Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land - 05/03/2000 info: custodia@netvision.net.il
Letter of Bishop Karol Woytla
(10th January 1964)

published in Notificationes e Curia Metropolitana Cracoviensi, 1964 Vol 1-2, 66-74

To all the priests of the Archdiocese of Cracow

Dear Priests!

Last year, immediately after the closing of the second session of the Council, I had the privilege to participate in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a number of bishops coming from different nations. Already last year the Homeland of Jesus attracted a good number of the Fathers of the Council. This year (our note: with the visit of Pope Paul VI) this has become a universal call. We understand that working at the Council for the renewal of the Church, we must turn directly to Christ the Lord of whom the Church is the Mystical Body. From this is also born the desire to visit these sites where He was born, lived, taught, acted, suffered, died on the cross, rose from the dead and went up into heaven. This same wish was expressed by His Holiness Pope Paul VI at the end of the second session of the Council on the 4th of December, when he announced that the following month he was going on pilgrimage to the Native Land of Christ the Lord. An event which in fact came true in the past few days..

The pilgrimage of the Holy Father gave more importance to the pilgrimages carried out by the Council Fathers in the Holy Land and among them there is the one in which I myself took part between the 5th and the 15th of December 1963 with about fifteen Polish bishops. I lived this experience, not as a private and personal experience but as a grace that was given to me by Providence. It is for this reason that on my return from the Council session and from the Holy Land I wish to share, especially with you brothers in the priesthood, my vivid memories of this pilgrimage. This summary of my memories might also be useful for your pastoral work, in the preparation for catechesis and the sermons of Christmas, Lent or Easter. I would like your eyes to see, at least through this letter, that which I could see. This helps to strengthen our faith.

Our pilgrimage in the Holy Land did not follow the chronology of the life of Christ the Lord. In fact we started off from Jerusalem and ended up in Galilee. In my letter I will seek to adapt my description to the chronology of the Life of Jesus departing from the sequence we followed in our pilgrimage.

It is good to remember that we started our pilgrimage in the Homeland of Christ the Lord from Egypt, in the footsteps of the route taken by the Chosen people towards the Promised Land. It was a clear day and from the aeroplane we could see that road: the desert of Egypt, the shores of the Red Sea, the mountains of Sinai. All was desert almost without any sign of vegetation. We approached Jerusalem taking a flight path that allowed us to see the mountains of Moab and the Dead Sea. We landed at the Jerusalem Airport (in the Arab sector). We realised that on the other side of the Jordan, which we left behind us, there was Mount Nebo, from where Moses saw the Promised Land. Most probably, in those times, he could well see the oasis around Jericho. Even today this city is an exception in the desert region. Almost all the country from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and the Jordan is a desolate desert land. Jericho on the other hand is rich in vegetation. We were able to visit the excavations and see the remains of the city from the time of its conquest by the Jews led by Joshua.

Let us leave for a moment this part of our pilgrimage.

From Israel, who had settled himself in Palestine, the Redeemer was born. This event took us to Nazareth in Galilee. The city is situated on a slope of a mountain and is predominantly inhabited by Arabs, even if it is within the territory of the State of Israel. The destination of our pilgrimage here was mainly the Grotto of the Annunciation, in which, under the main altar, there is the inscription: "Hic Verbum caro factum est". The grotto lies on the spot of house of the Virgin Mary. Near it, at about 200 metres to the North, there is the second sanctuary of Nazareth built on the House of Joseph. This was the house where Jesus lived after the return from Egypt and here he passed 30 years of his hidden life together with Mary and the Protector. Above this grotto (where the Holy Family lived) there is a church. On top of the Annunciation Grotto they are actually building a new modern church thanks to the offerings from Catholics all around the world.

