Each of these pilgrimages has shared aspects with previous ones, to which other aspects are added which are truly special. As a seminarian I was able to witness the visit of Paul VI in 1964 and then as an organiser I took part in those of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. That of Pope Francis will also be a pilgrimage of ‘prayer and penitence’ – as Paul VI above all said – and a pastoral pilgrimage, that is to say involving personal contact with the local people. Naturally enough, a visit by a Pope is also made up of diplomatic relations that he has with the heads of state with whom he will enter into contact, that is to say those of Jordan, Palestine and Israel. These aspects are present now, just as they were present on previous occasions. The difference is that this time the State of Israel has imposed conditions sine qua non and has asked to introduce new diplomatic aspects and protocols. There will be, for example, the visit to the Wailing Wall, to the great rabbinate and to Yad Vashem, but they have also added the laying of a floral wreath at the tomb of Herzl, as well as two official visits to the Head of State and the meeting with Netanyahu. These conditions have required a lot of space and made a visit of the Pope to Nazareth impossible, in part limiting the pastoral aspect of the visit, to the benefit of the aspects of protocol, which, naturally, can be positive. Even the local bishops of the Holy Land, with the exception of the papal entourage and the Patriarch, will not be able to take part in all those moments of Monday morning, 26 May, including the visit to the Mosque of Omar and the meeting with the Muslim leaders. We are sorry, above all else, that in Jerusalem the Christian faithful will not be able to see the Pope because when and where the Pope goes is decided, as the police have said, by the curfew. There will only be a meeting at Gethsemane with priests, religious and seminarians, and the Holy Mass at the Cenaculum, as well as the central moment of the pilgrimage: the meeting at the Holy Sepulchre with the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, and other Eastern patriarchs and bishops. The pastoral aspect, however, will be highlighted very well during the journey to Amman, in Jordan, and to Bethlehem.
Who are and how many in number are your faithful in Israel? How do they live their faith in a context which has a Jewish majority?
First of all a premise: we always have a unitary view of the Christians of Israel, of Palestine and those beyond the River Jordan, and we strive, within the limits if what is possible, not to isolate the Catholics from the other Christians, and we have done this above all since celebrating the splendid Diocesan Pastoral Synod which ended in 2000. Thanks to that synod we see ‘being and working together’ as an absolute priority. In the Holy Land as a whole there are about 450,000 Christians, of whom 130,000 are in Israel. Amongst them there the descendants of the earliest Christian community of Jerusalem, the descendants of those who lived with Jesus. In Israel we are a small minority that suffers a great deal, for various reasons, but which finds encouragement and strength in being a part of the great body of the universal Church. It is for this reason that the pilgrimage of the Pope is of great importance for us: it makes us see, feel and understand that we are part of that body, the Church. Despite the difficulties, this community remains faithful to the holy places, to the Church and to the Gospel. However there is also a strong temptation for the Christian minority of the Holy Land: emigration. I, too, renew the invitation of the Popes, above all of St. John Paul II, to do something for the Holy Land, to pray for the Mother Church of Jerusalem, which is basically the Mother Church of all Churches, and to come as pilgrims so as to make us feel constantly a part of the Christian communion.
There are various other communities of Christians in Israel: the Catholic community which speaks Hebrew, the Russians who arrived with the recent immigration of Jews from Russia, the numerous Filipino, Indian and Sri Lankan immigrants, and those who ‘ask for asylum’ such as the Sudanese, the Ethiopians and Eritreans. Each community has its own problems and all of them face dramatic situations in Israel. Our pastoral care, respecting their special features, seeks to create communion between them all through acts of solidarity and by promoting proximity to the local community. They, too, are awaiting the arrival of the Pope in Israel with a great deal of hope.
What impact can the visit of the Pope have on the relations between the religions that are present in the Holy Land?
