Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
May 14, 2001
Trip ends cycle of biblical pilgrimages
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
VALLETTA, MALTA — With a journey that followed the missionary route of St. Paul, Pope John Paul was completing a cycle of long-desired biblical pilgrimages to mark the new millennium of Christianity.
When he announced his plan several years ago, the pope's idea was simple: By travelling to the places where the prophets spoke, where Jesus walked and where the Apostles preached, he would revive the roots of the faith for the whole Church.
It sounded like a wonderful idea. But pulling it off required an unprecedented combination of papal tenacity, Vatican diplomacy and religious risk-taking.
The challenges and the rewards of the pope's travels were highlighted during his May 4-9 trip to Greece, Syria and Malta.
Because of tensions with the Orthodox, Greece has been off limits for the pope for centuries, and Vatican officials said that even two months ago it was considered an impossible trip. But quiet negotiations and public pressure brought a reluctant go-ahead from the Orthodox Church in Greece.
The reward for both churches came during a dramatic papal apology to the Orthodox in the name of Catholics for past offences, including the infamous sack of Constantinople in 1204 by Western Crusaders.
This is what the Greek Orthodox have been waiting to hear for centuries.
The Vatican hopes what happened in Greece can serve as an example to Moscow, where Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei persistently has refused papal overtures for a meeting or a visit.
In Syria, where St. Paul had his dramatic conversion outside the gates of Damascus, the pope's historic visit to a mosque sent a visual message to the whole Muslim world that all the speeches and dialogue conferences could never match.
It also underscored how evangelization has changed since the time of St. Paul. Like the apostle, the pope preached the Gospel in Syria, but he carefully avoided any suggestion that he had come to convert the followers of Islam.
Balancing dialogue and proclamation of the Gospel has been a hallmark of the pope's pilgrimages, which have taken him to areas of tense relations among Christians, Muslims and Jews.
He visited a leading Islamic university in Cairo last year; prayed at the Western Wall, one of Judaism's most sacred spots; met with Palestinians on the contested Temple Mount in Jerusalem; and repeatedly brought together divergent Christian churches to remind them of the need for full communion.
In these and other events, the pope has tried to be a reconciler and unifier.
Sometimes it worked, as in his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
Sometimes it did not, as when an interfaith meeting in Jerusalem deteriorated into a rancorous squabble between Jewish and Muslim leaders.
Yet in either case, the figure of the pope seemed to transcend short-term successes or disappointments. He was travelling as a pilgrim convinced that God has spoken to humanity in all these places - and continues to speak to the people of today.
"The Lord meets everyone on their journey, often in a mysterious and unexpected way, just as he met Paul on the road to Damascus, surrounding him with his brilliant light," the pope said in Syria.
This is not an abstract God, but one who acts through people and touches human history. And the pope wanted to remind all believers to be open to this voice - to listen and act like Abraham and Moses did, like St. John the Baptist, St. Paul and Christ.
"When the pope goes on pilgrimage, he shows that he doesn't only speak through words or documents, but through his gestures," said Cardinal Jozef Tomko, recently retired as head of the Vatican's evangelization congregation.
Last year, evoking the Old Testament, the pope knelt at Mount Sinai in Egypt, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Later, he gazed into the Promised Land from the Jordanian side of the Jordan River valley.
Then he followed the paths of the New Testament, praying in the places where Jesus was born, persecuted and crucified. Finally, in May, he tracked St. Paul's evangelizing path through the eastern Mediterranean, paying tribute to the work of the Apostles.
"Here . . . sacred history can be read like an open book in the countryside," the pope said on the last stage of his pilgrimage.
Through the modern media, the whole Church and the wider world were able to join the pope's three pilgrimages.
As he wrapped up his biblical travels in Malta, the pope urged Catholics to imitate St. Paul's missionary energy, reflecting the purpose of these journeys to the places of the past: to leave the Church firmly pointed toward the future.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.