After the Annunciation Mary went to see her next-of-kin, Elizabeth, the wife of Zachary, who awaited the birth of a son - the Precursor of the Saviour. The place where Elizabeth and Zachary lived, the house of John the Baptist, is located at Ain Karem, about 20 kilometres to the south of Jerusalem. To arrive at Elizabeth's house after the Annunciation, Mary had to cross a distance of about 100 kilometres. Today at Ain Karem there are two sanctuaries. One rises on the House of St. John the Baptist while the other was built to commemorate the Visitation. The Magnificat is written on the wall in front of the Church in various languages, even in Polish. The town of Ain Karem in situated in the mountainous region. Both the sanctuaries are built on the slopes of the hills. From the Church of the Visitation there is a beautiful view. Next to the Visitation Church there is a monastery of Russian Orthodox nuns.

The Gospel informs us, that before the birth Jesus, Mary and Joseph went down to Bethlehem to obey the call for the census issued by the authorities of the time. If they followed the road from Nazareth they had to travel over 100 kilometres because Bethlehem lies in Judea, in the mountainous and rocky region at about 15 kilometres from Jerusalem.

We spent the night between the 8th and 9th December at the Nativity site celebrating the Eucharist from midnight until 5.30 in the morning. At 5.30 the Greek Orthodox monks started to celebrate their liturgy. The altar that commemorates the spot of the birth of Christ belongs to the Greeks. The altar next to this spot that commemorates the place where Jesus was laid in the manger, belongs to the Catholics. We adored the Mystery of Christmas and kissed the place where God came to live among us. We celebrated the Holy Eucharist at the altar of the crib. We are in the grotto which many years ago offered shelter to the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph. Over the grotto there is the church which was built by emperor Justinian and which belongs to the Greek Orthodox. The Catholics have built another Church which till today is in the hands of the Franciscans, as are the majority of the Sanctuaries of the Holy Land. The Armenian Orthodox also have a Chapel in the upper Church. I wish to add that in the Nativity Grotto the Polish bishops sung some Polish carols. They were obliged to do this by and Brother Borkowski, an old polish Franciscan friar who has been serving in the Holy Land for many years.

At about 3 kilometres from the Nativity shrine there is the Church of the shepherds - a Franciscan sanctuary which commemorates the place where the angels appeared to the shepherds bringing them the good news of the birth of the Son of God. In the vicinity of Bethlehem, as in other places of Judea, you can still see sheep grazing on the poor land. This region is barren and inhospitable. The thought kept coming that God had chosen such a poor country, in which "his own did not receive him". Today the majority of the people who live in the land are Arab Moslems and Jews. The Christians are a very small minority.

In Bethlehem, some distance away from the sanctuary of the Nativity, at about 300 metres, there is the Grotto of the Magi - the place which commemorates the adoration of the three Magi from the East. The site of the adoration was not the same as the one where the birth took place as the Gospel itself affirms that the Blessed Mary with Saint Joseph, after the birth, had moved to a house. The Gospel states that the Magi "entered into the house" (Mt. 2,11). From here the Holy Family had to flee into Egypt when confronted with the cruelty of Herod to whom the Magi had paid a visit and from where they had left to go to Bethlehem. In the surroundings of Bethlehem we remembered the killing of the innocent children and the beginning of the flight into Egypt.

The events of Christmas take us also to Jerusalem, to the temple on the 40th day after the birth. Jerusalem is not too distant from Bethlehem. In fact one could come and go within the same day. But about the temple we will speak later on. Only Bethlehem was witness - even if without knowing it - of the first days and weeks of the life of Christ. Bethlehem witnessed also the first days and weeks of the maternity of Mary. A particular sign, which commemorates this maternity, is the Milk Grotto. Tradition indicates it as the place where the Mother of God breastfed Jesus and while doing so a drop of her milk fell on the ground. This tradition is very strong among the people of the region so much so that it is a pilgrimage site for barren women (Moslems and Christians alike) who come in prayerful mood asking for the help of Mary. We must remember that the Moslems venerate Jesus too as a prophet who preceded Mohamed. That is why the Moslem women have this devotion towards Jesus' mother.

During our short stay in Cairo, Egypt, we were not able to visit the site where the Holy Family stayed until the death of Herod the Great before their return to Nazareth. From here, the twelve year old Jesus, together with Mary and Joseph went to the temple in Jerusalem where he stayed behind while his parents were already returning to their village. Until today the place is shown where the Blessed Mary and St. Joseph realised that Jesus had remained behind in the Temple of Jerusalem for the festivities.

