Great Schism.

This meeting would pave the way to restoring relations between the Eastern and Western churches, and lead to the rescinding of the excommunications of 1054.

Then the pope returned to Amman, where he met with King Hussein once more, and boarded the plane that would take him back to Rome.

Diplomatic relations

It would be many years until another pope would visit Israel. First, diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Jewish state would have to be established. This would take place in 1993, under the pontificate of the recently canonized Pope John Paul II, paving the way for a five-day papal visit to the Holy Land in March 2000, marking the second millennium of the birth of Jesus.

During the visit, Pope John Paul met with then Israeli President Ezer Weizmann, the chief rabbis, and visited Yad Vashem (the official Israeli Holocaust memorial). He also visited the Western Wall, where, as is customary, he placed a note to God.

Much of the visit was focused on repairing relations between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church. The visit was hailed as a success.

Five years later, Pope John Paul II died and was succeeded by Pope Benedict XVI. In May 2009, Pope Benedict made his week-long pilgrimage to the Holy Land, starting in Jordan but mostly spent in Israel. He met with President Shimon Peres and other Israeli dignitaries. Like his predecessors, the pope met with religious leaders and visited the major Christian holy sites.

Like Pope John Paul II, he also visited Yad Vashem and the Western Wall, at which he prayed. He met with Jewish, Christian – including non-Catholic – and Muslim religious leaders, and with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at Manger Square in Bethlehem.

Like the previous three papal pilgrimages, Pope Francis' will also begin in Jordan.

While this is Francis' first visit to Israel as pope, this is not his first time here. Forty years ago, many years before becoming pope, the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio visited the Holy Land, but he didn’t get to see the sites. Just as he arrived, the Yom Kippur War erupted and he spent six days confined to the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, studying St. Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians, before leaving.

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