Pope Paul VI in the Holy Land, 1964

No modern pope ever been to the Holy Land until Pope Paul VI went there in Janaury 1964. Jerusalem was a divided city then, following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The Western half of the New City was in Israel, while the eastern half, along with the Old City, was occupied by Jordan. The Pope landed in Amman, Jordan and after a welcome by King Hussein, he travelled by car to Jerusalem and crossed over into Israel.

He went down to the banks of the Jordan river where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, stopped at Bethany, the small village on the Mount of Olives, where the home of Lazarus was, and entered Jerusalem via the Damascus Gate, on which was placed by two huge black and white photographs, one of the pope and one of King Hussein. Here he was absolutely mobbed and had to be dragged away by the Jordanian soldiers through the streets of the Holy City.

He made it to the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Golgotha where Jesus’ empty tomb was, but it was so crowded that there was hardly enough room for the Pope to celebrate mass. There was a black out during the mass which had to be carried on in candle light.

After Gethsemane and Meghiddo, he headed to Nazareth where he celebrated mass in a small cave dug into the rock – all that remains of Mary’s house — and then to the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiber where Peter used to sail his boat). He knelt down to pray on the rock that marks the place where Jesus entrusted the Church’s leadership to Simon Peter. A brief stop in Capernaum, the village where Peter and his brother Andrew used to live, followed.

In Jerusalem, he met thr Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches — Greek orthodox Patriarch Benedictos, Armenian Patriarch Yegheshe Derderian, Ecumenical Patriarch of Jerusalem, and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople — and was received by the President of Israel at Megiddo (the Biblical Armageddon). The meeting with Athenagoras was particularly historic: it was the first meeting between the leaders of Western and Eastern churches since the Great Schism of 1054.

But even the pope could not overcome the divisions. At the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem — held by three different Christian denominations (the Greek Orthodoxes, the Armenian Orthodoxes and the Franciscans) — he was forced to end his mass at 8:30 am (as other groups had the later times allocated to them) and he was not allowed to cross the central nave of the Basilica, as the Greek Orthodox Church had custody of that part of the church.

The visit was covered extensively in the media. The Italian weekly Epoca, which was founded in 1950 to emulate by the American magazines Look and LIFE, sent a group of its best journalists and photographers for a special feature which followed the pope in a strictly chronological narrative, from the moment the plane carrying the Pope landed in Jordan. (January 12, 1964 issue, with photos by Mario de Biasi, Giorgio Lotti, Walter Murray, and Sergio del Grande). Paris Match devoted two back-to-back issues to the pilgrimage.

The Holy Land was the first of Paul VI’s nine trips outside Italy (no Pope had left Italy’s borders since 1812, the year in which Pius VII was exiled by Napoleon to Fontainebleau). The following year, he would be in New York to address the UN, the first pope to do so.

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