Pope Francis on Wednesday said his pilgrimage to the Holy Land fed the desire for Christian unity and he encouraged Catholics to pray that God may help “heal the wounds” that divide the faithful.
“I give thanks to God. He led me to that blessed Land, that has seen the historical presence of Jesus and where events fundamental to Judaism, Christianity and Islam took place,” the Pope said in St. Peter's Square May 28.
Speaking to thousands of pilgrims gathered for his Wednesday general audience, he reflected on his meeting with Orthodox Christian leaders at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
At the tomb where Jesus Christ’s body was laid to rest and resurrected, he said, “we all felt the bitterness and suffering of the divisions that continue to exist between Christ's disciples, and this has really done great harm, harm to the heart.”
Pope Francis described his encounter with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople as “the culmination of the visit,” recounting their prayers at the Holy Sepulchre with Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem, the Armenian Apostolic Patriarch Nourhan, archbishops and bishops from various Churches, and many lay faithful.
“We are still divided; in that place, where the proclamation of the Resurrection resounds, where Jesus gives us life, we are still divided,” the Pope said. “But above all, in that celebration so rich in mutual brotherhood, esteem and affection, we strongly heard the voice of the Risen Good Shepherd who wishes to bring together all His sheep in one flock; we felt the desire to heal the wounds that are still open and to follow with tenacity the path to full communion.”
“Once more, like my predecessors, I ask forgiveness for what we have done to promote that division, and I pray that the Holy Spirit may help us to heal the wounds we have inflicted on other brethren,” he continued.
“We are all brothers in Christ, and with the Patriarch Bartholomew we are friends, brothers; we have shared the desire to walk together, to do what we are able to do today: to pray together, to work together for God’s flock, to seek peace and protect creation, the many things that we have in common.”
The Pope explained to attendees at his general audience that the pilgrimage commemorated the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople.
“This prophetic gesture on the part of the Bishop of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople constituted a milestone in the arduous but promising path towards unity among all Christians, which has taken important steps since then.”
Pope Francis also spoke about efforts to encourage peace in the region. He said peace is “both a gift from God and a commitment for humankind.”
He voiced “great compassion” for natives of the Holy Land, saying they have lived in war conditions “for too long.” He said he had encouraged Christians to make gestures of humility, fraternity and reconciliation.
“The (Holy) Spirit enables us to assume these attitudes in our daily life, with people of different cultures and religions, and to thereby become peacemakers,” the Pope said. “Peace is crafted day to day, and with an open heart to allow God’s gift to enter.”
He praised Jordan’s effort to welcome war refugees and he voiced his encouragement for peace in Syria and a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Pope Francis expressed the Church’s gratitude for Christians in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East, whom he called “courageous witnesses of hope and charity, 'salt and light' in the land.”
While he had hoped to be “the bearer of a word of hope,” he said he received hope from those who are refugees or suffer derision or discrimination because of their Christian faith.
“Let us stay close to them! Let us pray for them, and for peace in the Holy Land and in the Middle East,” he said, calling for prayers for full Christian unity “so that the world may believe in God's love that in Jesus Christ came to live among us.”