Pope Francis’ historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land, not without a couple of surprises so far, has centered around Sunday’s meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.
According to a joint statement signed by the Pope and the Patriarch, the encounter was “a new and necessary step on the journey towards the unity.” The meeting, which took place in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, marked the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. It was this 1964 meeting which led to the mutual lifting of excommunications, put in place during the Great Schism of 1054.
To meet in Jerusalem was “a source of profound spiritual joy for us,” the joint statement read. “It presents a providential occasion to reflect on the depth and the authenticity of our existing bonds, themselves the fruit of a grace-filled journey on which the Lord has guided us since that blessed day of fifty years ago.”
“While fully aware of not having reached the goal of full communion, today we confirm our commitment to continue walking together towards the unity for which Christ our Lord prayed to the Father so ‘that all may be one’,” the Pope and the Patriarch wrote.
Earlier in the day, as Pope Francis was en route to celebrate Mass in Bethlehem, and made the first of two surprises that day: an unscheduled stop at Israel’s security barrier. There, he took a moment to silently pray at the wall which separates Palestine from Israel.
Later, the Pope celebrated Mass in Manger Square, during which readings from Christmas Mass were used instead of those from the 6th Sunday of Easter.
During his homily, the Pope spoke of the Child Jesus who “is the sign given by God to those who awaited salvation, and he remains forever the sign of God’s tenderness and presence in our world.”
“Today, too, children are a sign. They are a sign of hope, a sign of life, but also a ‘diagnostic’ sign, a marker indicating the health of families, society and the entire world,” the Pope said. “Wherever children are accepted, loved, cared for and protected, the family is healthy, society is more healthy and the world is more human.”
The Pope also noted how the infant Jesus, “who came to transform the hearts and lives of all men and women,” was subject to the same vulnerability as all children, needing to be “accepted and protected.”
“Today, too, children need to be welcomed and defended, from the moment of their conception.”
The Pope surprised again at the end of the Mass, extending an invitation to the Presidents of Israel and Palestine to come to the Vatican to pray for peace. Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas agreed to the proposal, and reports say it will take place on June 6.
At the beginning of this pilgrimage, which began Saturday morning, Pope Francis greeted and joked with journalists on the papal plane. He also sent a series of customary telegrams to the heads of state of each of the countries he flew over en route to the Holy Land.
Upon his arrival in Jordan, the first leg of his journey, the Pope was welcomed by the political and religious authorities of Jordan, including King Abdullah II and Queen Rania. In his address, the Holy Father acknowledged their commitment to peace in the region. He also extended his greeting the Christian communities in Jordan who, although a minority, represent “a significant and valued presence in the fields of education and health care, thanks to their schools and hospitals.” The Pope commended the fact that these Christians “are able to profess their faith peaceably, in a climate of respect for religious freedom.”
Later on Saturday, Pope Francis presided over Mass in the International Stadium of Amman, Jordan, during which some 1,400 Jordanian children received their first Holy Communion.
In his homily, the Holy Father highlighted the significance of celebrating Mass close to the place where the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus during his Baptism in the River Jordan.
The Pope spoke about three of the actions which the Holy Spirit carries out in each person: preparing, anointing, and sending forth.
“These various works of the Holy Spirit are part of a harmonious action,” he said, “a sole divine plan of love. The mission of the Holy Spirit, in fact, is to beget harmony – he is himself harmony – and to create peace in different situations and between different people.”
The Pope added that, “through the anointing of the Spirit, our human nature is sealed with the holiness of Jesus Christ and we are enabled to love our brothers and sisters with the same love which God has for us. We ought, therefore, to show concrete signs of humility, fraternity, forgiveness and reconciliation.”
Finally, he said, having been anointed by the Holy Spirit, “we also are sent as messengers and witnesses of peace.”
Pope Francis concluded the first day of his pilgrimage by meeting with some 600 refugees and disabled young people at the Latin Church at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, located near the site where Jesus was Baptized by Saint John the Baptist.
“I have greatly desired to meet with you who have had to leave your homes and your country as a result of violence and conflict,” he said in his address. “Here in Jordan you have found welcome and refuge. I have wanted also to meet with you, dear young people who bear the burden of physical disabilities.”
He thanked the Jordanian authorities for welcoming the refugees, namely massive number of those who have fled Iraq and Syria.
Appealing for peace in Syria, the Pope urged “the international community not to leave Jordan alone in the task of meeting the humanitarian emergency caused by the arrival of so great a number of refugees, but to continue and even increase its support and assistance.”
“Dear young people,” Pope Francis concluded: “I ask you to join me in praying for peace. You can do this by offering your daily efforts and struggles to God; in this way your prayer will become particularly precious and effective.”