“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!” (Psalms 122:6)
This week, Pope Francis officially announced that he would be making his way to the Middle East in 2014, visiting Israel and Jordan. The trip is scheduled to take place May 24-26. In Israel, Pope Francis is to visit holy sites in Bethlehem and Jerusalem as well as make a stop in the West Bank. The main goal for the upcoming trip to the Middle East is, according to Pope Francis, to improve relations between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians.
The first officially recognized visit by the Catholic Church of any pope to Israel took place in 1993, with John Paul II. This was the year that Israel was officially recognized by the Holy See. The trip to Israel is the only announced foreign trip for the Pope thus far for the year 2014. Pope Francis, before his election as pope, has visited Israel in the past. His previous visit took place in 1973, at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.
The visit of the Pope to the Middle East is significant regarding one of the larger, overarching goals of Pope Francis. Since his election as pontiff, Pope Francis has made it clear that one of the biggest changes he hopes to achieve is greater harmony between various religions, especially between the Jewish and Muslim people.
During his Christmas address, Pope Francis spoke specifically about Israel and his hopes for the land: “Bless the land where you chose to come into the world, and grant a favorable outcome to the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.” The Catholic Church confirmed that the main purpose of the visit was “mainly spreading and promoting love, cooperation and peace among all the inhabitants.”
While in Jerusalem, Pope Francis is set to reside over an ecumenical service with representatives of all the various churches present in Israel. The service will take place at the Holy Sepulcher Church in Jerusalem. The Israeli Foreign Ministry is looking forward to the Pope’s visit and said “He is very welcome in Israel and will be greeted as warmly as his predecessors were.” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas welcomes the visit as well, hoping that the visit of the Pope will “contribute to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people who aspire for freedom, justice and independence.”
The visit also coincides with the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting that took place between Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Christian leader Ecumenical Patriarch Atengora in Jerusalem.