Papal visit to Holy Land startled council

June 24, 2013

As the second session of the Second Vatican Council drew to a close on Dec. 4, 1963, the mood among the council fathers was sombre. Only two conciliar decrees had been approved, disorganization had slowed the progress of the council and a deep chasm existed among the fathers on religious liberty, ecumenism and collegiality.

As Pope Paul VI came to the end of his address closing the session, he departed from the text of his speech. The pope startled everyone by announcing that the next month he would make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to pray for the success of the council.

As well, it soon came out that during that trip he would meet with Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras, ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople. A pope and an ecumenical patriarch had not met face-to-face since the Council of Florence in the 15th century.

The news was stunning. The last time a pope had left Italy was when Pope Pius VII was kidnapped by Napoleon in 1807. No pope had travelled outside of Italy of his own volition for more than 500 years.

From 1870, when Pope Pius IX had pronounced himself a “prisoner of the Vatican,” because of the Italian government’s annexation of the Papal States, until Pope John XXIII’s visit to Assisi in 1962, no reigning pope had even left the confines of the tiny Vatican state.

Today, we expect popes to travel and we take such travel for granted. After all, the pope is head of a global Church and he should be on the road at least some of the time.

Pope Paul VI presides over a meeting of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Paul VI became the first pope in 500 years to leave Italy of his own volition.


Pope Paul VI presides over a meeting of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Paul VI became the first pope in 500 years to leave Italy of his own volition.

But 50 years ago, expectations were much different. The pope was seen as a monarch. People came to him; he did not go to others.

Pope Paul’s announcement was greeted warmly at the council and with great anticipation in the world’s media. The pope wanted his pilgrimage to be simple, focused on prayer and with few people in his retinue.

The visit with the Orthodox patriarch was not part of the original plan. But in early December, Patriarch Athenagoras proposed a meeting of the heads of all the churches of both East and West. This was more than the Vatican could handle; it had secretly made arrangements for the pope’s visit months in advance. Having a Christian summit in Jerusalem would totally change the nature of the visit.


The Jan. 4 to 6 trip far exceeded anyone’s expectations. Interest in Israel and Jordan was extremely high, even among Muslims and Jews. The pope was followed by large crowds and even jostled in the crush. The pilgrimage was the focus of global media attention.

It seems, however, that it was only when he met the patriarch that Pope Paul realized the ecumenical importance of the meetings. The two embraced several times, had friendly meetings in private and jointly blessed the crowds.

The pope gave the patriarch the gift of a chalice to show his desire for the restoration of Eucharistic communion among Catholics and Orthodox; the patriarch gave Pope Paul a pectoral chain with a medallion (an enkilpion) as a sign of the unity of the churches in the same episcopate.


At that moment, the restoration of East-West unity seemed like a genuine possibility for the not-too-distant future.

However, underneath the great joy that the pilgrimage engendered, other emotions emerged.

Some Protestants and Orthodox wondered why the Catholic Church, which only a few short years previously had been frigid toward the ecumenical movement, was now usurping its centre stage.

Among Catholics, concern arose that the pope had taken the initiative for ecumenism away from the Vatican Council. Was the new emphasis on collegiality already being shunted aside by an even greater emphasis on papal primacy?


Were these questions merely human churlishness and jealousy or were they legitimate questions that pointed to disturbing dynamics?

After 50 years, we can say with certainty that the Catholic commitment to ecumenism, while it arose quickly, did not fade with the autumn winds. As for the pope stealing initiative from the council, it is not at all clear that that was his intention in travelling to the Holy Land. However, later in 1964, we will see that the pope did assert his primacy in ways that were not always appreciated among the fathers of Vatican II.

(Information for this article came from Claude Soetens’ article in volume three of History of Vatican II, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo, and from What Happened at Vatican II by John O’Malley.)