JERUSALEM – Wednesday 30 April 2014. In view of Pope Francis impending visit to the Holy Land, the local Church sets itself anxiously ready to welcome the Pastor of the Universal Church, who eversince his election cares to spread the Evangelical message in a new breath. From our side, we thought it is time to gather expectations and impressions from Palestinian Christians, clergy and laymen alike.
Fifty years have passed since the visit of Paul VI to the Holy land in 1964. These Papal journeys have become a tradition. In the footsteps of Saint Pope John Paul II, the Pope of Hope, who came to the Holy Land in year 2000, and of Pope Benedict XVI, the Pope of Faith, who came here in 2008, the Pope of Mercy, Pope Francis, is expected over here within three weeks. From Hope to Faith and onwards to Mercy, the followers of St. Peter call on us to follow the path inspired by the Holy Gospel – a path of liberty, which is highly needed by Palestinians!
A spiritual pilgrimage and confirmation of Christians in heir Faith
From her side, Sr. Virginie Habib, a Rosary Sister, Director of the Diocese Catechism Center, hopes much out of this visit. “ I do hope that this visit will serve to renew spiritually believers of the Holy Land in their Faith. I hope that the presence of the Holy Father among us will help our Christian people to get closer to Church and to drive roots yet deeper more in their Faith and in their homeland. I follow with emotion this watchfulness that the Pope, Head of the Universal Church, shows towards our Local Church”
In Jerusalem many Christians who had lived from close the pilgrimage of Pope Paul VI in 1964, the visits of John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, await now anxiously the visit of Pope Francis. Among them Emmanuel Helou, retired now, and who as a young man had closely followed the pilgrimage of Paul VI. He recalls: As a Jerusalemite, I say with pride that I have experienced the visits to the Holy Land of three Popes, soon enough the fourth! As regards the visit of Paul VI, it had taken place amidst a geopolitical atmosphere that is totally different from the one we experience nowadays in the Holy Land I remember the vast, unparalleled enthusiasm left by this visit in my heart and in the hearts of Christians at that time. It was the first visit of a Pope in the Holy Land! That’s what turned it into a historical event. I also remember my heartfelt emotions when I saw, just two meters away from me, Pope Paul VI, exhausted, walking up all the Via Dolorosa, surrounded and followed by huge crowds of faithful coming to greet him!” Referring to the upcoming visit of Pope Francis, Emmanuel adds: “This visit will be a pretty short one! However, I hold high hopes that it will be a success despite the difficult conditions affecting our country and the major problems faced by the Church. I sincerely hope that this visit will give to people of this land a lesson in humility, charity and mercy- of which the Pope Francis is a striking and living example!”
An on-going tradition
On his part, Fr. Rafiq says that these Papal visits to the Holy Land are becoming a current tradition since Paul VI. He had closely followed the visit of the Pope of Vatican II Council. At that time Fr Rafiq was still a seminarian, in the last years of his priestly formation in Beit Jala. He narrates: “Fifty years have passed since the visit of Pope Paul VI to the Holy Land, the first visit of St Peter’s successor since the founding of the Church! It was a very important visit, especially from an ecumenical point of view. It marked the opening of a wide ecumenical dynamism, the fruits of which are reaped today. The visit of Pope Francis actually commemorates the 50th anniversary of a historical ecumenical encounter”. Upholding the popularity of Pope Francis among Christians of the Holy Land, Fr. Rafiq goes on: “We should admit that the road is prepared for the visit of Pope Francis, his popularity having preceded him to here, where ordinary people could see that the Pope has set up new rules regarding the relationship of the Church with the world and its miscellaneous issues. All of that through simple gestures but which draw towards him everybody else”.
Indeed Pope Francis has succeeded in helping many people who left the Church to reconcile with God and with their Christian Faith. He also helped many of those, who have never left the Church, to remain firm and to deepen a living faith. It is in this contact that Khader Habash, a lawyer working for the Church court, explain to us his personal experience with Pope Francis “As soon as he had first appeared on the balcony of the Vatican, I felt he would be different. And I wondered: “what would he do for the sake of the world, this Pope?! What impressed me most on that day was that he asked people to pray for him. Eversince, I am seeing every day a new surprise coming from his side. For me he comes to draw anew the icon of Christ inside our hearts!”
The dream of the Churches unity and peace in the Holy Land
Ecumenism is at the heart of this visit, but in the Holy Land the political dimension is never remote. The political dimension, that is to say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the striking injustice which this conflict leaves on the Palestinian people, whether Christians or Moslems. Fr Rafiq points out “ all what we wish for, is that this visit will give a new boost to the ecumenical dialogue in the Holy Land. That the Pope will send out a clear, firm and strong appeal for a just and sustainable peace in the Holy Land. Precisely at this juncture where peace talks are stalled, for they were not conducted along a right path, and so could reach nowhere”. That is also the hope that fills Khader’s heart who again repeats: we expect from the Pope concrete pushes in terms of ecumenical dialogue, and also, very simply, a word of truth for the peace process in the Holy Land”.
By: Firas Abedrabbo- LSP