A demanding journey on which there will be much to see and consider: this is how Pope Francis presented his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, as he greeted journalists who accompanied him on the papal plane. Yet the Holy Land was the Pope's first choice on his itinerary of international papal visits; naturally, his trip to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day had previously been set. Paul VI’s visit to the Holy Land in early 1964 was another first that served as the simple and essential model that inspired the Bishop of Rome.
A half century and very different contexts separate the two events, yet a single intention appears to unite them, which may be summed up in an expression Montini used in his testament, written in 1965: he reserves “a special greeting of blessing” for “the Land of Jesus, where I was a pilgrim of faith and peace”. Pope Francis journey, by which he intended to commemorate his predecessor's historic meeting with Patriarch Athenagora, is therefore also a journey of faith and peace.
Like 50 years ago, the Pope arrived in Amman, where he was received with respect and kindness by King Abdullah, son of Hussein, the sovereign who on a cold winter day gave Paul VI a welcome which truly lived up to such an unprecedented event recounted all over the world by hundreds of special envoys. It was a welcome that, with good reason, made history. Indeed, the Hashemite king immediately recalled the event in his warm welcome address, in which he underlined that Paul VI’s visit was the first visit of a Pope to a Muslim nation.
Pope Francis immediately evoked the element of welcome when he greeted Jordan, an oasis of peace that welcomes countless refugees: Palestinian and Iraqi, now especially Syrians who are fleeing a horrendous war that has already resulted in 150,000 deaths and millions of refugees. The Bishop of Rome — who inspired the prayer initiative that caught the world’s attention last September — again called for a peaceful, “urgently required” solution to the conflict in Syria. Indeed, there is no other way to overcome the ongoing religious conflicts and tensions.
For this reason, Abdullah II openly lauded Pope Francis' leadership. The Pope, in turn, called the sovereign “a man of peace” as he thanked him for his efforts “in promoting a better understanding of the virtues taught by Islam” and a climate of serene coexistence between faithful of different religions. Among the faithful, Christians – who have been present there since very ancient times – “consider themselves, and indeed are, full citizens”, the Bishop of Rome said, recalling the words of Benedict XVI, who visited the Holy Land in 2009. And here one touches upon the profound truths contained in the Vatican II statements on dialogue between religions and religious freedom, which were summed up by Paul VI in an extraordinarily effective expression: may no one be forced to believe, may no one be prevented from believing.
St. Peter’s Square
Feb. 18, 2019
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