Pope’s 1964 Holy Land trip laid foundations for ties with Israel

‘This visit could be of enormous historical importance,’ Paul VI said

January 4, 2017 12:41
2 minute read.
Pope Paul VI

A statue near the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor marking Pope Paul VI’s visit to the Holy Land.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1964, the Vatican was still far away from recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. But the sudden decision by Pope Paul VI to visit Israel laid the foundations for future popes, and the Catholic world, in general, to begin reconciling with their Jewish brethren.

Becoming the first pontiff to leave Italy in more than a hundred years, and also becoming the first pope to fly in a plane, on January 4, 1964, the pope arrived in Jordan.

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The day following he headed straight to Tel Megiddo, the site of the apocalyptic battle at Armageddon, meeting the country’s top leaders. President Zalman Shazar greeted the pope, saying: “I am glad to welcome... the head of the Catholic Church in the ancient greeting ‘Baruch HaBa.’”

After thanking the president, the pope replied, “I want the first words we are saying on your land to be on our deep excitement we feel as we speak, when our feet are walking on the soil our fathers lived in; the land that our prophets talked about; the Lord’s land.”

After the ceremony, the pope continued to Nazareth, then to Tiberias and the surrounding sites, and then to Jerusalem’s Old City, with an accompanying cardinal lighting six candles at Yad Vashem in memory of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

Then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol said Israel would respect the nonpolitical nature of the visit, as the case was made that such a visit would be a de facto declaration by the Vatican that Israel is a Jewish state. 

Indeed, the visit was a cold one: The pope refused to meet with Israel’s then-Sefardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhack Nissim, the trip was referred to as the “Pope’s Visit to the Holy Land,” and made no mention of Israel, and the pontiff avoided Israeli-controlled western Jerusalem.

The trip, two years after the publication of the Nostra Aetate, did lay the foundations for a further amelioration in the improvement of ties between the Holy See and the Jewish state.

Pope John Paul II’s visit in 2000 was much different.

“Now this pope comes to Jerusalem, not just to visit holy sites but to acknowledge the Jewish people in its homeland,” said Rabbi David Hartman of Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute after the 2000 visit. “We are no longer a cursed people. We are no more a wandering people. This is a major revolution in Christian thought.”

But the 2000 trip, undeniably, received inspiration from the 1964 visit.

Upon his return to St. Peter’s Square, Paul VI said that the trip to Israel was short but it was extremely significant.

“You will have seen that my visit was not just an unusual spiritual event; this visit could be of enormous historical importance,” the “Vatican Insider” reported him as saying.

To learn more about Jewish-Christian relations, check us out at @christian_jpost, on Facebook.com/jpostchristianworld/ and see the best of the Holy Land in The Jerusalem Post - Christian Edition monthly magazine.
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