Priest expects pope's meeting at Jordan River to be 'impressive'
Story and photo by Dale Gavlak
Catholic News Service
BETHANY BEYOND THE JORDAN, Jordan (CNS) -- When Pope Francis visits the site on the Jordan River where St. John the Baptist baptized Jesus, he will meet with people suffering, spiritually as well as physically.
"It will be a humanitarian meeting," said Father Rifat Bader, who directs the Catholic Center for Studies and Media in the Jordanian capital, Amman. "It's not liturgical because we will have not only Christians there, but also Muslims and Christians who are suffering."
Father Bader said that, along the river, Pope Francis will "host the most important groups in Christ's heart, in the church's heart, in Jordan's heart and the pope's heart -- orphans, children with cancer, the handicapped and refugees." They will gather inside a yet-unfinished Catholic church near the site, one of 13 new churches and monasteries built for pilgrims.
"When he sits with these people, the pope feels happy, yet suffers with them. He shares in these sufferings," Father Bader said.
Orphans from the St. Vincent de Paul center cared for by Franciscan sisters will sing "Make Me A Channel of Your Peace," the song of St. Francis, this pope's namesake.
"It will be very human, impressive and touching. Everything will be Franciscan at the Jordan River," he added, with a twinkle in his eye.
Earlier in the day, Pope Francis will hold talks with his hosts, Jordan's King Abdullah II and Queen Rania, with whom he had a private audience in Rome last autumn, and other government officials. The pope's visit comes at the invitation of the king, a moderate Arab Muslim leader who is keen to promote religious tolerance and coexistence between Muslims and Christians at home and abroad.
The pope's visit to Jordan seeks to foster better relations with the Muslim community as well as to encourage Arab Christians, the descendants of first-century forbearers in their historic faith.
An outdoor Mass at an Amman sports stadium for about 20,000 people will be held before the journey to the Baptism Site.
Pope Francis' May 24 visit will make him the fourth modern pope visit Jordan. Pope Paul VI first traveled to Jordan and Israel in 1964. St. John Paul II made his jubilee pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2000, while Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2009.
Jordan is eager to promote the Baptism Site as a prime draw from among more than two dozen biblical landmarks in a burgeoning religious tourism market. These include Mount Nebo, where Moses overlooked the Holy Land; Lot's Cave; Elijah's Hill; and Madaba, where the world's oldest mosaic map with Jerusalem at its center is located.
The Baptism Site first officially opened its doors to about 1,000 visitors in 2002 and now receives about a quarter of a million guests annually. Government and religious officials believe the building of nearby, but offsite churches and monasteries will expand the numbers and permit pilgrims longer, overnight stays, which were impossible in the past.
"We will not have a Disneyland type of development," said Dia Madani, director of the Baptism Site Commission.
Jordan has largely maintained the beauty of the area's natural environment of leafy trees, long reeds and tall grass. "You walk along the paths tread by the prophets, like John the Baptist, Elijah, Elisha and Joshua, and you begin to experience the spiritual dimension of this place," Madani told journalists.
Madani said the government hopes the new churches will revive an area where "there is no Christian community."
"We have found the remains of churches, monks' caves, and baptismal pools from centuries ago, but we want to try to recreate this type of vibrant spiritual life as it was before," Madani said.
"We believe these paths of Jesus and the prophets should be cherished by every Christian in the world," said Jordan's Minister of Tourism Nidal Katamine said. "Everyone senses they are closer to God in this place."
The Jordanian information minister and government spokesman Mohamed al-Momani said Pope Francis' visit "signals the values we try to endorse in this country of tolerance, acceptance, coexistence, and dialogue between civilizations and religions."
"The papal visit is also important because it highlights the stability and security this country enjoys," al-Momani said, noting that Jordan is largely an oasis of calm in the midst of conflict in neighboring Iraq, Syria and Egypt.
Father Bader said the visit would be a remarkable blessing.
"The pope is a man of surprises. When you follow his general weekly audience, he has a new surprise, and I believe he will do the same thing here in Jordan," he said. "It's a short visit, but I think this daylong trip will add a new spirit to our society, not only for Christians, but also for the whole society."