The temple did not exist after the year 70 AD. We move around the large plaza where since Solomon's time there had been this magnificent temple surrounded by courtyards. From the high walls that surround the plaza on the eastern flank overlooking the deep Kidron Valley there is a panoramic view of the Mount of Olives. Another part of this perimeter wall survived and is within the city and is known as the Wailing Wall for the Jews who have been deprived of their temple. Today's Jerusalem is divided between Jews and Arabs and the Jews do not have access to the Wailing Wall. All the temple area belongs to the Moslems. The famous Mosque of Omar is not built exactly on the spot of the temple but only covers it partially. This mosque, which is a masterpiece of Arabic art is only a Museum today. In the plaza there is another mosque which is used for prayers. This is within a building built during the VI century as a place of worship by the Christians (the church was dedicated to the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary) and which also served as seat of the kings of Jerusalem during the Crusader reign.

The area of the Temple of the Old Testament is sacred for the Christians. First of all because it was the site of the temple of the True God and which Jesus himself had called "my Father's House". Secondly because it has a particular relation with our Redeemer who visited this temple many a time during his lifetime: the presentation in the temple, his staying behind when he was twelve years old, and even at his death the curtain of the Holy of Holies was torn apart. The temple of Jerusalem is always present in the life of Jesus. But with the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, another site becomes important: Fortress Antonia which lied at the north-west corner of the temple esplanade. We will talk about this later.

Let us now visit the sites that commemorate the events of the public ministry and teachings of the Lord Jesus. For this reason we have to go to the River Jordan which is next to Jericho. To the west of this city there rises a range of mountains among which there is one called the Mount of Temptation. It is from this mountain that the tempter "showed him all the kingdoms of the earth". Another temptation took place on the pinnacle of the Temple, on the south-east corner of the perimeter wall which surrounded the temple of Jerusalem and where the tempter suggested to Jesus to "throw yourself down, because it is written... etc". The surroundings of the Mount of temptation are barren desert and rocky. This was the backdrop for the fasting of the Lord Jesus. The Baptism in river Jordan, according to tradition, took place at a site to the southeast of Jericho. Not far away from this site the river pours into the Dead Sea. In fact, the Dead Sea lies at a very deep depression - about 400 metres below sea level. On the 9th of December we were not able to arrive at the site where according to tradition the baptism of the Lord Jesus took place. This was because the road leading to the site was flooded after the heavy rains that had poured down the day and night before. Similar circumstances did not allow us to arrive at Qumran when we were at the Dead Sea. The guide who was with us told us that at Qumran there was nothing special to see because the most important was not the place but the manuscripts which were discovered there.

Cana of Galilee, site of the first miracle, belongs to the initial moments of the public ministry of the Lord Jesus. We stopped at Cana and visited the sanctuary there. We were on our trip in Galilee going out of Nazareth. In Nazareth they showed us also the site of the Synagogue in which the Lord Jesus, referring to the text of Isaiah, presented himself to his people as the promised Messiah. They refused to accept him and he had to leave Nazareth and went towards the Lake of Genesaret were we too went.

Even today the lake of Genesaret leaves you in awe, the same awe we feel in the Gospel. It is a lake rich in fish - for this reason numerous fishing boats sail around and fishermen are still pulling their nets like those in the time of Jesus. The footsteps of the Lord's presence on the Lake of Genesaret and the memories of the Gospel still abound. These are concentrated on the northern and partially on the western shores of the lake. On the remains of Capernaum, "the town of the Redeemer" (the remains of the Synagogue have significant importance) we remembered the efforts of the Lord Jesus to convert this city which alas did not reach all the souls. It was for this reason that Capernaum, together with Betsaida and Korazain, are cursed by the Lord Jesus "Woe to you Korazain. Woe to you Betsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago.." (Luke 10:13). […]

At a certain distance from Capernaum there is the site of Tabgha with the sanctuary of the primacy of Peter on the shores of the lake. Here the Lord Jesus told Peter to "Feed my lambs, feed my sheep". We stopped on the shores of the lake from where we gathered some pebbles as souvenirs.

