March 22, 2000
volume 11, no. 58
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    AMMAN, Jordan ( -- Pope John Paul II celebrated a Mass in Amman, Jordan, on March 21, in a downtown athletic stadium.

    During the celebration-- which honored St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Jordan-- the Pope presided at the First Communion of 2,000 children. In total, about 35,000 people attended the Mass.

    When the Pope first arrived in the stadium, riding in his Popemobile, there was an enthusiastic welcome, and as he rode in a circuit around the facility, dozens of young people ran after the car-- with security officials allowing unusual freedom to the crowd.

    As the liturgical celebration began, the Pontiff blessed water taken from the Jordan River, and sprinkled the crowd with it, in a recollection of the baptisms performed by St. John in the Jordan as he prepared the people for the coming of Christ.

    In his homily, delivered in English, the Holy Father spoke of the Biblical importance of the land now known as Jordan. He pointed out that the city of Amman, identified in the Old Testament as Rabba, was the spot where King David lived when he took Bathsheba as his wife, and caused the death of her husband Ur the Hittite. Then the Pontiff went on to point out that God had mercy on King David despite his sin, and continued to recall how many prophets had testified to the faithlessness of God's people-- up to and including St. John the Baptist, "the voice crying out in the wilderness." The Pope closed this line of thought with the observation that Jesus himself preached in Jordan.

    Next the Pope spoke of the conclusions reached by the synod of bishops for the Holy Land, and reminded the Catholics of that region that "your future lies in unity and solidarity." While recognizing the roles of the Catholic patriarchs who were present for the ceremony-- each heading a major Catholic body in the region-- John Paul stresses that the local Catholic groups should work closely together, accentuating "the lines of friendship and collaboration among the Catholic communities in all their rich variety."

    At the conclusion of the Mass-- marked by the performance of the Alleluia Chorus from Handel's Messiah, with the singers accompanied by a large orchestra-- the Pope headed for the offices of the Latin-rite vicariate in Amman. There he met with the patriarchs and bishops of the Catholic Church in the Holy See. Most of those prelates would accompany him as he continued his trip to Israel. But one, the Coptic Catholic Patriarch Stephanos II Ghattas, returned to his residence in Cairo immediately after the meeting, explaining that "it would be delicate for me to go to Israel." The Coptic prelate observed that in any case, there are very few Catholic Copts in Israel.


    AMMAN, Jordan ( -- On March 21, Pope John Paul wrapped up his visit to Jordan with an afternoon trip to Wadi al-Kharrar, the site on the Jordan River where it is said that Jesus was baptized by St. John the Baptist.

    In 1997, archeologists reached the conclusion that Wadi al-Kharrar-- which is located well below sea level, not far from the Dead Sea-- could be the site of Jesus' baptism. The archeologists, teaming with Franciscans from the Studium Biblicum on Mount Nebo, discovered the remains of churches on the site, including a 4th-century Byzantine monastery and some caves of the sort that were occupied by hermits. An ambitious restoration project was quickly undertaken to open the site for visitors in time for the Jubilee.

    Although Pope John Paul only remained at Wadi al-Kharrar for about 30 minutes during his afternoon stop, the visit was seen as very important to Jordanian planners, who has predicted that 50,000 people would be on hand to greet him. (That figure may have been too optimistic, and the heavy winds that swept off the Jordan made the place uncomfortable for some visitors.) The Holy Father presided at a short ceremony which included the reading from the Gospel about the baptism of Christ, and a special prayer composed for the occasion.

    The Pope's visit did not settle a dispute between proponents of two different sites which lay claim to being the spot of Christ's baptism. On March 22 the Pontiff will visit the other site, on the opposite side of the Jordan, which has laid claim to that title since the 4th century. Pope John Paul showed no interest in injecting himself into the archeological dispute. Instead, he remarked that while "the two banks of the rivers are visited by groups of pilgrims," nevertheless "they all give honor to the baptism of our Lord."


    TEL AVIV ( -- As he arrived in Tel Aviv to begin his historic visit to Israel, Pope John Paul II said to his hosts: "We must struggle always and everywhere to present the true face of Jews and Judaism, of Christians and Christianity, at every level of understanding, teaching, and communication."

