Following in the footsteps of his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Pope Francis on Saturday travelled to the site on the banks of the River Jordan believed by some experts to be the exact spot where Jesus came to be baptised by John the Baptist. Archaeological excavations, which began in 1999, are still going on to uncover the different ancient churches that were built over the spot in the first centuries but have long since been destroyed by earthquakes and wars. Looking out across the windswept desert landscape, it’s quite clear that little has changed since the days of the prophets and first Christian hermits who inhabited the caves in the surrounding hillsides. Close to Al-Maghtas, as the Baptism site is known in Arabic, pilgrims can climb the hill where Elijah lived and from where he ascended into heaven in his chariot of fire. And it’s at this same spot that Joshua led the Israelites, following Moses death, across the River Jordan to continue their journey to the Promised Land.
Located at 350 metres below sea level, close to where the Jordan flows into the Dead Sea, this popular tourist spot is located within sight of the ancient walled city of Jericho, believed to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. The actual Baptism site on the river bank is surrounded by reeds and low bushes offering a natural habitat for bees that continue to provide honey for local people, just as they did in John the Baptist’s day. Back then, as we know from ancient texts, the waters were deep enough for people to immerse themselves as they came to be baptised by the man who is still the patron saint of the Hashemite Kingdom. But today the River Jordan is polluted and reduced to a trickle in many places and there are several international organisations working to preserve this natural environment and safeguard its precious resources.
After arriving at the site in an oversized golf cart driven by his host, King Abdullah, Pope Francis walked down the stone steps to the waters’ edge and spent a few moments in silent prayer. He was then driven to the nearby Catholic Church which is still under construction following its inauguration during the 2009 visit of Pope Benedict XVI. Here he met with several hundred refugees and young disabled people, reminding them that Jesus came to be baptised by John so that he could fully take on our human condition and heal us through his love. Here too he made his second appeal of the day for an end to the conflict in neighbouring Syria. Departing from his prepared text, he denounced in the strongest possible terms those who sells weapons to warring parties. The root of evil and conflict, he said is ”the hatred and greed for money” of those who produce and sell arms and he prayed that God would convert the hearts of “these criminals, these poor people.” The Pope thanked the Jordanian government and people for the way they have welcomed so many refugees and praised the work of organisations like Caritas Jordan who provide assistance and solidarity to all, regardless of religious beliefs, ethnic origins or political persuasions. Asking God to change the hearts of the violent and those who seek war, the Pope also urged the international community to support Jordan in the task of tackling the humanitarian emergency caused by the arrival of so many refugees.
It may have been a very short visit to Jordan but the Pope’s words will certainly be ringing in the ears of leaders across this troubled region and beyond.
By: Vatican Radio