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On the pope's moral pilgrimage to the Holy Land

By Jerrold Kessel
CNN Correspondent

March 24, 2000
Web posted at: 3:15 p.m. EST (2015 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

In this story:

In pursuit of a spiritual 'promised land'

Reconciliation, step by step

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- "Oh corner of the Earth, place in the Holy Land -- what kind of place are you in me? My steps cannot tread on you. I must kneel." So wrote a young Polish priest 40 years ago on his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The priest, now Pope John Paul II, seems equally moved by a spirit of undiluted love for what he calls "God's land" during his historic visit this week.

But unlike millions of other Christian pilgrims who journey to the places where Jesus walked and taught, the pope's frail health, tight security and a carefully calibrated schedule have meant less opportunity on this trip for him to enjoy quiet personal contemplation and silent prayer.

In pursuit of a spiritual 'promised land'

In making this trip, John Paul said he was following the footsteps not only of Jesus but also of Moses.


It was at Mount Nebo, across the Jordan River, that the Bible says Moses died after only glimpsing the Promised Land. John Paul deliberately started his journey there, in pursuit of a kind of spiritual "promised land" -- to convey a crusading moral message to those in the region and for future pilgrims to follow. It has been a message of harmony and reconciliation.

He has celebrated major Masses in different parts of the Holy Land: in Jordan, in Palestinian Bethlehem and in Galilee in northern Israel. These have been aimed at emboldening local Christians, attempts to revive sometimes flagging spirits and dwindling numbers of a minority faith. His presence is intended to reaffirm a Christian presence in the Holy Land.

The pope stopped to pray at Mt. Nebo  

He arguably has been less successful in achieving his goal of enhancing greater harmony among the different religions in the Holy Land.

A meeting devoted to interfaith dialogue turned into a debacle on Thursday when a rabbi and a sheik slugged it out, verbally, over rival Jewish-Muslim claims to Jerusalem.

The pope remained aloof from that entanglement. But he has deliberately waded into some current political controversies.

The pope delivered a powerful personal plea for a Palestinian homeland, which left Yasser Arafat beaming. And the pope's stop at the Dehaishe refugee camp was, in the words of Palestinian ideologue Hanan Ashrawi, "a dramatic identification with the human dimension of the Palestinian problem."

The pope has celebrated several Masses, including one at Manger Square in Bethlehem...  

But the pope stopped short of what the refugees had hoped to hear. Welcome banners strung across the entrance of the cramped camp, home to 10,000 people, used the same words the pope has employed throughout his pilgrimage: "salvation" and "peace with justice."

And the refugees never got an endorsement for what they call their "right to return" to homes they left 50 years ago inside what is now Israel.

At another emotion-laden and politically charged station on the pilgrimage, Israel's Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem, the pope paid a moving tribute to the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis.

Some Jews had anticipated an apology for church silence during the Holocaust, or that he would at least address the contentious issue. He did not.

But his intense identification with the victims and especially the very human manner in which he related to survivors -- including many from Wadowice, his own home town in Poland -- made many Israelis take him to their hearts.

With great poignance, he walked with his slow painful steps to greet them, rather than waiting for them to come over and pay their respects to him.

"Overall, it's just as well he never made an apology," wrote David Grossman, a leading Israeli writer. "Think what would have happened. Millions of Christians would then have felt as if the pope had absolved them once and forever from the personal need of each and every human being to confront the meaning of the Holocaust."

Reconciliation, step by step

Through a very strenuous agenda, the pontiff -- who turns 80 in May -- has belied his critics who said he might have lacked the stamina for such a trip.

He seems to have drawn strength from a spiritual mission and the opportunity to display profound diplomatic skills.

"The pope is a clever diplomat," remarked Vatican observer Lorenzo Cremonosi. "He knows how powerful his image is and he is playing it very well without committing the Vatican to dramatic new positions."

On Sunday, John Paul visits the holiest sites of all three major religions in contested Jerusalem: Judaism's Western Wall, Islam's Al Aksa Mosque compound and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where most Christians believe Jesus was crucified and entombed before his resurrection.

At the pinnacle of his pilgrimage, the pope's diplomatic skills and his message of reconciliation may be most tested.

CNN Interactive: World

Biography - Pope John Paul II

TIME 100: Leaders & Revolutionaries - Pope John Paul II

Vatican: the Holy See
Catholic Online
EWTN: Papal Visit to the Holy Land
Jordan Information System
Embassy of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
Anti-Defamation League
The World Jewish Congress
Israeli Government

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