ON THIS ROCK – A thousand years of quarrel

【圖片說明】Paul VI and Athenagoras, 50 years ago.

– José Maria C.S. André

Fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI traveled to the Holy Land, after many centuries in which no Pope left the vicinity of Rome, much less to return to the land where Jesus lived. The formation of the State of Israel had opened a conflict with the Palestinians, who inhabited the territory until they were expelled by the Jews, and with the Arabs from neighboring countries. The whole region was in a state of latent war and Paul VI wanted peace. In addition, he wanted to put an end to the millennial antagonism between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church.

A month before his departure (December 4, 1963), Paul VI surprised the participants of the Second Vatican Council announcing the journey: he was going to the Holy Land “in a spirit of devout prayer, of spiritual renewal, to offer Christ his Church; to call the separated Brothers to this one and holy Church; to implore divine mercy for peace.”

The television, the radio, and the international news agencies transformed the intense pace of those early years of pontificate into a windmill of news. Succeeding unexpected events had held the attention of the whole world. The Pope was elected in late June, reopened the Second Vatican Council interrupted by the death of John XXIII, and in early January left Rome for this unprecedented trip. Of course, the conciliar discussions were, by themselves, an inexhaustible source of plot.

In general, the news from Rome spread from a media very critical of Catholicism, most of them owned by Protestants or Jewish, or obedient to communist dictatorships. Because of this, although they talked very much about religion, neither God nor faith aroused much interest. The focus was on small scandals, the disputed theological positions in the Council, the personal cases. In fact, theological doctrines didn’t matter either to the news agencies, except as symbols of power maneuvers.

The newly elected Pope Paul VI was aware of all this, but decided to ignore the intrigue of the media and set out to evangelize the world. Everything could go wrong when he left the Rome Airport in that cold dawn of January 4, 1964. The first stage was Amam, in Jordan, a Muslim country. From there, he visited the banks of the Jordan River, Bethany, Jerusalem, dominated by the Israeli army, Nazareth, Capernaum, Tagba where Christ placed Peter at the head of his Church, the Mount of Beatitudes, Mount Tabor and the crib’s cave in Bethlehem. In some places there were crowds cheering him, in other places he was not allowed to enter.

When the Pope appealed to the political leaders of all countries to avoid war, in particular a new world war, many were touched by the Pope’s genuine concern, because he spoke in the name of God and not in the name of some fighting against others. In a land bloodied by centuries of conflict, the Pope’s words impressed because they expressed the pain of God, wounded in his suffering children.

One of the most striking memories of those days of pilgrimage was the meeting with Athenagoras, ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who traveled to the Holy Land on the same days, leading a large delegation of Orthodox bishops, to meet Paul VI. The embrace of these two men did not instantly erase the nearly thousand years of quarrel during which Eastern European Christians ignored Rome, but it opened the way to reconciliation. Paul VI was moved at the end of the first day meeting when he spoke of that unprecedented step. The next day they met again and hugged each other once more.

It has now been 50 years (January 5-6) since the painful wounds of the Eastern Schism began to heal. How many wonders we have seen on this path that will eventually lead to full communion. And also, how many hard times. I recall the Synod on Africa in 1994 in Rome. When the Orthodox representatives, received with great sympathy, were given the word, the head of the delegation launched an incredible violent attack against the Catholic Church. The Synod Aula “froze,” no breath could be heard. John Paul II got up, went to the speaker and gave him a very strong hug. A thunderous applause broke the silence.

Jesus was counting on the vigor of these hugs when he told Peter that he was going to build his Church upon his shoulders.

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