Pope continues his Jubilee pilgrimage `in the footsteps of God' today


Pope John Paul II will today continue his jubilee pilgrimage "in the footsteps of God" when he arrives in the Holy Land on his 91st visit abroad.

Last month he began that pilgrimage in Egypt when he visited Mount Sinai where it is believed God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and commissioned him to lead his people from slavery.

It is this Pope's first time in the Holy Land (Pope Paul VI visited in 1964) and there can be little doubt the visit is as significant for him personally as was his first visit to Poland as Pope in 1979.

This is not so simply because he will be in the homeland of Jesus in this 2000th year after his birth but it has as much to do with Pope John Paul's determination to undo Catholic prejudices towards the Jewish people.

It is expected he will address that issue during the visit, probably on Thursday when he visits the Hall of Remembrance of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

"The Pope wants his trip to Israel and the Palestinian areas to serve the cause of peace, a peace in justice, which this land does not have," the Chief Vatican spokesman, Dr Joaquin NavarroValls, said last week.

"He is not going there with political ideas but wants to favour a climate where political ideas can take shape. He hopes his presence, his words, can help bring about political ideas."

The pilgrimage begins in Jordan. The Pope arrives there today and will pay a private visit to the monastery at Mount Nebo, in Madaba, this afternoon. It is believed to be the site from where Moses saw the Promised Land shortly before he died.

Tomorrow, Pope John Paul will say Mass in Amman before flying to Israel in the afternoon.

He will spend the remainder of the week in Israel visiting Bethlehem and the refugee camp of Deheisha near there on Wednesday. Thursday he will spend in Jerusalem while on Friday he will visit the site of the Sermon on the Mount, the feeding of the 5,000, and the shrine of the house of St Peter in Capernaum.

On Saturday he will be in Nazareth where he will say Mass in the Church of the Annunciation. He will also visit the Garden of Gethsemane.

On Sunday he will be in Jerusalem, where he will be based throughout his visit to Israel. He will meet the Grand Mufti, leaders of the Latin Patriarchate in the city, and say Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, before flying back to Rome that evening.

Though there has been some opposition to the visit from rightwing Jewish groups this Pope is particularly well thought of in Israel.

The country's Chief Rabbi Meir Lau said in an interview on Israeli radio last December that "the present Pope is, I believe, one of the best ever to rule the Church." He expected the visit to yield "positive results" and felt "it could open a new page in the relations between our peoples and our faiths".

"The pattern of our relations, and especially with the Catholic Church, for a very long time was filled with agony and suffering, drenched in blood - in a one-sided fashion. It was this Pope who appointed a commission, headed by Cardinal Cassidy, which ultimately asked the Jewish people's forgiveness [in 1998], in particular against the background of the horrors of the Shoah [Holocaust] . . .

"We saw in this the beginnings of a reconciliation and a historic step forward . . . And thus this Pope followed in the footsteps of Pope John XXIII, who earlier had removed from the Catholic liturgy the historic injustice of the accusation of deicide that had been levelled against us through the ages," he said.

In 1984 Pope John Paul publicly supported "the desired security and the due tranquillity that are the prerogative of every nation" for the Jewish people in Israel.

In his historic proclamation on a visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome in 1986 he said: "With Judaism, we have a relationship that we do not have with other religions. You are our dearly beloved brothers; in a certain way, indeed, it could be said that you are our elder brothers." And in 1994 the Holy See dispatched its first diplomatic envoy to Israel.

No doubt this rapprochement between Catholicism and Judaism has been helped during this Papacy by the fact that the landlord of the house where Pope John Paul lived in Wadowice for the first 18 years of his life was Jewish. He, Yechiel Balamuth, his wife and three daughters, all died in the Holocaust.