Pope Francis has announced his upcoming trip to the Holy Land just one day after the 50th anniversary of the first ever papal trip to the region. Pope Paul VI began his visit – which included the main holy sites in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth – on January 4th 1964. This was the first journey outside Italy for a Pope who would eventually visit six continents and become the best-travelled Pope in history up to that point, and also marked the first time a Roman Pontiff had ever travelled by plane. Even more importantly, this historic pilgrimage marked a fundamental shift in Catholic-Orthodox relations: Paul VI met with the head of the Orthodox Church at the time, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras I, in the Garden of Olives in Jerusalem, an encounter which led to the lifting of the mutual excommunications declared after the East-West Schism in 1054.
No less historic was the following papal visit to the Holy Land, made by Pope John Paul II during the Jubilee year 2000. This visit was undertaken both as a personal, spiritual pilgrimage to the roots of faith, and as a diplomatic visit intended to promote reconciliation between Christians, Muslims and Jews living side by side in the Middle East. Among the most memorable images from this trip is the moment when John Paul II prayed at the so-called Wailing Wall in the traditional Jewish way, leaving a written prayer in one of its cracks. Remarkably, this prayer contained a plea for God’s forgiveness for Christian sins against the Jewish people.
Pope Benedict XVI followed his predecessors to Jerusalem in May 2009, visiting, among other sites, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. There he met with Holocaust survivors, and said the Church must help ensure that hatred is never allowed to reign again.
Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI all made their own visits to the Holy Land moments of historic importance, and so, undoubtedly, will Pope Francis. However, this won’t be the first time the Pope has visited the region: Jose Maria Bergoglio flew to Israel in October 1973, as part of a course he was following in preparation for his new job as Jesuit Provincial Superior in Argentina.