POPE FRANCIS COMPLETES FIRST DAY IN HOLY LAND
WITH VISIT TO BIRTHPLACE OF CHRISTIANITY
Pope Visits Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan to Pray, Exhort Peace-Makers and Hear from Vulnerable in Need of Aid; Thanks Jordan for “Generous Welcome” of Refugees; Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Invites Christians Worldwide to Discover Roots of their Faith at Jordan Baptismal Site
BETHANY-BEYOND-THE-JORDAN, Jordan – Pope Francis recently completed the first day of his “pilgrimage of prayer” to the Holy Land with a visit here, the wilderness on the eastern banks of the Jordan River associated with the biblical prophets Elijah and John the Baptist. The Christian Bible (John1:28) teaches that Jesus came here to bebaptized by his cousin before beginning his public ministry. It is here where all four Gospel writers tell of the Spirit of God descending like a dove upon Jesus, thus marking the proclamation of the one God and Holy Trinity that is central to Christian belief.
“The place where we are meeting commemorates Jesus’ baptism,” the pope told an assembly at the yet unfinished Church of the Baptism of Jesus (of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem). “Coming here to the Jordan to be baptized by John, Jesus showed his humility and his participation in our human condition.”
Earlier, at the nearby archaeological remains of five churches built over time by early Christians to commemorate the very place where Jesus was baptized, the pope had paused in silent reflection. After, he made his way to another spot on the Jordan River where — as Pope Paul VI did before him, in 1964 – he spent a few moments alone in prayer and reflection. He then joined the waiting assembly outside of the Latin Church, still in construction. Before entering the church, the pope took several minutes to write a personal note in the guest book while birds loudly chirped along with the choir.
His Beatitude Patriarch Fouad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, welcomed the pope to the intimate gathering inside the church with these words: “Our Church, together with the Jordanian government, is pleased and proud to present to the world this holy place where the Baptism of Jesus Christ took place and where our Lord’s public life began. Following in your footsteps, we invite the Christian world to visit this site and learn more about our roots and our ecclesial life. For many, this river is a border. For the Latin Patriarchate, which includes Cyprus, Israel, Palestine and Jordan, it is more a bridge that unites, a call to communion and unity.”
During his much-anticipated meeting with several hundred people with great needs – refugees from Syria and Iraq; poor families; orphans and the disabled – the pope listened intently as several of the vulnerable shared their personal stories in front of all assembled. Disabled students from the Our Lady of Peace Center in Amman — with the help of volunteers from Caritas, a humanitarian organization affiliated with the Catholic Church — presented a “special gift” to the pope: a framed collection of the children’s handprints and photos. And young and old alike shared personal testimonials of courage in the face of life’s difficulties. One 11-year-old cancer patient told the pope of his “journey of blessing, not misery,” and then spent several moments quietly talking with the pope. The assembly ended with music and spontaneous cheers. It was a fitting ending to a day filled with prayers for peace, joy, worship, comfort, encouragement, calls for bridge-building and common ground.
The pontiff, the fourth successor of Peter to visit the Holy Land, met earlier in the day with King Abdullah II, whom he has already met with twice at the Vatican. During his welcome, the king told the pope: “Since becoming Pontiff, you have reminded us, in word and in deed, that ‘Pontiff’ means ‘bridge builder.’ Jordanians, too, are building bridges. Our work includes concrete and tangible actions, over many years.”
In the afternoon, the pope celebrated mass at the International Stadium in Amman in front of about 50,000 worshippers and well-wishers from Jordan, the region and around the world. It was the third papal mass to be held there. The first was performed by Saint Pope John Paul II in 2000 and the second by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. During his homily, the pope spoke these words: “The mission of the Holy Spirit, in fact, is to beget harmony – he is himself harmony – and to create peace in different situations and between different people. Diversity of ideas and persons should not trigger rejection or prove an obstacle, for variety always enriches. Sotoday, with fervent hearts, we invoke the Holy Spirit and ask him to prepare the path to peace and unity.”
In the year 2000, to commemorate the pilgrimage of Saint Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church designated five biblical locations in Jordan as Jubilee pilgrimage sites: Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan; Mount Nebo(where, according to the Christian Bible, Moses saw the land he would never enter and is buried nearby);Mukawir (the hilltop fortress where John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded after Salome’s fateful dance); Anjara (Catholic tradition teaches that Jesus, his disciples and the Virgin Mary passed through here and rested in a cave during one of their journeys) and Umm Qais (traditional location of the miracle of the Gadarene Swine).
The large area known as Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan is a national park of the kingdom of Jordan. The park was established to preserve the place as it was in the time of Jesus, and also to accommodate pilgrims from all over the world. Early Christians built churches here to commemorate the baptism of Jesus, and it is depicted on the famed Sixth Century Madaba Map, the oldest surviving mosaic map of the Holy Land. Church leaders, park trustees and tourism officials are working to facilitate and continue the tradition of pilgrimage here, while protecting the world heritage site from over-commercialization.
About ten years ago, authorities decided to offer plots of land in the park – outside of the protected wilderness area – free of charge to various Christian denominations, so that they could build new religious buildings (sanctuaries, monasteries and guest houses for pilgrims) to continue the pilgrimage tradition started by the early Christians. Varied denominations are building facilities at their own expense in the area set aside for pilgrims and visitors. When the projects are completed, about a dozen new places of worship should stand in the park.
Once completed, the Church of the Baptism of Jesus could become one of the most visited places in the Holy Land for Catholic pilgrims and the local faithful, according to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. The holy building will be able to hold about one-thousand worshippers, and the large square cloisters opposite it should hold at least two-thousand people. On both sides of the transept, two monasteries have been built, for two monastic communities – one male and one female – of the congregation of the Incarnate Word. Each of the monasteries can accommodate 30 pilgrims on retreats. The apse of the church is no more than thirty meters from the Jordan River. Behind the apse, in the open air, a large baptismal bath has been built, for community celebrations, connected to theriver by a small channel. Near the church, a large welcome center for pilgrims has been planned, with a restaurant, theatre, museum, souvenir shops (click here for an animated video of the project).
Visitors of all faiths from around the world have been flocking to the baptism site in increasing numbers. The Baptism Site Commission (BSC), a board of trustees charged with preserving and protecting the holy site while also making it accessible to pilgrims, estimates that more Americans visited the site in 2013 than any other nationality.
“We are very happy that the Pope chose to begin his first visit to the Holy Land in Jordan, where Christianity began after the baptism here of Jesus,” said Malia Asfour, director of Jordan Tourism Board, North America (JTBNA). “His message for peace, harmony and integration is the essence of how Jordanians are and caneasily be seen by traveling throughout the country and by meeting the people. It is my hope that more travelers take a journey to Jordan and follow in the footsteps of the Pope and the prophets before him.”
The Jordan Tourism Board, North America (JTBNA), a division of the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB), is an independent public/private partnership that was officially launched in 1997 to create awareness, position and market Jordan as a tourism destination for travelers from North America. Most travelers from North America visit Jordan to explore a combination of its world-heritage cultural, historical and religious sites; engage in eco-adventure activities; or for the unique luxury or spa/wellness experiences at the Dead Sea, the world’s largest open-air spa and the lowest point on earth.