In a few weeks, at the end of this month, Pope Francis will follow in the footsteps of his immediate two papal predecessors, by making a religious/diplomatic pilgrimage to the Holy Land to visit Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Pope John Paul II did so in March 2000, and Pope Benedict visited in 2009. I was privileged to participate in welcoming the Pope on both occasions. However, this time, I will be out of the country at the time of the visit, so I will welcome Pope Francis on this blog.
Who would have imagined that the third pope in 15 years will be visiting Israel -- the nation state of the Jewish people -- and Palestine and Jordan? This would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago.
Why is he coming to the region at this time? What message will he bring with him for us?
The official answer is not directly related to Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Pope's office in an official press release has described the visit to the Holy Land as "a pilgrimage of prayer" and has said that the "main purpose" of his three-day visit is "to commemorate the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, which took place on 5 January 1964 exactly 50 years ago." Athenagoras' successor as Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), Bartholomew I, who is recognized as "first among equals" in the leadership of the 250 million-member worldwide Orthodox Church, attended the inauguration of Francis as Pope in St. Peter's Square on March 19, 2013 -- the first time in over a thousand years that a leader of the Orthodox Church attended this inauguration. Now, he has invited Francis to join him in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first encounter between a Pope and an Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople since the Great Western Schism in 1054.
But, according to my sources in Rome, there are other important aims to this visit, although not stated explicitly. These include: strengthening relations between Catholics and Jews in Israel and between Catholics and Muslims in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories; seeking to foster Christian-Jewish-Muslim dialogue; advocating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the creation of two sovereign independent states and reconciliation between the two peoples; and confirming Christians in their faith and encouraging them to remain in the Holy Land.
In addition to that, the Pope will be here to reaffirm his strong relations with the Jewish People and the Jewish State, and he will undoubtedly bring a religious message of hope for the future, not only for us, but for the region as well, including of course for the Palestinians.
What is the background to this visit?
Since December 30, 1993 -- when the Fundamental Agreement between the State of Israel and the Holy See was signed at the Israeli Foreign Ministry ( I was there in person to witness it) -- there have been full diplomatic relations between these two sovereign entities. Not only has the Vatican recognized Israel as the state of the Jewish people, but Israel has recognized the Vatican(!) and entered into a relationship with its leadership. Undoubtedly these are among the most important diplomatic achievements Israel and the Vatican have achieved in recent times.
The 1993 agreement was a part of the ongoing revolution in relations between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church since the end of World War II. Ever since the proclamation known as "Nostra Aetate" ("In Our Time"), in October 1965, we live in a new era -- the era of dialogue not diatribe, cooperation rather than confrontation, partnership instead of persecution. Indeed, the preamble of this historic agreement states clearly that its framers were
aware of the unique nature of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, and of the historic process of reconciliation and growth in mutual understanding and friendship between Catholics and Jews.
In addition to reaffirming diplomatic relations, Pope Francis will come to the region with a message of peace, to be achieved through dialogue.
Pope Benedict did this too. At the end of his first day in Jerusalem, on May 11, 2009, he paid tribute to all those people and organizations in Israel and Palestine that actually engage in interreligious and intercultural dialogue for peace in our part of the world. I was honored to help organize and attend a special convocation and reception at the Notre Dame cultural center in the heart of Jerusalem, at which the pope acknowledged and encouraged people working in this field, like myself and many of my colleagues, to continue and expand their work.
Very few people know about the quiet achievements of those engaged in interreligious dialogue and action groups involving religious leaders, youth, young adults and educators in Israel and Palestine. They meet regularly, encountering the divine image in the Other and engaging in reconciliatory action projects to mitigate hatred and violence. They offer an alternative path to conflict, one learning to live together in harmony and in mutual respect.
Undoubtedly, as with his predecessors, one of Pope Francis' most vital messages on this trip will be another heartfelt call for peace and reconciliation among the peoples of the different nationalities and religions who live in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Hopefully, this pilgrimage will also be remembered in history as another important milestone in the strengthening of ties between the Holy See, the Jewish People and the State of Israel.
Accordingly, I welcome Pope Francis to Israel in advance. I would only wish that the people of Israel and the region would be genuinely open to the message of peace that we will bring with him. We need it now, more than ever before.