Dear friends, please pray for me during my pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
With this pithy tweet, Pope Francis embarked last Saturday upon an intense three-day tour of the Holy Land that took him to Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Like Popes Paul VI in 1964, John-Paul II in 2000 and Benedict XVI in 2009, this Pope also came as a pilgrim to a land that is not always peaceful and a region that is often war-torn.
Today, I would like to incarnate four thoughts that I believe embodied this pilgrimage to the biblical lands.
However, let me start off first with a self-evident preface by emphasising that the mere presence of the Pope amongst Jordanians, Palestinians or Israelis was a clear affirmation that he carries the torch for a region that has witnessed the birth of Christianity and whose ancestors trace their roots to the Church of the First Pentecost. After all, it is in these hills, valleys and waters that Jesus undertook his ministry, and Pope Francis' visit simply brought with it a reminder of the presence, life and witness of the local Christians in this land for some two millennia.
But back to my four messages! First, and foremost, I believe the Holy Land welcomed in its midst a man of true peace. He challenged us all to use our inner spiritual and human resources to choose the path of peace - incidentally, something, which is much harder than waging war. And where else to start but in this land where we 'talk' the irenic languages of peace and reconciliation but still 'act' with the vengeful languages of war and hatred! After all, the peoples of this region - including the faithful Christian communities whose numbers have dwindled sharply - have been challenged by many hardships. The Papal visit was a reminder that they are not forgotten despite the vagaries of time and circumstance.
But with peace, the Pope also underscored the need for unity, fellowship and ecumenism within the whole Church of Christ. He combined those messages of peace and unity to translate the very words St Paul articulated in his Letter to the Ephesians to "do your best to preserve the unity which the Spirit gives by means of the peace that binds you together" (Eph 4:3). In a sense, I would also suggest that any believer would find encouragement in a passage from the Gospel of St Luke where Jesus tells Peter, "But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith will not fail. And when you turn back to me, you must strengthen your brothers" (Lk 22:32 [b]). This became clear in the warm and brotherly meeting between Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. Those two charismatic leaders recalled the meeting in Jerusalem fifty years ago of their predecessors that ended nine hundred years of mutual ex-communications and paved the way toward more convivial relations between the Eastern and Western lungs of Christianity.
However, many Christians also applaud the faith-centred and heart-warming solidarity of this papacy with the poor of in our world. Whether in the adoption of St Francis as his namesake or his solidarity with the vulnerable and powerless - including the Syrian refugees in the Jordanian desert and at the Dheisheh Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem or else at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem - he has consistently shown through word and deed that he stands with those who have been disempowered or marginalised - the refugees, the poor, the oppressed and the down-trodden. They too are the children of God, and remain worthy of the Kingdom of heaven. The Bible should not only be read literally as a compilation of Jesus' teachings and statements, but also be viewed as a challenge to injustice, inequality, discrimination, subjugation and domination. In the passage on the Final Judgement in the Gospel of St Matthew, Jesus taught his disciples, "I tell you, whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me." (Mt 25:45).
And finally, the visit of this Pope also underlined with elegant ease that inter-religious dialogue must exist side by side with intra-Christian unity. In the MENA region, where Christianity, Islam and Judaism are parts of the fabric of the same society, this need is not a simple commodity. It is a daily living and witnessing reality. This was made evident not only by the meetings with Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, but also by the fact that he had a rabbi and an imam - both his friends from Buenos Aires - accompanying him and who helped him reach out to the followers of those two religions.
Today, as we Christians walk through a 'cloud of unknowing', let me refresh in some readers' minds the declaration of the Second Vatican Council that the Catholic Church "rejects nothing which is true and holy in the great religions of the world". Yet, such openness could only succeed if we have corresponding partners in Judaism and Islam who also remain open to this dialectal trek and who are not taken up by polemical and rhetorical needs or by hidden political agendas.
I trust Pope Francis found reward and fulfilment in his own spiritual pilgrimage. I also hope his ministry as successor to that rambunctious fisherman Peter will find its ferment and encouragement in the Sermon on the Mount as expressed in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Mt 5: 1-12 and Lk 6:20-23). So it was with a set of biblical challenges for a faith that is self-confident but steeped in humility that I too joined countless others last week to respond to the Pope's tweet with an Arabic Ahlan wa Sahlan and a Jewish Shalom lekha - appropriate greetings for a man simply so rich in his poverty.