During this visit Pope Francis will have himself accompanied, as members of his entourage, by an Argentine rabbi and an Argentine Muslim leader. In the Holy Land he will certainly have contacts with Muslims and Jews, but separately. The aspect of interreligious dialogue, together, with three voices, this time will not take place or it will be reduced compared to the previous visits by Popes, exclusively for reasons of time. There will not be, for example, a moving moment such as the meeting of 14 May 2009 of Pope Benedict XVI and the heads of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Druze communities specifically here in Nazareth, which we can call the ‘capital of unity’, since it was here that God and man signed their covenant. But during these days of preparation for the visit of the Pope there have been very impressive moments of interreligious solidarity. After the occurrence of acts of fundamentalism and threats to us, I was rooted in my room at the Patriarchal Vicariate to receive a constant flow, from the morning to the evening, of Christians, but also of many Muslims, some Jews and Druze, who came to express their solidarity. It was a very profound and constructive moment of friendship, participation and nearness to those who are threatened. It was a very strong interreligious moment, above all between Christians and Muslims. To give two examples, even the famous Sheikh Raed Salah came here with friends and colleagues. The White Mosque of Nazareth dedicated Friday prayers to solidarity with the threatened Christians. It is worthwhile quoting literally a part of that speech: ‘The Christians are children of this land, they love this land, they want to live in this land in order to continue to serve everyone, to love everyone, and to spread the culture of love and of life’. The pilgrimage of Pope Francis will help to reinvigorate and develop this need for interreligious dialogue and cooperation and to isolate those fringes of fanaticism and intolerance.
Thus the threats, involuntarily, set in motion gestures of a new and unexpected solidarity…
Certainly. These facts of vandalism and threats do not augur anything good, but on the other hand the witness to solidarity was a moment of peaceful coexistence, of true interreligious dialogue, and of mutual support of all the communities. In a few words, it was a happy indirect preparation for the arrival of Pope Francis. Yesterday as well, for example, at the Knesset of Israel and ‘temple’ of Judaism, we lived a very meaningful moment of solemn commemoration of St. John XXIII. He is a Pope very much appreciated by the Jews because he changed the traditional prayer for the ‘perfidious Jews’ of Good Friday, he met Jules Isaac and began the opening of relations between the communities and above all set in motion the Second Vatican Council which is at the origin of the declaration Nostra Aetate (almost known by heart by some rabbis) and because when he was a nuncio to Istanbul, as was observed in a special way by the honourable Isaac Herzog, the son of the former President of Israel, Chaim Herzog, and grandson of the chief rabbi, Isaac Herzog, he helped to save many Jews during the Second World War. This parliamentary initiative constitutes an excellent preparation, even though an indirect one, for the pilgrimage of the Pope.
At the Synod of the Middle East of 2010, you observed that ‘the cultural mediation of faith is a necessity above all during great moments of change, of innovation and of sharp bends in history’. What do you mean by cultural mediation and what role can it have today?
According to my experience of over fifty years in the Middle East, what we really need here in the Middle East, and in general in the Churches of the Middle East, is formation, formation, and again formation. But we should first of all understand what kind of formation: a formation based on cultural mediation is needed, which, that is to say, moves faith into the typical local culture and culture into faith, which ensures that faith is truly embodied and can be transmitted in the life, work and culture of each day. This we do not have: there is not enough trust in reason and the local culture, we are overly fideists, we are exposed to living an alienated faith, that is to say one that is not sufficiently incarnated. This is a real paradox in the land of the Incarnation.
We Christians of the Holy Land and of the whole of the Middle East, for example, are almost completely ignorant of the local original Arab thought, theology and patrology which is a part of our heritage. This involves very many problems, such as the emigration to which I have already referred. Why do Christians want to emigrate? Because they feel strangers in their own land! They feel that even Arabic is not theirs but is something that belongs, rather, to the Muslims, even though this is not true. This is why I think it is an absolute priority to impress a change on the work and the perspective of the Church in the Middle East, at a time of transformation such as this is, to reawaken again in Christians a love for, and a knowledge of, their heritage of faith and culture, that is to say a cultural mediation.