As scheduled, Pope John Paul II knelt in the grotto of the Nativity last Wednesday. Earlier in the day he had announced that "Bethlehem is the heart of my Jubilee Pilgrimage," and now having walked slowly, on aching, 79-year-old legs, down the narrow steps from the basilica above, he found his way to his knees and prayed over the silver star in the pavement that many believe marks the very spot where Jesus Christ was born. Then--again as planned--he moved on, knelt and prayed in the adjoining Grotto of the Wise Men, where the child Jesus lay in the manger. Then the Pope stood and asked for a chair. This part was clearly not scripted. A couple of Franciscan priests scurried upstairs to get John Paul what he wanted. The Pontiff then waved everybody off, sat and prayed the Divine Office that priests are supposed to recite every day. The Pope remained alone for some 15 minutes before heading back to the steps. And then from a tiny grotto of peace, he climbed back into the middle of a political battleground.
As John Paul's journey unfolded last week, he found moments of sublime communion, as in the grotto, or near the bank of the Jordan River, where the Pope reportedly confided in companions, "In my mind I see Jesus coming to the waters...not far from here to be baptized by John the Baptist. I see Jesus passing on his way to the Holy City where he would die and rise again; I see him opening the eyes of the blind man as he passes by."
But he was also involved in a far more worldly enterprise. Papal biographer Tad Szulc has said that the Pope's 91st international trip had three aims: personal spiritual enrichment; reconciliation among all three Abrahamaic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam); and peacemaking, the duty of anyone who would call himself the vicar of Christ.
It was certainly a logical extension of one man's efforts regarding the Jews and their state: first as a Polish archbishop helping draft the Vatican II language recognizing that the Jews did not kill Jesus, and then as the Pope who pushed through the Vatican's diplomatic recognition of Israel in 1993, making a state visit possible. (The Vatican's relations with the Palestinians have long been good.)
The immediate crafting of the sojourn had been equally painstaking and personal, a powerful three-part pilgrimage recapitulating the very development of the Christian concept of God. It began officially on Feb. 24, when, denied entrance by Iraq, John Paul made a "virtual pilgrimage" (using props and videotape) to the city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, with whom God made his first covenant. The journey continued with the Pope's visit to the mountain in Egypt thought by many to be Mount Sinai, atop which the Lord presented Moses with the Law.
And then, in a rapid acceleration that mirrors the explosion of events in the Gospels, the Pope over seven days visited Bethlehem; surveyed not one but two spots where Jesus may have been baptized; offered Mass from the site of Christ's Sermon on the Mount; climbed the steps to the upper room where tradition places the Last Supper; prayed at Gethsemane, where Jesus was betrayed; and, just before flying back to Rome, celebrated Mass again at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site at which Catholics and the Eastern churches believe Jesus was buried and resurrected. (Protestants believe Jesus rose from the nearby Garden Tomb.)