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by Thomas Reese, S.J., NCR

Pope Francis’ three-day visit to the Holy Land beginning Saturday will be full of opportunities and challenges. On one level, like any pilgrim, he comes to pray in the Holy Land where Jesus walked and lived. But as leader of the Catholic community, he also has four goals that go beyond those of a typical pilgrim.

The first is ecumenical. During the visit, the pope will meet with Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem of their predecessors, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I.

popefrancisholylandIt is hard for us who now take ecumenism for granted to realize how historic was that 1964 meeting, which led to the lifting of the mutual excommunications that had stood in place for over 900 years. This scandalous division included hatred and bloodshed, and the wounds are still tender.

But the meeting between Francis and Bartholomew is not just about reconciliation and healing. Both leaders realize how all Christians need to join in common cause to respond to the needs of the poor and the environment and to work for peace.

The second goal of the pope’s visit is interreligious. Traveling with the pope are Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Omar Abboud of the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic. While archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis was friends with both men, even writing a book (Of Heaven and Earth) with Rabbi Skorka. Pope Francis hopes that his visit will advance the cause of interreligious dialogue and cooperation. Only when these three great faiths live and work in harmony will there be peace…

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