In what was termed a move of major historic importance, Pope Paul VI left the Vatican for a whirlwind tour of the Middle East.
In 1964, the Vatican was still far away from recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. But the sudden decision to visit Israel laid the foundations for future popes, and the Catholic world, in general, to begin reconciling with their Jewish brethren.
Pope Paul VI became the first pontiff to leave Italy in more than a hundred years, and also the first pope to fly in a plane. On January 4, 1964, the pope arrived in Jordan.
The reception was ecstatic, with full military honors and greetings from King Hussein. The streets of Aman were lined with thousands of well-wishers and crowds wanting to catch their first glimpse of The Pope.
The following day he headed straight to Tel Megiddo, the site of the apocalyptic battle at Armageddon, meeting the country’s top leaders. President Zalman Shazar greeted the pope, saying: “I am glad to welcome… the head of the Catholic Church in the ancient greeting ‘Baruch HaBa.’”
After thanking the president, the pope replied, “I want the first words we are saying on your land to be on our deep excitement we feel as we speak, when our feet are walking on the soil our fathers lived in; the land that our prophets talked about; the Lord’s land.”
After the ceremony, the pope continued to Nazareth, then to Tiberias and the surrounding sites, and then to Jerusalem’s Old City, with an accompanying cardinal lighting six candles at Yad Vashem in memory of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
Then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol said Israel would respect the nonpolitical nature of the visit, as the case was made that such a visit would be a de facto declaration by the Vatican that Israel is a Jewish state. The pope refused to meet with Israel’s then-Sefardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhack Nissim, the trip was referred to as the “Pope’s Visit to the Holy Land,” and made no mention of Israel, and the pontiff avoided Israeli-controlled western Jerusalem.
The trip, two years after the publication of the Nostra Aetate, did lay the foundations for a further amelioration in the improvement of ties between the Holy See and the Jewish state.
The visit was a first, and as such, did much to improve relations between The Vatican and Israel which would culminate in the 2000 visit to Israel by the John Paul.
Here is a capsule presentation of reports detailing the Pope’s trip via ABC Radio News and Jordan Radio, beginning with the Pope’s departure from Rome on January 4 and ending with his arrival back in Rome several days later.