Paul VI’s trip to the Holy Land 50 years ago marked he dawn of papal visits

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In January 1964 Pope Paul VI embarked on his visit to Jesus’ homeland, where the great embrace with the Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras, took place. Here is the story of his historic trip.

It was the first of Paul VI’s nine trips outside Italy (no Pope had left Italy’s borders since 1812, the year in which Pius VII was exiled by Napoleon to Fontainebleau). In January 1964, when the Council had already opened, Pope Montini went on a brief but intense three-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land, visiting fifteen places in two countries. In May 2012, Pope Francis will be visiting the Holy Land to embrace the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Paul VI’s visit.

At the end of the second Vatican II session on 4 December 1963, Pope Montini made a surprise announcement to the Council fathers: “I would now like to communicate something to you that we have had our hearts set on for some time… We are certain that in order for this Council to have a positive outcome, we must raise humble prayers and multiply our actions. After much reflection and having prayed a great deal to the Lord, we have decided to undertake a pilgrimage to that land which is the home of our Lord Jesus Christ… in order to recall the main mysteries of our salvation,that is incarnation and redemption.”

“We will see that time-honoured land,” Paul VI said, “where St. Peter started off from, a land to which none of his successors ever returned. We will return there in a spirit of devour prayer and spiritual renewal to pay the humblest and briefest of visits and offer Christ his Church; to bring our separated Brothers back to the one and holy Church; to ask for divine mercy, in the name of peace.”

The idea for the visit to Jesus’ homeland appears in one of the Pope’s handwritten notes, dated September 21, 1963. “After a great deal of reflection and having invoked the divine light… it seems it would be good to look into the possibility of a papal visit to the Holy Places in Palestine would be a good thing… May this pilgrimage be very brief, simple and take place in a spirit of piety, penitence and generosity.” This was the only one of the Pope’s trips that did not take place for a specific reason or to celebrate a special event or in response to an invitation.

The Pope secretly sent Mgr. Jacques Martin, a French prelate from the Secretary of State and his personal secretary, Fr. Pasquale Macchi to the Holy Land in preparation for his visit. Paul VI had wanted to visit Damascus as well, to follow in the footsteps of the apostle of the people whose name the Pope had chosen. But this proved impossible. Before the trip, Montini asked Fr. Giulio Bevilacqua to preach a spiritual retreat for all those who were going on the pilgrimage. The Custody of the Holy Land was tasked with organizing all the various religious events and setting up a press centre for the thousands of journalists who were to cover the event.

Paul VI set off from Rome on 4 January 1964 on his way to Amman, where he was welcomed by King Hussein of Jordan. He gave the Pope a plaque made from olive wood from the Garden of Gethsemane. At the brief welcome ceremony which lasted just a few minutes, the King was visibly moved and thanked the Pope for honouring Jordan with his visit. Paul VI said: “Whoever wants to love life and live happily, must steer clear of evil and do good, they must seek peace and pursue it.” The motorcade crossed the 100 kilometres that separate Amman from Jerusalem, with the king following in his small private jet.

People stood on the sides of roads waiting for him, his car blushing against the many outstretched hands. At 15:20 the motorcade made its first stop. The Pope’s car approached the banks of the Jordan river where tradition says Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. The Pope went down to the river wearing a white coat and a red “Saturn” hat. Despite the slippery ground, he makes it with the help of two guards and pronounced the “Our Father”, blessing the small crowd that had gathered around him.

Before arriving in Jerusalem, Paul VI stopped off in Bethany, the small village on the Mount of Olives, Paul VI visited the remains of the home of Lazarus, accompanied by members of the Franciscan Custody. He stopped to pray in the little yellow stone church and released a dove as he exited.

The journey through the desert was over. Paul VI could just make out Jerusalem’s Old City Walls from the car. The Jordanian and Holy See flags adorned Damascus Gate. Two huge black and white photographs, one of Paul VI and one of King Hussein, were placed above the historical entrance to the city. The Pope was surrounded by people and guards were unable to guarantee his safety despite their hardest efforts.

Images showed the Pope surrounded by Jordanian soldiers as he was being dragged away by the strong current of people moving through the streets of the Holy City. Paul VI made it to the Holy Sepulchre safe and sound and celebrated a mass. That evening, Fr. Giulio Bevilacqua, a friend of the Pope’s, revealed to a group of journalists gathered outside the Apostolic Delegation in Jerusalem, something Montini had confided to him many years prior to the visit: “I dream of a Pope who lives free from pomp and ceremony and is not a slave to protocol. Finally, just surrounded by his deacons.” Bevilacqua added that that was why he believed Paul VI was far happier there, even if he was being dragged around by the crowds, than when he entered St. Peter’s Square atop the gestatorial chair, surrounded by the guards’ halberds and cardinals’ hats.” The Pope’s secretary, Fr. Macchi was violently separated from the Pope and only caught up with him at the Holy Sepulchre thanks to someone who offered him a bike ride.

When the Pope arrived at the Basilica, the traditional site of Golgotha where Jesus’ empty tomb is, the church was lit up by powerful floodlights and it was packed: there was hardly enough room for the Pope to celebrate mass. There was a black out during the celebration which carried on in candle light. Paul VI entered the Sepulchre with two masters of ceremonies and placed a golden olive branch on the marble surface that covered the stone where Jesus’ dead body was laid down. The Pope knelt down before saying a personal prayer, visibly moved:

“We are here, Lord Jesus.
We have come here like guilty people

who return to the scene of their crime.

