VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis is “eager” to visit the Holy Land, a Vatican
spokesman told The Jerusalem Post, but no specific date for the trip has been
set, contradicting Israeli television news reports that the trip could come as
soon as March.
The story got started Friday when Vatican spokesman Father
Federico Lombardi told the Turin newspaper La Stampa that following his October
4 trip to Assisi, the adopted home of the pontiff’s namesake St. Francis, the
pope was unlikely to take any more trips this year.
But visits to the
Holy Land, Africa, Asia and Asti, the northern Italian city where Francis’s
parents were born, were “possibilities” for 2014.
circulating that the trips were confirmed and speculation about the trip to
Israel were picked up by Israeli TV, which reported that Buenos Aires Rabbi
Abraham Skorka, a friend of Pope Francis, said the new pontiff had a lifelong
dream to visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
During his short tenure, the pope
has been officially invited to Israel multiple times, and last week he
reportedly told Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who extended his own invitation,
“I will come, yes, I’ll come.”
President Simon Peres, who was among the
first world leaders to visit Pope Francis in April, also invited the pontiff to
come to Israel.
But Lombardi said no trip has been scheduled, and
stressed that while Pope Francis had a strong desire to make such a trip,
nothing is in the works at the present time.
Only three popes have
traveled to Israel since the establishment of the country. Pope Paul VI traveled
to Jerusalem for only half a day in 1964 (before the Vatican officially
recognized the State of Israel), followed by longer visits from Pope John Paul
II in 2000 and Pope Benedict XVI four years ago.
Even as a priest, bishop
or cardinal, Mario Jose Bergoglio – who became Pope Francis in March – never
Though papal visits to Israel are rare, experts note they
have become less controversial with time.
“When Paul VI went to Jerusalem
it was contentious, and it wasn’t even considered an official state visit,” said
Father Alistair Sear, a retired church historian.
“But before Francis,
the only pope not to visit Israel in the last 50 years was John Pail I, who was
pope for only 33 days.
“It’s clear Francis wishes to go, but it’s not
easy for the pope to schedule a foreign trip,” Sear concluded.
seven months as pope, Francis has left Italy only once, for World Youth Day in
Brazil in July.
Though Pope Francis’s trip to Israel will not come off as
originally reported, it is clear the pope is already taking steps to improve
relations between Roman Catholics and Jews. Last week, he met with Jewish
leaders at the start of a series of events to commemorate the start of the
deportation of Jews from Rome 70 years ago, and warned that the world should
“remain vigilant” against intolerance, racism and anti-Semitism.
cannot regress, under any pretext, to any kind of intolerance in Rome or
anywhere else in the world,” the pope said on October 11. He also praised
Christians who helped hide Jews during World War II.