Imagining a New Future in the Holy Land

A Reflection on the Pope’s Pilgrimage of Peace

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By Father David Neuhaus, SJ

JERUSALEM, MAY 19, 2009 ( As we begin to reflect on the visit of Benedict XVI to the Holy Land, a first act must be that of thanksgiving. First and foremost, we thank God for the wonderful gift of being able to welcome the Holy Father to the land made holy, the land of Jesus of Nazareth and our land.

The Holy Father came as a pilgrim to pray in the places made holy by God through the history of salvation. He came as pastor to the Christian communities that form the Church of the Holy Land. He came as man of dialogue to meet both Jews and Muslims. He came as man of peace to plead for justice and peace. Thus he was able to show Christ’s face to those who met him.


The Holy Father came as a pilgrim to the places sanctified by God as the arena for our history of salvation. He came to reiterate the importance of these places for Christians because they serve as a “gospel” that proclaims the good news of God among humanity, a faithful and saving God to whom we must turn. This visit will encourage all Christians to come and pray here because “the Gospel story, contemplated in its historical and geographical setting, becomes vivid and colorful, and a clearer grasp of the significance of the Lord’s words and deeds is obtained” (Cenacle).

Prayer is the most important lessons of this visit. We are called before all else to be people of prayer, who open our hearts to a God seeking to work through his children in order to give them the gifts they most earnestly desire: peace and unity. “Prayer is hope in action […] and we sense the wondrous possibilities that open up before us when our hearts are converted to God’s truth, to his design for each of us and our world” (Regina Pacis Center).


Perhaps the strongest moments in the Holy Father’s visit were the times of prayer that he spent with the Christian communities in the Holy Land. It was in this context that the Pope directly addressed his flock and expressed his fatherly solicitude for these disciples of Jesus living in the midst of conflict and travail. At every turn, he underlined the vitality of Christian life and insisted on unity. The Holy Father underlined the unique vocation of Christians in the region, encouraging them to continue bearing witness to the love of Christ in the land of Christ. He called us to be apostles of love, pillars of faith and harmony, evangelists of life, preachers of the Kingdom.

He made reference to the myriad difficulties that Christians face: “I hope my presence here is a sign that you are not forgotten, that your persevering presence and witness are indeed precious in God’s eyes and integral to the future of these lands. […] (Y)ou, the Christians of the Holy Land, are called to serve […] as a leaven of harmony, wisdom and equilibrium” (Mass in Jerusalem). He dwelt upon the Christian obligation to be witnesses to life rather than death: “Above all, be witnesses to the power of life, the new life brought by the Risen Christ, the life that can illumine and transform even the darkest and most hopeless of human situations […] Do not be afraid!” (Mass in Bethlehem).

The Holy Father compared the Christians to the Virgin Mary: “Perhaps at times you feel that your voice counts for little. Many of your fellow Christians have emigrated […] Your situation calls to mind that of the young virgin Mary […] Like Mary, you have a part to play in God’s plan for salvation, by bringing Christ forth into the world, by bearing witness to him and spreading his message of peace and unity” (Vespers in Nazareth).

Man of dialogue

The Holy Father came to promote inter-religious dialogue as well. Coming into a region where Christians make up a tiny part of the population, he sought out both Muslim and Jewish religious leaders in order to assure them that the Church was a partner in the attempt to build a better world. “We know that our differences need never be misrepresented as an inevitable source of friction […]. Rather, they provide a wonderful opportunity for people of different religions to live together in profound respect, esteem and appreciation, encouraging one another in the ways of God” (Notre Dame Center).

At his meeting with the chief rabbis, the Pope issued a plea for trust in the ongoing dialogue between Jews and Catholics: “Trust is undeniably an essential element of effective dialogue” (Chief Rabbinate). Overcoming centuries of difference, distrust and even hostility will take much wisdom and patience too. “We should do everything to learn the language of the other, and it seems to me that we have made great progress” (On airplane). As we learn to respect and honor what we have in common, the Church and the Jews must also discover how to respect and honor where we differ. This is a formidable challenge that still lies before us.