We have come like the man who followed You

but also betrayed You,

so often faithful and so often unfaithful.
We have come to acknowledge the mysterious relationship

between our sins and your Passion,

Our work is your work.
We have come to beat our breasts and ask You for forgiveness,

to implore your mercy.

We have come because we know You that you can

that you can forgive us
because you atoned for us:

You are our redemption and our hope.”

The celebration at the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre was the most emotional and moving moment of te day for Montini, as he himself revealed to the cardinals who welcomed him when he returned to Rome.

After Mass, in the Apostolic Delegation of Jerusalem, the Pope received visits from the Greek orthodox Patriarch Benedictos and the Armenian Patriarch Yeghische Derderian. Shortly afterwards, Paul VI reciprocated by visiting Benedictos, then he met the Eastern Rite Catholic community in St. Anen’s church and ended his day in Gethsemane, where he joined in the Holy Hour prayers in the Basilica of the Agony. Here too the Pope was welcomed by a huge crowd which surrounded him and almost prevented him from entering. It was 11:30 at night, an extraordinary day, which for Montini had begun at dawn, had just come to an end.

After stopping off in Meghiddo, the Pope continued his tight schedule, heading towards Galilee, in the direction of Nazareth. He celebrated mass in a small cave dug into the rock – all that remains of Mary’s house and pronounced a modern version of the evangelical Beatitudes.

The pilgrimage continued on to the “Sea of Galilee”. Paul VI followed the steps cut into the rock at Tabgha, assisted by substitute Angelo dell’Acqua, down to the shore of the “sea of Galilee”, i.e. lake Tiber where Peter used to sail his boat. The Syrian hills can be seen in the background. The Pope kneels down to pray on the rock that marks the place where Jesus entrusted the Church’s leadership to Simon Peter. A brief stop in Capernaum followed. Here, Montini visited the archaeological site of the village where Peter and his brother Andrew used to live. Capernaum is also home to the synagogue where Jesus spoke.

Next stop: Mount of Beatitudes. Here, Paul VI announced the episcopal nomination of Mgr. Giovanni Kaldany, Vicar General of the Latin Patriarchate, and Mgr. Martin, who had organized the historic pilgrimage. Then it was back to the Jewish part of Jerusalem. Prime Minister Abba Eban and the mayor of the city were there to welcome the Pope, who ended his day with a moment of prayer in the Cenacle.

Before returning to the Arab part of the city, the pilgrim from Rome was once again greeted by the Israeli president Shazar. The Pope reciprocated by thanking him for “this unforgettable day”, adding some words in defense of the late Pope Pacelli. He decision to address these words was a last minute one, he decided it the night before.

“Suspicions and accusations have clouded the memory of this great Pope… Anyone who like us had the chance to meet him in person, will know that this soul is worthy of our admiration; they know how sensitive he was, how compassionate he was toward human suffering, how courageous he was and how gentle his heart was. Those who came to him with tears in their eyes at the end of the war, to thank him for saving their life are also aware of this.”

The first meeting and embrace between the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras took place in the building of the Apostolic Delegation on 5 January. Peter and Andrew came together after centuries of division. The Pope and the Patriarch recited the “Our Father” along with the various delegations, in two languages, Latin and Greek. Athenagoras expressed the hope that that meeting would” mark the dawn of a “blessed, shining day on which it will be possible to communicate with the same cup of the precious Blood and the holy Body of the Lord.” Montini gave Athenagoras a gold chalice.

The next morning, on January6, the Feast of the Epiphany, Paul VI went to Bethlehem, where he was greeted by the Franciscans from the Custody of the Holy Land and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. Here the Pope experienced first hand the painful divisions afflicting the Christian world and the rigid times which the status quo imposed in the holy places. He was forced to end his mass at 8:30 am and during the celebration there were two other non-Catholic celebrations taking place at the same time. The Pope, who was dressed in his liturgical apparel, was not allowed to cross the central nave of the Basilica, as the Greek Orthodox Church had custody of it.

In his homily, the Pope spoke about ecumenism explaining that unity “cannot be achieved at the expense of faith” but he stressed: “We are prepared to consider all reasonable means of smoothing the path towards dialogue.” Paul VI also repeated his appeal for peace: “may leaders listen to our heart’s cry and continue to work hard to ensure that humanity is granted the peace it desires so passionately” and “to prevent at all cost, concerns and fears of a new world war, the consequences of which would be incalculable consequences.”

The Pope then returned to Jerusalem, to pay Athenagoras a visit, as the patriarch had done the night before.”On both sides, the paths that lead to unity are long and riddled with difficulties. But the two paths converge and the sources of the Gospel is their meeting point. Isn’t it a good sign that today’s meeting should take place on this very Land where Christ founded His Church and shed his Blood for Her?”

After this the Pope returned to Amman, where he was met by King Hussein who picked up on the message he sent out in Bethlehem regarding peace. Paul VI began his final address with some words in Arabic, attracting loud applause from the crowds that gathered to bid him farewell.

The Pope landed in Rome’s Ciampino airport at 18:30 onJanuary 6. Upon his return to St. Peter’s Square, Paul VI told the crowd of people that welcomed him: “You will have seen that my visit was not just an unusual spiritual event; this visit could be of enormous historical importance.” To commemorate his visit, the Pope had a centre for ecumenical studies built near Jerusalem and an institute for the re-education of the deaf in Bethlehem.

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Andrea Tornielli