John Paul II visit to Palestine, Jordan and Syria

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:51:55

The visit to Mount Sinai was the first of the great pilgrimages that John Paul II wanted to make to celebrate the Jubilee of the year 2000. Palestine, Jordan and Syria followed shortly afterwards. The visit to Iraq (the land of birth of the Patriarch Abraham), however, could never take place. A splendid morning of sun with the almond trees in blossom provided a setting for that moment of prayer at the foot of the 'Horeb, the Mountain of God' [1 Kings 19,8].

The programme of that day involved a visit to the Monastery of St. Catherine, within whose walls is to be found an ancient shrub that is identified with the bush through which God spoke to Moses, as well as prayer in the olive grove at the foot of the mountain of Moses. Twenty years previously John Paul II would not have hesitated to climb that sacred mountain, but this time we had to be satisfied with seeing him pass near to it in his aeroplane. The Pope's physical strength was beginning to abandon him at a time when his illness was growing worse and there grew greater that image of physical weakness and moral force that was to characterise the last years of his ministry. This is a fact that should not be underestimated and which both captured people's attention and moved them: because of his noble and suffering humanity, John Paul II knew how to make a breach in the hearts of so many men of religion who had been used to see in Christianity, with irritation, solely an aggressive and expansionist countenance. Catholics and Orthodox did not pray together that day. The monks politely declined the invitation to engage in common prayer but this did not prevent them from welcoming John Paul II in their very ancient monastery, to attending on him with respect when he prayed in the very small Chapel of the Burning Bush, to paying tribute to him with a warm greeting and to covering him with gifts: in him they saw a sincere pilgrim who was walking in bare feet in the place where God had revealed His name, transformed a refugee into a Prophet of liberation, and given His people a law a seal and a guarantee of its freedom.

Recalling the 'mystery of obedience that frees', the Pontiff concentrated his address on the 'Ten Commandments which are not an arbitrary imposition of a tyrannical God. They were written in stone, but before that they had been written in the human heart as a moral and universal law that is valid in all times and places'. The revelation of Sinai is perpetually valid, but it was not static: it called for a completion that the Pontiff discerned in the revelation that took place 'on another mountain, the Mountain of the Transfiguration, where Jesus appeared to his Apostles resplendent in the glory of God. Moses and Elijah were with him to testify that the fullness of the revelation of God is to be found in the glorified Christ... The Ten Commandments now made themselves heard through the voice of the chosen Son. The person made free by Jesus is aware that he is not bound externally by a multitude of regulations but internally by the love that is deeply rooted in his heart. The Ten Commandments are the law of freedom... the freedom to love'. In the intentions of the Pontiff this moment of prayer was to be an inter-religious encounter with representatives of Judaism and Islam. Unfortunately, that dream could not be realised. There remained that moving gesture of the pilgrim John Paul II and the charm of that place, sacred stones full of mystery, where in revealing Himself on that mountain and consigning His law, God revealed man to man. Sinai is at the centre of the truth about man and his destiny.