Pope Francis will be walking a “narrow and tenuous tight-rope” during his visit to the Holy Land this weekend.

This is the view of the grand master of Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, Cardinal Edwin Frederick O’Brien, who has shared with ZENIT his hopes and expectations of the May 24-26 visit. 

Cardinal O'Brien, whose Order is committed to preserving and supporting the people and monuments where Jesus had lived, explains why he believes no other pope will have faced what Pope Francis is facing now.

In this May 22 interview, the New York-born cardinal also explains why he considers the king of Jordan to be a hero, that monuments are threatened to become museums if action is not taken, why it’s wrong to put under "lock and key God’s good people" in order to assure 100 percent security.


ZENIT: For those who are not familiar with the Equestrian Order could you please explain what it does?

Cardinal O'Brien: The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem has its roots in the Crusades and was formally organized, appointed in the mid-19th Century. Rather than being groups here and there, we became one papal order, I think in 1846. From the Crusades to this present day, the title has always been a concern for the faith in the Holy Land: to preserve the faith, to support those who are keeping the faith, and to keep alive those monuments of the faith, such as those we find in the Holy Sepulcher, in the Cenacle, and those sacred places that are still alive with the faith, which threaten to become museums, unless the Catholic and Christian world take an active role in supporting them.

ZENIT: What do you think is the biggest threat related to the holy site?

Cardinal O'Brien: The biggest threat would be vandalism both on the Israeli side and from the Muslim side. There are extremists on both sides, but are very small in number, but boy can they create havoc.

I think everyone involved in forming the goals which are ours--and it’s not just Catholic goals, it’s Christians across the board and other faiths--realize that they must be more deeply involved in supporting the people, the places, and the causes that are so vital to the preservation of a 2,000 year history.

ZENIT: Turning to the extremists, do you think they could present a threat during this visit of the Holy Father?

Cardinal O'Brien: I think every precaution is being made to prevent that, but the fact that these precautions are so stringent would seem to indicate that there is a danger there.

ZENIT: What does the Equestrian Order do in order to support pilgrims, and, in this case, one in particular, Pope Francis? 

Cardinal O'Brien:  The Order has 30,000 members in 35 different countries, knights and ladies, or knights and danes. Our primary purpose as a papal order is to grow in love of Christ and for the things of Christ, and to do what we can to encourage the faith and the faithful in the Holy Land to remain strong and to grow.

As you know, there’s been a great exodus out of the Holy Land in the last 20, 25 years. It’s our hope that our charities and financial assistance--as our order gives $13 million dollars a year to the patriarch of Jerusalem--will help to keep our schools, parishes, health centers, and seminaries open.

We hope that not just Catholics, but Christians of all colors and all brands remain, rather than flee in fear from that culture which is so thoroughly rich with our Christian traditions.

ZENIT: What should be done about this mass exodus?

Cardinal O'Brien: I hope the Israeli government will realize there is an alternative from a virtually total lockdown of the Palestinian people and, what they call, the West Bank or in Palestine.

I  think we have only 5 percent Christians in Palestine. So, this is not a personal or selfish concern on the part of Christians, but it’s a question of human rights. I speak of a lockdown in which they put a 440-foot wall 30-feet high, to keep out Palestinians, to not allow them to get into Jerusalem. In many cases, they do not allow Palestinians to see their relatives or to cross into their farms without great inconvenience. I could understand the need for security, but you don’t put under lock and key God’s good people in order to assure 100 percent security. That’s what is happening.

ZENIT:  How do you think the Pope’s visit will contribute to ecumenical dialogue?

Cardinal O'Brien: Well, there are many elements involved in the Pope’s visit. It’s a narrow and tenuous tight-rope that he is going to be walking. I think the ecumenical dialogue will be easy, comparatively speaking to the political forces that will be intruding themselves during his visit. He very much would like this to be a strictly ecumenical pilgrimage of faith, but there is too much going on in that area to forbid, to prevent forces to get his attention and his support. I am sure he is very well aware of this.

Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II faced huge challenges in many of their pilgrimages and visits to countries under great stress. I don’t think any Pope will have faced what Pope Francis is facing now or will have undertaken the stressful and the weighty appointments and commitments that he is giving to that part of the world. It’s just amazing what he has taken on himself, but given his personality, given his faith, his reputation as a man of balance and openness, I don’t think there is anyone in a better position to bring us good results. It will, at least, bring better harmony and dialogue there, which is in such great need right now.

ZENIT:  What do you think Francis' biggest challenge will be during this visit?

Cardinal O'Brien: I think his biggest challenge will be, I suppose, to get a fair hearing, to deliver--I don’t know what his message is going to be--but it certainly will be one of reason, taking into account, a very complicated historical and present political scenario, one that will try to thread the needle and to bring all sides back into a harmonious dialogue and discussion. I speak certainly not only of the ecumenical, but I think the relationship there is wonderful there between Orthodox and Catholics and Christians … truly all believers in Christ, I believe we have a lot going for us there. But there are other secular forces and so-called religious forces that will try to "water down" or distort his message or will try to block out his message. Yet, I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think he is going to do this. The prayers of the world are with him, certainly the faith and the prayers and the gratitude of Catholics and Christians are with him, and his own grace-filled sense of his role as Bishop of Rome, as Pope, as a Christian leader, are going to bring him through this. It will bring that part of the world through this with a considerably improved atmosphere and considerably improved attitude on the part of people there who are really hurting for some voice of reason.

ZENIT:  What would you consider the current status of mutual respect and religious freedom in the Holy Land?

Cardinal O'Brien: Well, I think there is freedom of worship and we are grateful for that. However, when the freedom to go from one boundary to another to visit relatives and friends and to get to their places of worship in the Holy Land, in Jerusalem, to get to places of work as well, that freedom is very limited. I can understand the reason for those limitations and the fear on the part of the Israeli government, but I think there is room for a lot more flexibility there.  

As far as the relationships between the Christians and Muslims, I have been very pleased and surprised in m y brief experiences there to see that the vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving and peace-keeping, and are willing and anxious to work out the problems that are facing their Christian brethren. But once again, there are extremists sometimes intent on preventing this cordial relationship from hope. I just hope that whatever steps are taken in the next week to limit the influence of the radicals will let the radicals know that there is another way to live as a just community, rather desperate elements fighting each other.

ZENIT:  In your capacity as Grand Master, what has been the biggest challenge for you personally?

Cardinal O'Brien: Well, our order is founded as a papal order to support the charitable and pastoral works of the Holy Father there. We are doing that, our 30,000 members, are doing that almost heroically through the amount of help they give, not only material help, in keeping our 45 schools, our 60 parishes, our seminary going strong despite the limited numbers. Many of our lieutenancies are conducting pilgrimages each year, not only to pray, but to show solidarity with those who are struggling, Christians and others, and that’s a great encouragement to them. And that’s our role. We let the Holy See and all the powers that be on the secular side work out the political differences. I don’t think there’s any better force to do that, on our side, than the secretary of state and Pope Francis.

ZENIT: Do you think it will be possible during a visit so short and intense to achieve this?

Cardinal O'Brien: It’s a long haul. It’s a good distance to travel, but we need to start somewhere, but I think that things are so broken, that at this stage, the Pope and the ecumenical patriarch are one of the last straws for improvement there. I think that it is going to work.

ZENIT: Are there any other comments or reflections you would like to share? 

Cardinal O'Brien: I am very pleased the Holy Father will be meeting with the king of Jordan. In my mind, the king of Jordan is a real hero, and he is standing up against forces within and outside his country that would love to see disruptions continue in the Middle East. He has given welcome and support to over a billion refugees in Palestine and Syria. He has struggled in every way possible to be a mediator, to build bridges instead of walls in that part of the world, and there are so many walls. He has worked with religious leaders of all stripes and, certainly with our patriarch of Jerusalem, to support any initiative that will bring greater understanding and improvement to the society which is struggling in Jordan, under great pressure. So, I am so pleased the Holy Father, his first stop I think, is going to see the King of Jordan. That’s no accident and I hope it gives great encouragement to the king.