Paul VI Visits the Holy Land

Paul VI became the first Roman Catholic pope in modern times to voluntarily leave Italy when he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in Jerusalem and visited with Eastern Orthodox Church leaders. Paul inaugurated the tradition of papal travel, which would be expanded by John Paul II.

Summary of Event

In early January, 1964, just six months after he had taken office, Roman Catholic pope Paul VI became the first pope to visit the Holy Land. Some note that he was reversing the footsteps of Peter, who had journeyed from Jerusalem to Rome, where the Roman Catholic Church would find its center. However, in choosing the papal name Paul, it seems that the pontiff had established a model of outreach in the great missionary apostle to the Gentiles who also had found martyrdom in Rome. In modern times, no pope had even traveled outside Italy’s borders. Israel;visit of Pope Paul VI[Paul 06]
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[kw]Paul VI Visits the Holy Land (Jan. 4-6, 1964)[Paul 06 Visits the Holy Land]
[kw]Holy Land, Paul VI Visits the (Jan. 4-6, 1964)
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[g]Middle East;Jan. 4-6, 1964: Paul VI Visits the Holy Land[07910]
[g]Israel;Jan. 4-6, 1964: Paul VI Visits the Holy Land[07910]
[g]Palestine;Jan. 4-6, 1964: Paul VI Visits the Holy Land[07910]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Jan. 4-6, 1964: Paul VI Visits the Holy Land[07910]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;Jan. 4-6, 1964: Paul VI Visits the Holy Land[07910]
Paul VI
Athenagoras I
Hussein I
Shazar, Zalman

Paul’s interest in the Holy Land originated when, as a papal assistant named Giovanni Battista Montini, he had submitted a report on the social and religious situation of Palestine. He had been influenced by the book Christ, the Church, and the Poor
Christ, the Church, and the Poor (Gauthier) (1964) by Paul Gauthier Gauthier, Paul , a Catholic priest who took his vows of poverty to work in Palestine. At this time, the Holy Land was deeply divided both politically and religiously.

The nation of Israel was just sixteen years old in 1964, and the war of 1948 had resulted in harsh animosity between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Even the Holy City of Jerusalem, once proposed to be an open international city, had been cut in half, and it was made nearly impossible to pass from Israel in the west to Jordan in the east. The Christian pilgrimage sites of Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee were located in Israel, while the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Bethlehem were located in Jordan.

The early 1960’s also was an era of deep religious division. Islam and Judaism continued to viewed as “religions in error” by the Roman Catholics. The same could be said within Christendom for Protestantism, where divisions began in the sixteenth century, as well as for the Eastern Orthodox faith, where strict separation had existed since the Roman pope and the patriarch of Constantinople had excommunicated each other in 1054 c.e.

Paul, however, was not satisfied with the status quo. His predecessor, John XXIII John XXIII , had summoned one of history’s rare ecumenical councils Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (1962-1965)
Vatican II (1962-1965)[Vatican 02] —known as Vatican II—which met periodically throughout 1963 to 1965 to deal with such divisions and the challenges of modernity. Among Paul’s first acts was to preside at the first session, which ran from September to December, 1963. At this first session, conservatives and progressives struggled to set the tone for the future of the Church. Quietly and secretly, the pope was making plans for the Holy Land trip. Only at the closing of the 1963 session of the council, on December 4, did the pope announce his plans to a surprised gathering of cardinals. One month later, he would be in Jerusalem.

The pilgrimage took him on January 4 by plane from Rome to Amman, Jordan, where he was greeted by King Hussein I. By car he traversed the Jordan Valley to Bethany and Jerusalem, while Hussein flew his own helicopter to provide an escort. Huge crowds welcomed Paul at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, where he journeyed on foot along the Via Dolorosa, even becoming separated from his personal secretary and other members of his delegation. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre he said Mass. He stopped at various other sites as he continued walking through the streets of the old city; he completed the eventful day at the Apostolic Delegation on the Mount of Olives.

Near the Apostolic Delegation was the home of the Greek Orthodox patriarch. It was there that the Roman pope officially met Athenagoras I, the patriarch of Constantinople and the symbolic head of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He, too, was making a Jerusalem pilgrimage, the result of private correspondence over the previous six months between Rome and Constantinople. The simultaneous visits signaled that both segments of the Catholic Church saw a need to return to its roots, symbolized by the holy stones of Jerusalem. The visit thus marked an important thawing of relationships between eastern and western churches. Paul’s gift of a chalice to Athenagoras marked a desire to reverse the direction of excommunication that had begun nearly one thousand years earlier.

