6 March 2014. In the evening of Thursday, March sixth, the Custody celebrated the opening of its exhibition retracing the visit of Pope Paul VI to the Holy Land fifty years ago. Fra Agustin thanked H.E. Mgr. Lazzarotto, the apostolic delegate, and the representatives of the various Oriental Churches for their presence. He introduced the exhibition that will take place not only in the curia of the Franciscan Saint Saviour Monastery in Jerusalem, but also at the Christian Information Center (at Jaffa Gate), which will also exhibit the gifts presented by Pope Paul VI during his visit and other memorabilia.
In his introduction, Fra Agustin reviewed Paul VI’s support for the Holy Land through the creation of four institutions: the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur; the Effeta Institute, which today is attended by more than 170 hearing impaired children; Bethlehem University, the first university in Transjordan, which has since admitted over 14,500 young Palestinians; and finally, the Christian Information Center at the Jaffa Gate.
Sister Frida Nasser of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Apparition then took the floor with a moving account of her own impatience as a child awaiting the arrival of the Holy Father Paul VI to Bethlehem in 1964. Chosen as one of twelve children who welcomed the pope, she recalled the extraordinary nature of this pilgrimage, where the shouts, celebration and enthusiasm did not stop during the three days. Her memories were illustrated a few minutes later with an archival documentary. (Watch it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSMalnpwkaY.) The audience discovered a still-rural Jerusalem, a deliriously happy crowd, and a pope moved to tears on several occasions at the sites of the life and death of the Savior.
Irene Boschetti, a Custody volunteer who is a passionate admirer of Pope Paul VI, then drew an interesting parallel between Paul VI’s visit and that of the present Holy Father. Recalling Paul VI’s years in Italy, she underlined his involvement in the Second Vatican Council, as well as his closeness to the people. “In their activities, both Paul VI and Francis expressed their deep empathy with the people. They are both kindly popes who tend a listening ear to contemporary man, men who bear witness more than acting as a master in carrying on this conversation between pastor and faithful.”
Finally, Father Alexander Winogradsky from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, highlighted the primary characteristic of Paul VI’s visit: his ecumenical meeting with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras. He was able to relay all the heavy significance of this event after 900 years of silence and indifference between Occident and Orient. His talk was organized around the two acts that the two Churches performed during their act of reconciliation: the ending of the reciprocal excommunication that had been in place since 1054 and the return of the body of Saint Saba to the monastery named for him in 1965. The latter was a particularly meaningful deed, since the Typikon of the Byzantine Rite as defined by Saint Saba would become the liturgical calendar (“Ordo”) of the Orthodox Church and would influence a large number of Oriental Churches.
Before the public could discover the fourteen panels of the exhibit where archival images and extracts from Paul VI’s public addresses are displayed or the three most valuable of the gifts presented by the Pope on the occasion of his visit (a diadem, a golden rose for Bethlehem and a golden olive branch for the Holy Sepulchre), the Custos, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, and H. E. Mgr. Lazzarotto together closed the program by recalling that all the riches of Paul VI’s pilgrimage have been preserved to this day thanks to prayer and love, which alone are capable of transforming the momentary into a message for eternity.