Immediately on arrival in Israel, the Pope acknowledged the importance of the Shoah. He insisted that the Church is committed to remembering the victims and fighting, side by side with the Jewish people, all manifestations of anti-Semitism: “Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world. This is totally unacceptable. Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is found, and to promote respect and esteem for the members of every people, tribe, language and nation across the globe” (Ben Gurion Airport).

Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, the Pope made the two symbolic pilgrimages: to the Western Wall, where he placed a written prayer on a note into the Wall, and to Yad VaShem, the memorial to the victims of the Shoah. At Yad VaShem, the Pope proclaimed that he had come to stand in silence: “a silence to remember, a silence to pray, a silence to hope” (Yad VaShem).

The Pope also addressed Muslims on various occasions during his visit, re-expressing the conviction that Muslims and Christians are called to work together to build up societies based upon the common values that Muslims and Christians share. “Certainly there exists a common message, and there will be an occasion to present it and, despite the difference of origins, we have common roots” (On airplane). The Pope visited mosques in both Amman and Jerusalem, thus showing once again respect for the religious faith of Muslims. “(M)ay all his followers continue to keep their gaze fixed on his absolute goodness, never losing sight of the way it is reflected in the faces of others” (Haram al-Sharif).

Man of peace

Throughout his visit, the Pope drew attention to his constant prayer for justice and peace. He did so not as a politician but as a man of prayer, as a pastor forming conscience and as a seeker of truth. In Jerusalem, he drew attention to the vocation of Jerusalem, unrealized in the present turmoil: “(Jerusalem) must be a place which teaches universality, respect for others, dialogue and mutual understanding; a place where prejudice, ignorance and the fear which fuels them, are overcome by honesty, integrity and the pursuit of peace” (Mass in Jerusalem).

Without flinching, the Holy Father evoked over and over again the Church’s vocation to build bridges rather than walls, addressing the distressing reality of the Holy Land where walls are more in evidence than bridges. He pleaded with both sides to open their hearts to a new spirit. Walls do not last forever though, the Holy Father assured his listeners: “No matter how intractable and deeply entrenched a conflict may appear to be, there are always grounds to hope that it can be resolved, that the patient and persevering efforts of those who work for peace and reconciliation will bear fruit in the end” (Farewell in Bethlehem).

In his final words, addressed from the podium at Ben Gurion Airport, the Holy Father again expressed the pain of all lovers of the Holy Land and all its peoples. “No friend of the Israelis and the Palestinians
can fail to be saddened by the continuing tension between your two peoples. […] Let the two-state solution become a reality, not remain a dream. And let peace spread outwards from these lands […] bringing hope to the many other regions that are affected by conflict” (Farewell in Israel).

What is needed in our present situation, the Holy Father explained is “courage and imagination to pursue the challenging but indispensable path of reconciliation” (Aida Refugee Camp). Courage to imagine a different future! Benedict XVI’s moving across the walls and the barriers showed that they can come down if we could only open ourselves to imagine that possibility.

Hope without confusion

We must end as we began, with a thank you to the Holy Father and all those who made this visit possible. He has indeed consoled us, encouraged us and supported us. It will be important now to learn from his words and acts because they hold things together in a way that expresses the specificity of the Christian message in this land of conflict and division.

Benedict XVI has reminded us that we, the Christians of the Holy Land, must become more and more a presence that manifests justice and peace but also pardon, love and hope. We can conclude with the stirring words he addressed to us as he stood in front of the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem: “The empty tomb speaks to us of hope, the hope that does not disappoint because it is the gift of the Spirit of life” (Holy Sepulcher).

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Jesuit Father David Neuhaus is the patriarchal vicar for Hebrew-Speaking Catholics of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

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