On Sunday, January 5, Paul traveled north through the West Bank and through Nablus and Jenin to a specially constructed frontier crossing point into Israel. There he was greeted by Israeli president Zalman Shazar and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol Eshkol, Levi . The ceremony took place at the ancient biblical site of Megiddo, which had recently become famous through the work of Israeli archaeologists. The pope’s whirlwind tour of Israel would be completed in just twelve hours. In that time he managed to visit Nazareth—where he said Mass in the Grotto of the Annunciation—and visited various sites along the Sea of Galilee, including the Church of the Beatitudes, the remains of the village of Capernaum, and Tabgha, where chapels commemorated the feeding of the five thousand and the appearance of Jesus to Peter. His return across Galilee took him to the Mount of Transfiguration at Tabor, followed by a drive south along the Mediterranean coast to approach Jerusalem from the west. He crossed from West to East Jerusalem at the Mandelbaum Gate, the only crossing point in that period for rare visits between the two countries.

The final day of the pontiff’s trip took him to Bethlehem for a Mass in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity. The day had been carefully chosen. While Western Christians mark the birth of Jesus on December 25, the Eastern Church celebrates this event on January 6. In his sermon, Paul called for Catholics to be open to new attitudes and for non-Catholics to be open to further cooperation and dialogue.

He returned to Jerusalem and again met with Athenagoras, receiving from him the gift of a pectoral chain, worn by bishops to symbolize their apostolic succession. The pontiff responded by putting on the chain and reading the prayer for Christian unity in the seventeenth chapter of John. From Jerusalem, Paul returned by way of the Jordan Valley to Amman for his return flight to Rome.


Prior to his Holy Land pilgrimage, Paul had spoken about his single goal of spiritual growth through a physical connection with the places where Jesus had walked. It soon became clear that deep spirituality was not individualistic and personal, but communal. The crowds that had greeted him left lasting impressions. The cities of Bethlehem and Nazareth renamed major streets in his honor to prolong the memory of this occasion.

When Paul flew into Rome and returned to the Vatican along the Via Appia, Italian crowds gave him a hero’s welcome, having followed the pilgrimage through television reports. His popularity and vision carried over into the subsequent work of the Vatican Council, leading to a new progressive spirit within Catholicism. Council documents provided a platform for further cooperation and dialogue among other branches of Christendom, although the pope’s wish to share that symbolic chalice given to the eastern patriarch was never fulfilled.

Vatican II also broke new ground in interfaith understanding with other religions. Perhaps this was not so evident in the papal Holy Land visit because Paul met neither with Jewish rabbis nor with Muslim muftis. However, the fact that a pope had traveled to a region of the world where Christians were the minority was significant. The last pope who had even considered such a trip was Innocent III, who, in response to another ecumenical council, had called for yet another crusade against Muslims. Paul, in contrast, had come to Jerusalem in humility and peace and had spoken words of tolerance. In a speech that would have been unacceptable even a decade earlier, Paul spoke of Jews and Muslims as fellow children of Abraham.

Politically, the pope’s short trip through Israel was at best mixed. Because the Vatican did not yet recognize the state of Israel, the visit was technically unofficial. The goodwill and words of respect between Israeli dignitaries and the pope had opened an important door. However, just three years later the war of 1967 and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with its Christian residents and holy sites, would renew tensions between the Vatican and Israel. Israel;visit of Pope Paul VI[Paul 06]
Roman Catholic Church;papal visits
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Further Reading

  • Greeley, Andrew. The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Greeley, a Catholic priest and a sociology professor, examines the implementation of decisions from the Second Vatican Council.
  • Hebblethwaite, Peter. Paul VI: The First Modern Pope. New York: Paulist Press, 1993. A Vatican affairs writer for the National Catholic Reporter presents an excellent, comprehensive biography of Paul VI.
  • Irani, George Emile. The Papacy and the Middle East: The Role of the Holy See in the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1962-1984. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989. A detailed and scholarly study of the papacy’s response to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
  • McBrien, Richard P. Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2000. An overview of the papacy, from the time of Saint Peter to John Paul II.
  • O’Brien, Aileen. Pope Paul VI in the Holy Land. New York: Herder and Herder, 1964. Commemorates Paul VI’s Holy Land visit. Includes transcripts of his speeches, itinerary descriptions, and numerous photographs by Werner Schiller.
  • O’Mahony, Anthony. “The Vatican, Jerusalem, the State of Israel, and Christianity in the Holy Land.” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 5, no. 2 (2005): 123-146. The year 1964 marks a change from a Vatican priority in safeguarding holy places to focus on Jerusalem in its global context.

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