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.
Reports began 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 Shimon 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 visited Israel.
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 Paul 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.
In his 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.
“We 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.
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