Next to the sanctuary of the primacy, ancient floor mosaics witness to the sanctuary commemorating the multiplication of loaves. There must have been a lot of grass in the vicinity where the people could gather and sit down. The Gospel of John tells us that after this miracle of the multiplication of loaves Jesus goes to Capernaum where the people who had been miraculously fed wanted to proclaim him king. At Capernaum the apostles heard also the speech anticipating the institution of the Eucharist.

Overlooking these sites, on the mountain slopes there is another sanctuary commemorating the sermon described in the Gospel of St. Matthew (chapters 5-7) especially the eight beatitudes. These are the key to all the morality of the New Testament oriented towards the Kingdom of God. Going towards Tiberias, along the shores of the lake, we pass by the remains of the city of Magdala for which we remember Mary Magdala. At a certain distance on our right the valley opens up towards the mountain where in 1191 the Crusaders under Richard the Lionhearted were defeated. Tiberias is a Jewish city with over 100,000 inhabitants. Jesus avoided contact with this city. Here there is a small monumental church dedicated to St. Peter, which during World War II was restored by Polish soldiers. They also erected a statue to Saint Peter, similar to the one which is at the Vatican Basilica, and a monument to the Polish people showing their affectionate link with their far away Polish homeland.

On this the 13th of December we spent a lot of time on the lake of Galilee. We stopped at the site where the lake pours into river Jordan. The shores of the lake are covered with thick vegetation and trees. The region of Galilee - homeland of the Lord Jesus - is completely different from the arid and barren land of Judea. The beauty of the soft wavy terrain that is surrounded by hills that go in all directions struck us. The region is very fertile and even if we were visiting during the winter period we know that it is more beautiful during spring when the whole land is covered with fresh grass and flowers which die because of the great heat of summer. We saw the region of Galilee from on top Mount Tabor at which we arrived late that evening, after sunset and from where we could have a good glimpse of the plains underneath us early the next morning before sunrise! We watched this land sanctified once and for all by the human presence of the Son of God. We stayed at the Franciscan friary the evening of the 12th of December and the night between the 12th and the 13th. Early in the morning of the 13th December we celebrated the Eucharist in the Sanctuary of Tabor. The mountain, which was the theatre of the Transfiguration of the Lord, dominates the region and gives you a vision of the far north where one can even see the peaks of Mount Hermon covered with snow ("Tabor et Hermon de nomine Tuo exultant").

Among the remains and the memories of the Lord's presence during his public ministry we visited Samaria and Jacob's Well that exists up to our day and supplies water to the pilgrims. It is to this water that the Lord Jesus referred during his encounter with the Samaritan woman indicating to her the "living water" (Jn 4:10). The well dates back to the times of the Patriarchs as is witnessed by its name. Today there is a sanctuary cared for by the Greek Orthodox. The region is mountainous and in front of this well there rise mount Ebal and Mount Garizin, the mountain of the blessing and the curse (maledizione) of the Old Testament. Today the Samaritans are only a small group who meticulously observes the religious traditions of the Old Testament, that distinguish them from the Israelites.

Let us now return once more to Judea and close in on Jerusalem as we try to participate in the memories of the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus at the Holy Places. But first it is good to stop on the vast peak of the Mount of Olives. Here we go to the place which tradition has indicated as being the place where the Lord Jesus taught his listeners the prayer of the "Our Father". Here there is a Convent of the Carmelite nuns and the walls around the cloister of the monastery are covered with plaques on which are inscribed the words of this prayer in many languages of the world, certainly also in Polish. Along the sacred slopes of the Mount of Olives is the site called "Dominus Flevit". From here one can look straight at the city of Jerusalem which lies right on the opposite hill to the east. It is from here that the Lord wept over the city that did not accept him. Bethany lies on the eastern slope of Mount of Olives. Here the Lord found refuge and friendship in the house of Lazarus and his sisters. On this site there is the Franciscan sanctuary and at a short distance the tomb of Lazarus (where we could not arrive because of the torrential rains). Above Bethany, on the Mount of Olives there is Betphage, the place from where the Lord started his solemn entry into Jerusalem accompanied by triumphal singing and hailed with branches and palms. From Betphage a solemn procession led by the Patriarch of Jerusalem leaves every year, on Palm Sunday.

