Pope Benedict XVI visited Israel in 2009. In doing so, the Pontiff made great strides in furthering the dialogue between Roman Catholics and the Jewish community living in Israel. The Pope’s visit in May of 2009 also benefited the relationship between the Vatican and Israel. Not only did Pope Benedict XVI travel to the Holy Land to encourage the Israeli-Catholic relationship, he considers himself a Christian pilgrim like so many others who visit these sacred destinations. The Pontiff visited Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth and other notable Christian sites while in Israel.
On the first day of the pilgrimage, May 11, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport. There was an official welcoming ceremony held b President Shimon Peres. The Pontiff then visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes’ Memorial. These two acts, meeting with President Peres and the visit to Yad Vashem, were an olive branch of sorts, offering an open dialogue and peaceful intentions on the part of the Roman Catholic Church. To acknowledge the atrocities, while simultaneously giving honor to Israel’s president gave respect to the Jewish nation, both past and present.
The next day, May 12, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI visited the Temple Mount and met with Grand Mufti. He visited the Western Wall, along with integral rabbis from Israel. The Pontiff also went with the chief rabbis to Heichal Shlomo Synagogue. After that, the Pope visited Mount Zion and the Coenaculum to celebrate the Eucharist. He then proceeded to Gethsemane Church and conducted a solemn afternoon Mass at Kidron Valley.
The Temple Mount, the Pontiff’s first stop in Jerusalem, is an elevated plateau located in the Old city of Jerusalem. It is steeped in religious importance for the Jews, Muslims and Christians. Originally, it was the site of the Jewish Temple in the Old Testament. Muslims revere it as being the site of the Prophet Muhammad’s trip to heaven. Christians journey to the Temple Mount because Jesus often visited it during his ministry on earth. Also, many Christians believe that Jesus will also return to the Temple Mount when he comes back to earth again.
The Pontiff also visited the Western Wall during his first full day in Israel. The Western Wall is the holiest Jewish site, because it still holds remnants of the retaining wall that supported the Second Temple, before the temple’s destruction. It is also called the “Wailing Wall,” because Jews visit to mourn the loss of their beloved temple.
Later, Pope Benedict XVI visited the Coenaculum, which is a second story room directly above the Tomb of David. It celebrates the Last Passover Supper Jesus had with his disciples. To recreate this act with a Eucharist gives homage to the legacy left by Christ. The Pope also visited Gethsemane Church, standing in the place where Christ spent his final hours praying before his eventual crucifixion.
From there, the Pope visited Bethlehem. The Pontiff celebrated Mass at Manger Square the next day, Wednesday, 13 May, 2009. Manger Square is an important city square in Bethlehem. It celebrates the birthplace of Christ, which is presumably in the Church of the Nativity. Also around the square are the Palestinian Peace Center and the Mosque of Omar (Bethlehem’s only mosque). Celebrating Mass in such a religiously important location again brings openness to the dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and those living in Israel, regardless of religion.
Not to be forgotten, Nazareth was the Pontiff’s destination on Thursday, May 14, 2009. He held a public Mass in the morning at Mount Precipice. Mount Precipice is a mountain just outside of Nazareth. Traditionally, it is thought to be the place where an angry mob tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. From the site, you can see the beautiful Jezreel Valley, Mount Tabor and other sites in Galilee.
There is a cave on the western slopes used by Christian hermits as far back as the 6th century. It is no longer open to the public, but Mount Precipice is a treasure enough to the Christian pilgrim. There is also a spot just north of Mount Precipice thought to have been the location where Mary stood watching the horror of her son, Jesus, being led to the edge of a cliff. Luckily, the Bible recounts that Christ escapes the clutches of this angry crowd.
While in Nazareth, the Pontiff also visited the Basilica of the Annunciation. This is a modern Catholic church built over the remains of Crusader and Byzantine churches. It includes a cave where the Virgin Mary, according to tradition, received the news that she would be the mother of Christ. The cave and subsequent commemorative churches have been a pilgrimage destination for followers of Jesus as far back as 400 AD.
Visit in Israel
On his final day in the Holy Land, the Pope visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old city of Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is also known as the Church of the Resurrection by the Eastern Orthodox Christians in the area. It encompasses both Golgotha (Calvary) and the tomb (sepulcher). Golgotha is where Christ was crucified, and the sepulcher is where Jesus was then buried. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been an important destination for Christian pilgrims since the 4th century AD.
Pope Benedict XVI performed a farewell ceremony with President Shimon Peres at the Ben-Gurion International Airport. His pilgrimage to the Holy Land was not only a chance for the Pontiff to visit the places so integral in Jesus’ life, but also proved an important step in maintaining open and respectful dialogue between the Christians and the Jewish community living in Israel. Overall, the Pope looks back fondly on his visit with a sense of satisfaction in continuing the positive steps made by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II in 2000.