VATICAN City – A rabbi and a Muslim leader will join Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to the Holy Land. This is the first time that an official papal delegation has included members of other faiths, the Vatican said Thursday.
Francis’ trip to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel, together with his longtime friends and collaborators from his days as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud, both leaders of Argentina’s Islamic community (this trip is about ‘official delegation’ for the May 24-16.)
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said their presence on the delegation was an “absolute novelty” desired by Francis to show the “normality” of having friends of other faiths.
Skorka and then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) both wrote “On Heaven and Earth,” which explores Jewish and Catholic perspectives on host issues. Abboud, meanwhile, was Bergoglio’s main Muslim interlocutor in Buenor Aires and recently participated in an Argentine interfaith pilgrimage tracing the key stops of Francis’ upcoming tour.
Francis’ main core of this trip is to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic visit to Jerusalem by Pope Paul VI, the first foreign trip by a pope.
During that 1964 visit, Paul met with the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, ending hundreds of years of estrangement between Catholics and Orthodox.
Francis will meet with the current Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholemew I, on four separate occasions, during his packed three-day visit. The highlight is a prayer service inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of Christianity’s holiest sites where the faithful believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected.
Lombardi said that service was in itself “extraordinarily historic” given the three main Christian communities share the church – Greek-Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic – will pray together at the same time.
Prayer services during the ancient church are usually separate with each community jealously guarding its territory and scheduling individual services.
Francis’ schedule is so intense and hectic that the 77-year-old pontiff canceled a planned visit to a Rome parish, on Sunday, to rest up for it. His official program over the three-day includes 13 speeches or homilies, private audiences with leaders of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians, meetings with patriarchs, muftis, rabbis and refuges, as well as symbolic visits to some of the holiest sites in Christianity, Islam and Judaism.