Priest expects pope's meeting at Jordan River to be 'impressive'

BETHANY BEYOND THE JORDAN, Jordan -- 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."

The trip to Jordan is part of a trip to the Holy Land May 24-26, during which Pope Francis will visit Amman and the Israeli cities of Bethlehem, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Father Bader said that, along the Jordan 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, his 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.

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 to 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.

Jordan largely has 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.

"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 trip also will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, and it is for that reason the theme of the trip is: "So that they may be one."

Pope Francis will meet Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, considered "first among equals" of the Orthodox bishops, May 25 in Jerusalem and again the following day. On May 25, the two are scheduled to sign a joint declaration.

"We are called to be one, and the pope is coming to remind us of this and renew the spirit of unity and fraternal love," Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem said March 27. "The logo and the motto that have been chosen for this pilgrimage focus in on this desire for unity."

The official logo of the pilgrimage depicts the embrace of Sts. Peter and Andrew, patrons of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the patriarch added.

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