Sixty years have passed since Paul VI’s historic trip to the Holy Land, which took place from January 4-6, 1964. This anniversary falls at a very difficult time, due to the war between the State of Israel and Hamas after the tragic events of October 7, 2023. The conflict has already produced a high number of casualties (1,200 on the Israeli side and about 21,000 on the Palestinian side) and unfortunately, despite recent agreements for a brief truce and the release of some of the Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian detainees, it seems destined to continue. The stated goal of the Israeli government is to eradicate Hamas from the Gaza Strip, and, in particular, to eliminate its leaders wherever they may be, as the United States had done against the leaders of Al Qaeda after September 11, 2001. The pope’s trip to the Holy Land, that “blessed journey,” during which the pope continually invoked concord between religions and between states, reminds us of the inestimable value of peace, which must always be cherished, especially in these times when it seems obscured and lost.
The visit is rightly regarded by historians as one of the most important religious events of the long 20th century. Paul VI, who had been elected pope less than a year before, was the first pontiff to leave Europe and travel by plane, at that time a symbol of progress and modernity. Above all, it was the first time a pope had traveled to the place where Christianity had originated, an evocative and necessary journey that his successors would later repeat in other difficult historical contexts. As a pilgrim, he visited the holy places of Jerusalem and Galilee and met the Eastern Rite Christian communities and their patriarchs. In particular, the meeting between the bishop of Rome and the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras, took place in Jerusalem. This began a series of ecumenical dialogues with other Christian Churches and communities. The expressions of welcome and friendship made in that context anticipated more courageous acts, such as the lifting of the excommunications – imposed mutually in 1054 – by the two sister Churches, during a celebration held simultaneously in St. Peter’s and in the patriarchal seat of the Phanar, before the Council closed (December 7, 1965).
The journeys that Paul VI made during the Council period and later – nine in all – were the result of careful spiritual reflection and intellectual choice: they were signals that the pope intended to send to the Council and also to the modern world. They were usually brief, but very intense both in terms of the gestures the pope made and the touching messages he delivered. Each one of them had a very great symbolic and emblematic value: it was a new way of proclaiming the Gospel and of engaging with contemporary concerns. In any case, Pope Paul VI was the ingenious and prophetic initiator of a new way of carrying out the Petrine ministry through apostolic journeys, a practice that was then taken up by his successors.