The pope himself set the framework for this epic journey in his June 1999 "Letter on Pilgrimage to the Places Linked to the History of Salvation." The operative word in that title is "pilgrimage." This is not ecclesiastical tourism. This is not papal diplomacy, nor is it a gambit on the chessboard of Middle Eastern politics.
This is a pilgrimage, a journey of prayer, in recognition (as John Paul put it in his letter) that certain places "bear the stamp of particular saving actions of God," places "which, from the Old to the New Testament, have seen God's interventions, which culminate in the mysteries of the Incarnation and of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ."
To a generation taught to be suspicious of the Bible by "historical-critical" methods of biblical interpretation, this frank confession of faith can seem a little disconcerting. John Paul is no biblical literalist or fundamentalist; he knows that a historical-critical reading of the Scriptures can teach us many things. But he also insists that the central truth of the biblical message remains intact amid scholarly debates about the Bible's authorship, literary style and formation.
At certain times, in certain real places, in certain lives, God acted decisively in history for the salvation of the world. To remind the world of that is why John Paul is going to the Holy Land.
There is, in fact, nothing terribly surprising about this, for that is what John Paul has been doing for more than 21 years. And he has done that because he believes that is what popes are for. The pope, like any other bishop, is an evangelist, a teacher, and a witness. And what the pope teaches and bears witness to is the truth that God himself entered history, in order to re-direct history back toward its true destiny, which is eternal life within the life and love of the Holy Trinity.
Tracing "the history of salvation in the land in which it took place" is the purpose of John Paul II's visit to the holy places. As he wrote in 1999, "To go in a spirit of prayer from one place to another, from one city to another, in the area marked especially by God's intervention, helps us not only to live our life as a journey, but also gives us a vivid sense of a God who has gone before us and leads us on, who himself set out on man's path, a God who does not look down on us from on high, but who became our traveling companion."
The pope is self-consciously placing himself within the great tradition of Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a tradition whose roots lie in the deepest historical subsoil of the Christian faith. For 2,000 years, the pope reminds us, Christians "have gone in search of the 'footprints' of God in that land, rightly called 'holy,' pursuing them...in the stones, the hills, the waters which provided the setting for the earthly life of the Son of God."
And the high point of this papal pilgrimage, which will be conducted in the full light of international media attention, will be Jerusalem. There, the pope wrote, "I intend to immerse myself in prayer, bearing in my heart the whole Church...There my wish would be to cry out once more the great consoling certainty that 'God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life' (John 3.16)."
Going to the Holy Land also fulfills a deep desire of Karol Wojtyla's heart--which is, quite simply, the heart of a Christian believer. Shortly after his election in October 1978, John Paul II told his Vatican associates that he wanted to spend his first Christmas as pope in Bethlehem. The diplomats and bureaucrats were aghast. It was simply impossible, they said. The Holy See had no diplomatic relations with any of the states in the region, the logistics couldn't be worked out in time, the pope couldn't drop into Bethlehem as if he were any other pilgrim or tourist.
In this rare instance, the habitual caution of the Vatican bureaucracy prevailed over the evangelical instincts of John Paul II. But ever since, John Paul has held fast to his hope to return, as a pilgrim, to the land where Christ once walked.
Indeed, it is a hope he has nurtured since his only previous visit to the holy places, which took place in December 1963, after the second session of the Second Vatican Council.
In a letter to the priests of Kraków about his experiences, then-Bishop Karol Wojtyla spoke with particular eloquence about walking on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which was "a holy spot for Christians" because it was the site of "the Temple of the one true God, which Our Lord plainly called 'the house of my Father,'" and because "our Redeemer visited this temple many times during his life." (Bishop Wojtyla also told his Kraków colleagues about singing Polish Christmas carols at the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where he had found an elderly Polish Franciscan who had worked in the Holy Land for years.)
But it was the stark, almost mystical beauty of the Judean wilderness that left a lasting imprint on the soul of Karol Wojtyla, poet. Here, he seems to have been powerfully impressed by the fact that God, in order to redeem his creation, had entered that creation at one time and one place. As he later wrote in a poem, "You seek out people everywhere/But to seek everywhere/You had to stop in some place./This one is chosen by You."
That is the mystery that has fired John Paul II's imagination for more than two decades of a pontificate that has changed the course of the Church's history, and the world's. God had to stop in some place, in order to make salvation available in every place. "This place is chosen by You."
John Paul has not written poetry as pope. But we may be reasonably sure that, when he sees the Judean wilderness again from his papal helicopter, as when he visits Nazareth, Bethlehem, the Temple Mount, and the Holy Sepulcher, this is what he will be thinking and praying about: the scandal of the Incarnation, the scandal of particularity, the ancient, amazing truth that God chose a place, and a time, to reveal the full truth about our human condition, which is destined, under grace, for glory.