    The Holy Father arrived at the Tel Aviv airport in the afternoon on March 21, after a half-hour flight from Jordan. In an airport ceremony held in a light rain, the Pontiff was welcomed by Israel's President Ezer Weizman and Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

    In his remarks, the Pope summarized the purposes of his visit to the Holy Land. "My dear Israeli brothers," he said, "it is with profound emotion that I touch the soil of the land were God chose to 'place his tent,' thus allowing man to meet him in the most direct manner." Emphasizing his strong desire to visit the Holy Land during the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ, the Pope stressed that this visit was a "personal pilgrimage" that would take "the Bishop of Rome to the origins of our faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."

    The Pontiff complemented the Israeli head of state, Weizman, as a "builder of peace." And he added that the world "is following the peace process with great interest," recognizing the "difficult search for a durable peace, with justice for all."

    The Pope also took note of the progress in relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people. Since the last trip of a Roman Pontiff to the Holy Land-- the visit by Pope Paul VI in 1968-- formal diplomatic relations have been established between the Holy See and Israel, he observed. He suggested that the two religious groups should now redouble their "courageous efforts to suppress all forms of prejudice." In calling for mutual respect, the Pope used the same words he had used in a visit to the synagogue in Rome on April 13, 1986.

    Finally the Pope said that his own "personal pilgrimage" could be seen as "homage to the three religious traditions that coexist on this land." He prayed that "my visit will contribute to the growth of inter-religious dialogue" which in turn could help to furnish "the motivation and perseverance to work for that peace and that justice that all the peoples of the Holy Land do not yet have, but to which they all fervently aspire."

    Along with the Israeli government officials who met his plane, the Holy Father was welcomed to Israel by Catholic bishops of the Holy Land. Notable among them was the Melkite Archbishop Boutros Mouallem of Akka-- a see that includes Haifa, Nazareth, and all of Galilee. The appointment of Archbishop Mouallem in 1998 prompted a negative reaction from then- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was rebuffed by the Vatican when he lobbied heavily in favor of another candidate. Archbishop Mouallem was elected to his current post by the Synod of the Melkite Catholic Church, which accounts for the largest number of the Catholics in Galilee.


    TEL AVIV ( -- Speaking in Hebrew, Israeli President Ezer Weizman welcomed Pope John Paul II to his country on March 21, as darkness gathered over Israel and a soft rain fell on the Tel Aviv airport. The Israeli head of state observed that Israel is "the spiritual center of the Jewish people," and said that in the Jewish state there is "peace and serenity" among the believers of all faiths. He added: "It is important that the sons and daughters of the Church understand the reality of modern Israel."

    Weizman spoke of the "terrible Shoah" which had wiped out "one-third of the Jewish people," and of the "religious persecutions and anti-Semitism" which the Hebrew people had suffered in exile. He praised Pope John Paul for "your contribution to the condemnation of anti-Semitism as a sin against heaven and against humanity." And he added his praise for "your plea for pardon for the past actions committed against the Jews by members of the Church." The Israeli president said that the peace process in the Middle East is "encouraging and impressive," and said that "we hope for peace, we dream of peace, we pray for peace."

    However, Weizman gave a subtle indication that Israel would not accept one Vatican suggestion regarding the peace process: the creation of an international status for the city of Jerusalem. While acknowledging that Jerusalem is "a sacred place for Christianity and Islam," Weizman insisted that it would always be "the heart of the people of Israel" and "the capital of the State of Israel."

    After the airport greeting ceremony-- at which he met personally with leaders of the Israeli government, the local Catholic hierarchy, the rabbis of Jerusalem, and the Muslim leaders of the region-- Pope John Paul boarded a helicopter for the trip to Jerusalem, where he would spend the night at the apostolic delegation.


    JERUSALEM ( -- As the Pope arrived in Jerusalem on the evening of March 21, the Latin-rite Patriarch Michel Sabbah said that "John Paul II has a prophetic voice, and political leaders should listen to him."

    Patriarch Sabbah, who is an Arab himself, made a particularly forceful statement on the status of Jerusalem-- a bone of contention between Israel and the Holy See. He remarked that "religious freedom is not adequate" in the city. The Patriarch argued that "everyone, Israeli or Palestinian, should have the same rights; no one should have the impression that he is not welcome in Jerusalem."

    The Patriarch continued by observing that while Pope John Paul does not speak in political terms, he carries "a message of turth and of justice" that should guide politicians.

For news on the Pope's "Jubilee Journey" to the Holy Land this week, see also


March 22, 2000
volume 11, no. 58

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