Dear Friends in Christ,
In January 1964, Pope Paul VI made an historic pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem during which he made headlines with a number of “firsts.” He was the first pope to fly on an airplane. He was the first pope to leave Italy in more than a century. And he was the first pope since Peter to visit the Holy Land while serving as Bishop of Rome. Imagine that. Since Simon Peter left Jerusalem for Antioch and then Rome in the middle of the first century, not one of his successors set foot in the Holy City until 1964. That alone would rank Pope Paul’s journey as historic, but there was one more “first” as well.
Paul VI was the first Bishop of Rome to meet the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople since the Great Schism began in 1054, and their blessed encounter took place — after a pause of nine centuries — in the most appropriate place imaginable: the Mount of Olives. The Garden of Gethsemane is at the foot of the Mount of Olives, and from that holy Mount, the Lord Jesus ascended to glory. There in 1964 Patriarch Athenagoras I and Pope Paul VI embraced each other as brothers in the Lord, a bold gesture which led the following year to the Catholic-Orthodox Declaration which revoked the excommunications of 1054, the traditional marker of the beginning of the Great Schism between the Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church.
Since Pope Paul’s visit, there have been only two other papal pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Pope Saint John Paul the Great went to the Holy City in 2000, and Pope Benedict XVI traveled there in 2009. But today we add one more Bishop of Rome to that list. Pope Francis is in Jerusalem to mark the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul and Patriarch Athenagoras, and he will be joined there by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Together the two bishops will pray for the restoration of full, visible communion of all Christians in Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, and they will call upon all Christians of East and West to follow the path of fraternal dialogue, mutual respect, and sacrificial love.
This visit of Pope Francis to Jerusalem will also have its “firsts.” Francis will be the first pope to lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement who is reckoned among the fathers of the State of Israel. But this he will do only after he flies from Jordan directly to Bethlehem, in the occupied territory which is acknowledged by the Holy See to be part of the State of Palestine. And on this remarkable journey, Pope Francis will be accompanied by two old friends from Argentina: Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Imam Omar Abboud. During this extraordinary moment for Christians, Jews and Muslims, let us pray for Pope Francis and the success of his mission to the nations, beginning at Jerusalem.