To meditate on the Passion of Our Lord it is good to first go to Jerusalem on Mount Zion where the Cenacle lies. We are at the site where the Sacrament of the Eucharist was instituted, the site where the Holy Spirit came down on the Apostles while they were gathered with Mary and from where the Church was born. That place lacks an adequate sanctuary that would correspond to its true greatness. At least this was my impression. Next to the Cenacle, which lies in the Israeli part of Jerusalem, the Jews venerate the tomb of David and of other kings of the Old Testament.

Again, we will turn our attention towards the Mount of Olives. We know that after his Last Supper, the Lord Jesus went to the Garden of Olives. For this reason he had to cross over the Kidron Valley and at a distance of about 200 metres, he arrived at the Garden of Gethsemane. The site of the Agony of the Lord Jesus remains impressed in one’s memory, not only because of the Sanctuary but also for the Olive trees therein. Some of them, according to the opinion of biologists, are 2000 years old meaning that they remember the Agony of the Lord Jesus. The arrest of the Lord Jesus is not commemorated at Gethsemane and site of the Agony but some distance away.

After the arrest the Lord Jesus was taken to Annas and then to Caiphas. The lack of these two sites was a sort of a gap in our pilgrimage in Jerusalem. The sanctuary "in galli cantu", which we saw from afar, from the slopes of the Mount of Olives, lies on the site the house of Caiphas. On the other hand we spent a lot of time at the site where the Roman trial took place and where the sentence of death of Our Lord was passed. This is the fortress Antonia, to which I already made mention when I described the Temple area. The Romans built the fortress at a corner of the temple esplanade to guard on the Jews who gathered there in great numbers for their great feasts. Even Pontius Pilate arrived for Easter.

Two religious orders have settled on the site of the ancient fortress Antonia: the Franciscans who have the Biblical School (in Jerusalem there is also the Dominican biblical School) and the Sisters of Zion. This is a female congregation, founded by the Ratisbone brothers, who had converted from Judaism, to offer prayers for the conversion of the Jews. In the Church annexed to the Franciscan friary we visited the "Lithostrotos" which the Gospel of John indicates as being the place of the condemnation of Jesus. From the Chapel of the Sisters of Zion we go down to the underground area where are the sites of imprisonment, flagellation and crowning with thorns. These underground spaces leave an unforgettable impression. The same impression is impressed by the figure of the scourged Christ, which the sisters have in their chapel. On the main altar of this chapel there is a balcony from which Pontius Pilate showed the scourged and crowned Jesus to the Jews proclaiming "Ecce homo". When we get out on the road we find ourselves already in the Way of the Cross. The first stations are at the area of the Antonia fortress.

We start our way going downhill. The way of the Cross goes downhill up to the fifth station. The third (the first fall under the cross) and the fourth station (Jesus' meeting with his mother) deserve special attention because both were restored by the Polish soldiers after the Second World War. This was the carried out by the Prelate Pietruszka who for many years worked in Jerusalem and who also set up a Polish museum (of an archaeological nature) by the third station. But let us return to the Way of the Cross that follows the narrow streets of the Old City of Jerusalem. Alas most of the chapels are abandoned and closed, some stations do not have a chapel and only a cross engraved on the wall indicate at which station we are. The last stations (X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV) are situated within the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.

We enter this basilica and we immediately climb up to the chapel of Golgotha. With great veneration we all kiss the place where the cross was fixed in the ground. Here we also place our episcopal insignia and whatever we intended to take with us to our loved ones in Poland. The altar, which lies on the site of the Cross, belongs to the Greek Orthodox while those of the Crucifixion and Our Lady of Sorrows belong to the Catholics. The rock of Calvary covers the floor and through a glass protection we could see the crack in the rock which goes down to the underground of the basilica where there is the chapel of St. Helen. This chapel is the place of the discovery of the Holy Cross. It is the lowest part of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and the site where the mother of Emperor Constantine looked for and found this most precious relic of the Holy Cross of Christ.

