Holy Land Franciscan Reflects On Being With Pope Francis During Pilgrimage

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Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land president Fr. Peter Vasko, ofm, accompanied Pope Francis on his pilgrimage throughout the Holy Land. Here, he gives his personal reflection on the Pope's visit which included presenting him with an honorary plaque.

Pope Francis looks at honorary plaque presented by Fr. Peter Vasko, ofm and the Franciscan Foundtion for the Holy Land

One thing Pope Francis was not on his recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land was bored.

“The visit of His Holiness, Pope Francis to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority was extremely hectic,” said Fr. Peter Vasko, president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, charged with preserving the Christian presence in the Holy Land.

According to Fr. Peter, the Pope was scheduled for “over 35 formal gatherings in just three days.” Those gatherings did not include several last minute, unannounced stops such as his controversial stop to pray at the Separation Wall in Bethlehem.

What were the preparations like for Pope Francis’ historic Holy Land pilgrimage?

“Needless to say, the preparation for this visit was time consuming- especially for the Franciscan Custody in the area of logistics,” said the Franciscan priest. “Preparations for the outdoor Mass in Manger Square in Bethlehem were very complex precisely because the Mass was outdoors, in the city, and not within church walls.”

Another formal meeting took quite a bit of planning, according to Fr. Peter. “The meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was big. It was important. Because we knew it would be, we spent many hours working with members of the other communities to make it happen smoothly.”

Not to be overshadowed, the Holy Father’s visit to the Church of All Nations at Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives and the Mass at the Cenacle or the Last Supper Room were also key events in the Pope’s itinerary that required enormous amounts of planning.

Fr. Peter says that for him, and many others, the highlight of the Pope's pilgrimage “was indeed when at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, both Pope Francis and Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I renewed their commitments as heads of their respective churches to each other as brothers in Christ, just as Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras did in 1964.”

This, as has been widely published, was the official reason for the trip that commemorated the 50th anniversary of that ecumenical and ground-breaking meeting.

Present for the ecumenical service held in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place tradition holds Jesus Christ rose from the dead, Fr. Peter said that “Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew both stressed the importance of unity among themselves and promised to continue to make new in-roads.”

Who was there to hear those statements?

“During the ceremony seating was kept to a minimum,” said Fr. Peter. It was a mixed crowd, however. “The presence of both the Eastern Orthodox laity as well as the Roman Catholic laity symbolized the representation of the Christian peoples in need of such unity in the Holy Land and throughout the world.”

Not only that, but “Ecclesiastical dignitaries from both sides were in attendance, as well as the members of the diplomatic community,” according to Fr. Peter.

Yet another highlight for the Franciscan priest who has served as a guide to diplomats and even former American presidents when visiting the Holy Land, was an unannounced visit of the Holy Father to the Church of St. Catherine.

St. Catherine sits adjacent to the Basilica of the Nativity and serves part of the Latin Rite Catholic community of Bethlehem.

There must have been some prior announcement, however low-key it may have been, because within St. Catherine’s Church were some 70 friars who warmly greeted the Holy Father and later took a group-selfie, if you will.

Following the group-photo, a large, framed, brass plaque was presented to His Holiness by Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Chairman of FFHL, and by Fr. Peter, its President. Present for the photo were Fr. Angelo Ison, ofm and Ronny Musan, the one responsible for creating the Church of the Nativity’s Memorial Hall.

Upon the framed plaque was an inscription that read: "Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land enrolls His Holiness, Pope Francis, Vicar of Christ, Memorial Hall/Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. May 25, 2014."

The Pope did not get to take the plaque with him when he left. It will accompany an exact replica that was given to Benedict XVI when he visited Bethlehem during his papacy, according to Fr. Peter.

The Memorial Hall was set up to give Christians worldwide a unique opportunity to place their names or the names of their loved ones along its walls in perpetuity. The Hall is adjacent to the Church of the Nativity and donations for the memorials are used to support the mission of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, which is to preserve the Christian presence in the Holy Land through 14 different programs including university scholarships, child sponsorship, social services, vocational training and job creation.

Though Pope Francis emphasized that his pilgrimage to the Holy Land would be a pilgrimage of prayer, politics were involved. Fr. Peter said that, from his perspective, Pope Francis “remained balanced during his visits to government officials on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

“Most surprisingly, he took the initiative to insert himself directly into the collapsed Middle East peace process by issuing an invitation to both President Peres of Israel and President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. The invitation to the Vatican was for the purpose of continued dialogue.”

As has been widely reported, both men have accepted the invitation.

During those political visits, according to Fr. Peter, Pope Francis aptly stated, "there is a need to intensify efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for a stable peace based on justice, on the recognition of rights for every individual and on mutual security."

What came out of the pilgrimage for the people of the Holy Land?

Fr. Peter said, “His visit brought great hope and joy for the peoples living in the Holy Land but especially for the local Christians who looked upon his visit as a ‘God-send’. This was especially true,” he said, “for the Christians in Bethlehem who continue to struggle with political realities that often discriminate against them.”

Summarizing his thoughts, Fr. Peter remarked, “The Pope's simplicity, humility, and serenity were quite apparent during his visit and all were blessed!”

For more information or to schedule a phone interview with Fr. Peter Vasko, contact Tekton Ministries at (866) 905-3787 or email Chris Weldon at cweldon(at)ffhl(dot)org.

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