St Paul VI’s Legacy of Community in the Holy Land
For Holy Land Christians, St Paul VI left behind a legacy of Catholic institutions to serve and strengthen the community.
On a more personal level, for two Catholic families living in the Old City of Jerusalem, he left behind a special blessing and a relic which has taken on more significance for them after his canonisation by Pope Francis.
During his January 1964 visit to the Old City, which then was under Jordanian rule, St Paul VI made a spontaneous stop at the home of a sick man to hear his confession. Upon leaving the man’s home, he was received with a traditional cup of coffee from Fairuz Orfali and greeted by Laila Soudah, neighbours who shared the same courtyard.
The Orfali family has kept the plain white cup safely stored in a felt-lined glass and wooden box while the Soudahs have photographs of the visit.
After the pope took a symbolic sip of the coffee, Mr Orfali, in the old local tradition of welcoming honoured guests, poured the remains of the coffee at the pope’s feet.
“It gives me chills now, especially that he has been canonised,” said Soudah’s daughter, Hania, 52, who had not yet been born during the visit.
“This was the first visit of a pope to the Holy Land. My grandparents, mother, father, our neighbours welcomed him in the traditional way. This is now something to be passed down generations of our family,” Hania said.
During the visit, Pope Paul VI called for the establishment of social rehabilitation and development projects. His call eventually led to the founding of Bethlehem University, Ephpheta Institute for hearing-impaired children in Bethlehem, Tantur Ecumenical Institute and Notre Dame Pilgrimage Centre in Jerusalem.
As early as the 1940s, the future pope — Mgr Giovanni Battista Montini — in his capacity as Pope Pius XII’s assistant responsible for displaced Palestinian refugees, had championed the Pontifical Mission Society’s relief efforts and continued to do so throughout his papacy.
At a November 1948 meeting in the Vatican, Mgr Montini named the head of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) at the time, Mgr Thomas McMahon, to lead a papal mission specifically for displaced persons in Palestine which became the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. Pope Pius entrusted the mission to CNEWA.
As pope, he continued to show a deep commitment to CNEWA’s work by beginning his pontificate with the historic trip to the Holy Land, which he called a “pilgrimage of prayer and penance”.
“He wanted to establish such institutions that would help empower the situation of the local Christian community in the Holy Land,” said Joseph Hazboun, CNEWA regional director in Jerusalem.
“At that time, we were under Jordanian rule with a majority of Muslims, so for us these were very important,” said John Orfali, Laila Soudah’s son. “It made us feel that we belong here.”
The establishment of Bethlehem University provided for the first time a school of higher learning for young Palestinians so they would not have to go abroad to study and boost emigration, Mr Hazboun said.
A year after his pilgrimage, Pope Paul VI issued the groundbreaking declaration Nostra Aetate on relations of the Church to non-Christian religions.
“He was the continuation of the revolution but a completely different personality,” Rabbi David Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department of Interreligious Affairs, said of Paul VI.
He noted that most Israelis — unfairly in his opinion — have a mixed response to Paul VI’s Holy Land visit because he refused to meet with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem and met them instead in the northern town of Megiddo.—By Judith Sudilovsky, CNS