The central part of the Basilica encloses under a large rotunda the chapel of the Tomb of the Lord Jesus. Going from Calvary to the Tomb we pass by the place where according to tradition the dead body of Jesus was laid when he was taken down from the cross and prepared with ointment for burial. We honour the tomb itself, both the inner and outer chambers, as being direct witness of he resurrection of the Lord Jesus. This is the most important place when we come to the strengthening of our spiritual being in our faith and hope. Near the tomb there is the chapel commemorating the meeting of the risen Christ with Mary Magdalene. Further on is the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. Next to the altar there is a fragment of the flagellation column (the other part is in the Church of St. Prascada in Rome). We get out of the basilica with a deep impression. The fact that scaffolding covers its walls does not diminish this impression. Here there is also a coexistence of the different confessions: the Roman Catholics (Franciscans), the Greek Orthodox and Armenians celebrate their liturgies within these premises. At first sight there is no scandal but at a deeper level this shows the splitting up of Christianity against Jesus' wish "that they may be one".

According to the chronology of the life of Jesus there remains still another place to visit, the site of the Ascension that lies on the Mount of Olives. With veneration we kiss these stones which were the last to touch the feet of our Lord Jesus. Then our gaze rests upon the Old City of Jerusalem which lies on the other side of the valley: the Jerusalem of this world, the city of the death of Christ but also of his Resurrection. The Ascension is the beginning of the Heavenly Jerusalem - of the temple of glory of Our Saviour. With desolation we have to say that the site of the Ascension is completely in the hands of the Moslems who are also the keepers of the keys of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.

To complete this account I wish to mention two more holy places, which according to the tradition of Jerusalem (as is well known there is an opposite Ephesian tradition), concern the last moments in the life of the Mother of Our Saviour. The dormition should have taken place in the house of St. John the Evangelist on Mount Zion next to the Cenacle. This shrine is in the care of the Benedictines. The tomb of the Mother of God, according to the Jerusalem tradition, lies in the vicinity of the place of the arrest near Gethsemane. If we mention the Marian shrines we have also to mention the convent of the Carmelites on Mount Carmel on the outskirts of the beautiful city of Haifa.

Here we end our stay in the Holy Land. It was a short visit but it introduced us to those places that are the most sacred of this world. We are grateful to the Holy Father who intends to make a pilgrimage to the homeland of Christ the Lord and is his vicar on earth. We are grateful to him for he has guided us. We are grateful to the Franciscan Friars for the guiding and hospitality especially for what the words "Custodia Terrae Sanctae" enclose: a vigilant presence and care for the Holy Places in the Homeland of the Lord Jesus.

We only bypassed some places mentioned in the Holy Scriptures. Such is the case with Naim, Arimathea and Megiddo. Some were not on our pilgrimage route like Cesarea Philippi where the Lord Jesus announced the Primacy of Peter. But at the end of this description I think it is worth mentioning two other places.

First at Jaffa there is the Church of St. Peter who here had the heavenly vision and from where he left to go to baptise the Roman centurion Cornelius. In the Church of Jaffa there is an altar dedicated to Our Lady of Chestechowa and there is a Polish Franciscan friar who preaches in our language because most of the faithful understand this language. The second place I wish to mention is the Aeropagus of Athens. This lies a short distance from the Acropolis where St. Paul spoke to the Athenians. Both these places introduce us to the world of the Gospel as presented to us in the Acts of the Apostles and the beginning of the History of the Church.

Dear priests! The Church today, through the Vatican Council and these holy places, continues to speak to us about the same truth: the truth of the redemption of the world. All those who have been blessed by the grace to live nearest to this truth must be witnesses to God, who in these Holy Places, came into contact with humanity. Accept my best regards in the Lord.

+ Karol, Bishop
Capitular Vicar
Cracovia, 10th January 1964


The Bishops at Gethsemane. Arrow indicates the then bishop Karol.
Picture: Custody of the Holy Land

free translation from Polish to Italian by Wladislaw Czarniak ofm
from Italian to English John Abela ofm and Jimmy Zammit ofm



Created / Updated Sunday, March 05, 2000 at 20:49:54