When Shimon Peres flies to Italy next week to formally ask Pope Francis I to visit Israel, the president will actually be inviting the newly elected pontiff to make his second trip to the Holy Land. Forty years ago, The Times of Israel has ascertained, Jorge Mario Bergoglio made an unfortunately timed first visit.
It was early October 1973, and Bergoglio, then in his mid-30s, had been in Rome completing a course for his new job as the Provincial Superior of the Society of Jesus in Argentina. He flew to Israel intending to tour widely, but arrived at the very start of the Yom Kippur War.
Sources in the Argentinian Jewish community, with whom Bergoglio has a long and warm relationship, said the rumor is that he stayed in Israel “for only a few hours” before being “evacuated” because of the war. Not quite.
In fact, the Vatican told The Times of Israel, Bergoglio was here for about a week, but the war certainly “caused difficult problems for the visit.”
On his first day and a half, Bergoglio was able to visit holy sites in Jerusalem, including the church-filled neighborhood of Ein Kerem, and Bethlehem, said Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Holy See Press Office.
After that, however, because of the fighting, Bergoglio was unable to tour further. Instead, he spent the next six days confined to the American Colony Hotel, on the seamline between West and East Jerusalem.
He used the time “studying the Letters of Saint Paul to the Corinthians,” Lombardi said, using books that he borrowed from the library of the Jerusalem branch of the Pontifical Biblical Institute.
Since beginning his papacy last month, Francis I has told Jewish leaders that Catholics and Jews are “bound by a very special spiritual bond,” and pledged to work to further advance “the progress there has been in relations between Jews and Catholics since the (1960s) Second Vatican Council in a spirit of renewed collaboration.”
No sooner had Bergoglio taken office, than Peres invited the new pope to visit Israel, asking him to contribute to peace as a spiritual, rather than a political, leader.
“He’ll be a welcome guest in the Holy Land, as a man of inspiration who can add to the attempt to bring peace in a stormy area,” Peres said.“All people here, without exception, without difference of religion or nationality, will welcome the newly elected pope.”
Subsequently, Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, Zion Evrony, met with Pope Francis and formally invited him to visit Israel. The pope reportedly said “Shalom” to the Israeli representative and smiled, but did not immediately respond to the invitation.
Peres is to travel to Rome on April 30 to meet with Francis. Lombardi said, “We hope that the visit of your president to the pope will have very good results.”
Former pope Benedict XVI visited Israel in July 2009, when he met with Peres and prayed at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City. His predecessor John Paul II made a landmark visit to Israel in 2000.