The Church Cannot Forget Her Roots

IT CAUGHT EVERYONE by surprise. A return to the Holy Land has become John Paul II’s greatest dream for the Jubilee of the Year 2000. He admits this fact in a letter published June 29, the Feast of Saint Peter and Paul, “On the Pilgrimage to Places Linked to Salvation History.”

“Abandoning myself entirely to the divine will, I would be very happy if this plan materializes.” He has already been to the Holy Land in 1965 as the then Cardinal of Cracow. Now he wants to return as the Pope.

A Very Resourceful Pope

His plan is very ambitious. He would like to visit the main sites that witnessed Biblical scenes like the promise to Abraham, the handing of the Ten Commandments to Moses, the Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary, Jesus’ birth in a stable, the Crucifixion, and St. Paul’s shattering conversion.

This means going to Iraq, Israel and Greece. “It is, undoubtedly, an emblematic pilgrimage”, commented Msgr. Gianfranco Ravasi, one of the most prolific Bible scholars of our times.

“The Christian pilgrimage is by definition a trip into history and into space. It consists of earth, stone, water, air. Christian Revelation is not private or disembodied, but takes place in history.”

The Pope hopes to start in Ur of the Chaldeans, the root of faith of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Today this town, Tal al Muqayyar, lies in the “no fly zone” imposed by the international community on the skies of Iraq. Here Abraham heard the word of God, which drew him out of his land, away from his people and, in a certain sense, out of himself, to make him an instrument of the plan for salvation.

Then the Pope hopes to go on Mount Sinai, the place of the Covenant, of communion between God and the people. Hopefully, he will also visit Mount Nebo, from where Moses saw the Promised Land. “His gaze from Nebo is the very symbol of hope. From that mountain he could see that God had kept his promises.”

Meeting With Youth

Especially charged with meaning will be the second stage of the journey which will be concentrated in Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem. These are the places “where the Word is made flesh; where the meeting between God and man is total.” An existential philosopher, Kierkegaard once said: ‘the two worlds man’s and God’s – collide in Jesus, but they do not cause an explosion but an embrace.’

These are lands still wounded by war and tension. “Here, God willing, I hope to immerse myself in prayer, taking in my heart the entire Church.”

Once the news was out, the Apostolic Nuncio in Israel, at the suggestion of the Neocatechumenal Way, approached the Pope and suggested the possibility of his meeting the youth coming from all over the world on the Mount of Beatitudes. On this exceptional hill, the Pope can entrust the torch of faith to the youth of the new millennium. The Pope was visibly enthusiastic with this idea and told the Nuncio, “Yes, I want it to happen!”

Hopefully youth from Guam will be able to be present for this terrific milestone in the history of the Church.

The visit to the Holy Places of the Redeemer’s earthly life leads logically to the places which were important for the infant Church and which saw the missionary outreach of the first Christian community. The Pope writes specifically about two of them, linked to the Apostle St. Paul: Damascus, the place of his conversion; and Athens, the place of his address to the pagans.

This journey, the Pope notes, will be a pilgrimage of dialogue, characterized by a strong ecumenical thrust. “More than any other pilgrimage which I have made, the one I am about to undertake in the Holy Land during the Jubilee event will be marked by the desire expressed in Christ’s prayer to the Father that his disciples “may all be one” (Jn 17:21), a prayer which challenges us more vigorously at the exceptional time which opens the Third Millennium.” Iraq and Israel are predominantly Muslim and Jewish.

A Personal Note

Cardinal Fulton Sheen writing in the sixties said that when one goes to the Holy Land, one has to carry three luggages. All of them vitally important – eyes, memory, faith. Eyes to see the stones, memory to peel off the layers of history, and faith to X-ray the surface and see the meaning of it all.

I have just returned from the Holy Land. This pilgrimage was one of the biggest gifts in my life. We were 150 of us – itinerant catechists and families in mission of the Neocatechumenal Way working in the United States. We visited many places and in every place we went, we celebrated. These celebrations – morning prayers, Eucharists, celebration of reconciliation – were amazing. They made the stones alive. We could taste the real spirit behind these monuments. It was not a tour through ancient historical places but a NOW event.

The Pope puts it very nicely, “To go in a spirit of prayer from one place to another, from one city to another, in the area marked especially by God’s intervention, helps us not only to live our life as a journey, but also gives us a vivid sense of a God who has gone before us and leads us on, who himself set out on man’s path, a God who does not look down on us from on high, but who became our traveling companion.”

“In the Gospel, Jesus seems always to be traveling about. He seems to be in a hurry to move from one place to another in order to proclaim the imminent coming of God’s Kingdom. He proclaims and He calls. His “Follow me” prompted the Apostles’ ready response (cf. Mk 1:16-20). Let us all feel touched by his voice, his call, his summons to a new life.”

Let is all undertake this interior pilgrimage. Let us all set out in the footsteps of Christ!

See you in Israel in March 2000!


(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.