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Paul VI and His Flock in the Holy Land

The Pontifical Mission for Palestine is a living testament to the vision and action of one man.

by Michael Healy

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Although Pius XII was the pope at the time of the founding of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine in 1949, the labors of his special assistant, Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, loom large in the history of the mission. He is the central figure in the story of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

Msgr. Montini, who later became Pope Paul VI, had an intimate knowledge of the Pontifical Mission, dating back to its origins. During the Second World War, Msgr. Montini had organized and directed the Vatican’s refugee relief efforts. It was he who signed the document authorizing the operations of the Pontifical Mission and mandating it to serve Palestinian and all refugees without distinction of religion.

After his election to the papacy in 1963, Pope Paul VI announced that he would make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January 1964. Paul singled out the people of Palestine for his first pastoral visit abroad. He manifested a special concern for the Palestinians “because they are people of the Holy Land.” They live in the land where Jesus preached, cured, was crucified, and rose from the dead.

Paul VI saw their homeland as the spiritual home of people of faith. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam weave a complex tapestry of religious traditions in this land. This place and its rich spiritual heritage remind us of the human family’s basic unity as spiritual heirs to Abraham bound up in belief in the same one true God.

Pope Paul VI was the first pontiff since St. Peter to return to the land of Jesus. He came bringing the gospel’s message of peace to a land sorely tried by animosities and hatred. He sought to bring reconciliation and peace. On the common ground of a faith heritage, he met with Eastern Catholics. He also initiated ecumenical efforts with estranged Orthodox brethren by dramatically embracing and praying with the Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras I. King Hussein of Jordan cited the importance of this trip for improving relations between Muslims and Christians. Jewish leaders applauded Paul’s journey as a hopeful sign.

In addition to meeting with political and religious leaders, Paul gave support and comfort to the poor and outcast. He had noted as he began his journey to the land of Jesus, “We will bring to the Holy Sepulchre and to the Grotto of the Nativity the desires of individuals, of families, of nations; above all, the aspirations, the anxieties, the sufferings of the sick, the poor, the disinherited, the afflicted, of refugees, of those who suffer, those who weep, those who hunger and thirst for justice.”

As a result of Pope Paul’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January of 1964, he called for new and creative efforts on behalf of Palestinians and the Church in Palestine. He initiated major rehabilitation and development projects, including Bethlehem University, the Ephpheta School for the Hearing Impaired, Tantur Ecumenical Institute, and Notre Dame of Jerusalem Pilgrimage Center.

The world was amazed by this bold, courageous action of the Holy Father. These actions showed clearly that the substance of the Second Vatican Council was deeper than words. Paul’s efforts for respect, dialogue, development, and cooperation have inspired numerous religious volunteers to continue their long-term service to the Arab community to bring these projects to fruition.

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Tags: Holy Land Unity Relief Pilgrimage/pilgrims