The Holy Land waits anxiously for Pope Francis

31 January 2014 Catholic Herald

Just as the Wise Men travelled from the East to the place of Jesus’s birth, so will Pope Francis. On Sunday May 25 he will fly in a helicopter from Amman to Bethlehem and celebrate Mass in Manger Square.

“Final plans and timings have not yet been announced for Pope Francis’s three-day pilgrimage to Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem,” Vera Baboun, the Catholic mayor of Bethlehem, told me. “There are still ongoing discussions. So far, all we know is that he’ll spend seven hours in Bethlehem, 26 hours in Jerusalem and be returning from Jerusalem to Amman.”

She went on to explain that it’s a real boost for Christians in Bethlehem that “the only public Mass he will be saying in either Israel or the Palestinian territories will be in Bethlehem”. As well as being attended by the Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, it is anticipated that the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas will be present.

“It’s good that another big Papal Mass in Jerusalem isn’t being held,” one priest in Jerusalem told me. “Pope Benedict’s Mass in the Kidron Valley near the Garden of Gethsemane was a flop. It was poorly attended by Arab Christians. They were put off by the security and the blue and white Israeli flags.”

Jill, Duchess of Hamilton Notebook almost certainly visit the Temple Mount, as he could not pay respects to the major holy place of the Jews in Jerusalem without visiting the equivalent of the Muslims.

Even Wajeeh Nuseibeh, the official custodian and doorkeeper of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, who is usually amazingly well informed, told me: “So far we know nothing! Nothing!”

But while the Pope’s pilgrimage will help heal an ancient rift, as with all state visits to this much revered yet divided land, Francis’s trip is stirring controversy. In contrast to Benedict XVI, who arrived at Ben Gurion airport to a grand welcome by the Israeli government in 2009, Pope Francis’s motorcade will be entering the State of Israel through the controversial Separation Wall at Bethlehem.

Very few other details of the Pope’s schedule after flying to Jordan on Saturday May 24 have been confirmed – apart from Francis stressing that his “principal goal” is “to commemorate the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch Athenagoras I that occurred … 50 years ago”. The anniversary of the historic meeting will be marked by a prayer meeting in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which Pope Francis will conduct with the assistance of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. This, he hopes, will narrow the gap between the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches which widened after the Great Schism in 1054.

Apart from this service in the Holy Sepulchre, meeting members of other faiths, visiting the Western Wall, the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem and Christian sites in Jerusalem, the itinerary is still vague. But if he visits the Western Wall, he will

The meeting between the Pope, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and president Shimon Peres will, it seems, be at the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Centre in east Jerusalem, not at the prime minister’s official residence.

While the Pope’s itinerary will inevitably strike an uneasy chord with some, it seems the Holy See is mindful of hewing to tradition. Despite rumours that Pope Francis was going to sleep in Bethlehem, plans have now had a dramatic turn. Like Benedict XVI, he will be staying at the papal nuncio’s residence on the Mount of Olives above the Garden of Gethsemane.

“Palestinian Christians are thrilled about the visit,” Hind Khoury, the former Palestinian minister of Jerusalem affairs, said. But she hopes he will condemn the restrictions of movement which are imposed on them.