Papal pilgrimage seen from the dusty streets of the Holy Land


Alaskan scholar shares first hand impressions of Pope Francis’ trip

Some things are serendipity. More than a year ago, I knew I would be on a sabbatical from Alaska Pacific University (June 2013 to July 2014). Between Easter and the end of May I planned on being in Jerusalem where I would be living and researching at, and for, the École Biblique et Archeologique Française de Jérusalem (home of the Jerusalem Bible). I later learned that my stay would coincide with a visit from Pope Francis. Serendipity, indeed.

The lead up to this dramatic visit was interesting. While temperatures soared during the well-orchestrated Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, it was stirring to watch Pope Francis live up to his reputation for spontaneity by unscheduled gestures of solidarity with both Palestinians and Israelis.

It was also educational to witness first hand as the State of Israel took security efforts to ensure the safety of the pope.

In anticipation of his visit Israeli ultra-nationalist extremists intensified what is called “price tagging,” the local term for vandalism and other hate crimes. Overnight the defacing of Christian properties increased throughout Jerusalem. Rumors that the State of Israel planned to give the Vatican property on which the Cenacle (traditional site of the Lord’s Last Supper) is located angered many Israelis who believe the site is also the location of King David’s tomb. Local news outlets fostered the land transfer rumor so effectively that a Vatican disclaimer was not believed.

The papal visit also reinvigorated the ongoing debate over whether life is better for the shrinking Christian population in Israel or in Palestine. There is no simple resolution to this, but it is significant that all Christian natives who live in Israel as well as Palestine identify themselves as Palestinian to affirm their historical heritage. Although Palestine may have never been an independent nation, Palestinians have lived in this land for millenniums.

In Bethlehem people were excited and busily preparing for the papal visit, even while some local pastors feared the city would not be ready. Crowds of well-wishing Muslims and Christians alike intended to greet Pope Francis.

Meanwhile, the Israeli side of the hideous separation wall was softened somewhat with flowers. Was this to impress the journalists and provide a warm and fuzzy photo op? The pope, however, arrived in and departed from Bethlehem by helicopter. He never even saw the Israeli side of that wall. And in Jerusalem, where authorities feared extremists would “price-tag” the pope’s entourage, security forces completely closed down access to the areas where Pope Francis would pass.

The primary purpose of this trip was for His Holiness Pope Francis, as successor to Saint Peter, to meet with His Holiness Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who is considered the successor to Saint Andrew, Peter’s brother.

Last year, Bartholomew shocked the Orthodox world when he attended Pope Francis’ inaugural Mass in Rome. The meeting in Jerusalem was designed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the meeting during which Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras lifted the mutual excommunications that the Catholic and Orthodox churches had imposed on each other 900 years beforehand. That 1964 meeting in Jerusalem raised enormous hopes for the reunification of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Unfortunately this has not yet occurred. This new meeting, however, was intended to renew ecumenical efforts and to stimulate interest in resolving the differences between the way eastern and western churches determine the date for Easter.

The papal Mass in Bethlehem was inspiring. The Mass was celebrated in Latin and the pope’s sermon was given in Italian and then translated into Arabic.

Perhaps the most moving and significant gesture by the pope was his unscheduled, spontaneous stop and prayer at the separation wall in Bethlehem. His juxtaposition of praying at the “security wall” and the “Western Wall” was certainly powerful, if annoying to many Israelis. His kissing the hands of the survivors of the Holocaust was moving to all. His honoring the memorial to the Jewish victims of terrorism was judicious and gracious.

And while I could not attend the gathering of religious order men and women with the pope at the Church of All Nations in Gethsemane, it was delightful to personally witness the excitement of the many religious order sisters who attended the noon Mass in the Church of St. Etienne (St. Stephen) at the École Biblique, before heading off to meet the pope.

Access to the Old City was severely limited in the hours before the pope’s prayer at the Western Wall. Still, those of us who have lived here for an extended period of time can figure our way around. As I walked with a fellow New Testament scholar, we entered the Jaffa Gate on the East side of the Old City and wound our way through the labyrinth of the Old City toward an entrance to the Western Wall. We thought ourselves in a good position to photograph the event since we were about three stories up and right in front of the podiums — albeit separated by two bulletproof walls. Alas, it was not to be! We were removed from our viewing area by police and saw well-armed soldiers passing by to assigned security points. Clearly the State of Israel took no chances that Pope Francis would be hurt.

It is hard to assess the ecumenical or pastoral significance of this visit. The fruit of the agreements made between the successors of Saints Peter and Andrew awaits future dialogue. As a pastoral visit this trip was certainly too short. A day in Galilee would have been good since most Palestinian Christians live there. A public Mass could have been offered in Galilee and attended by more people than a Mass in Bethlehem or Jerusalem. At the same time, one cannot but be amazed at what the Holy Father accomplished in his brief trip to this very troubled but beautiful and blessed land.


The writer holds the Cardinal Newman Chair of Catholic Theology at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage.

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