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Pope Francis thanks religious for their presence in Holy Land

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM (CNS) -- Pope Francis dedicated his final hours in Jerusalem to time with local Catholics, reminding them that despite difficulties, God is always by their side.

"He never abandons us. And so, let us not be overwhelmed by fear or disheartened, but with courage and confidence let us press forward in our journey and in our mission," he told priests, men and women religious and seminarians in the Church of All Nations at the foot of the Mount of Olives.

Supporting their vocations, he told them their presence in the Holy Land was very important, and the church was grateful to them.

In the church, at the site of Jesus' passion in the Garden of Gethsemane, the pope asked the religious to reflect on how they would have acted in place of the disciples, and he urged them to remain steadfast in their faith.

"Here, in this place, each of us -- bishops, priests, consecrated persons, and seminarians -- might do well to ask: Who am I, before the sufferings of my Lord?" he said, asking if they would have remained loyal or abandoned, denied and betrayed Jesus.

"On Golgotha, when everything seemed bleak and all hope seemed pointless, only love proved stronger than death. The love of the mother and the beloved disciple made them stay at the foot of the cross, sharing in the pain of Jesus, to the very end."

Though Jesus' friendship, his faithfulness and his mercy "are a priceless gift" encouraging faithful to follow him, that does not free them from the need to be vigilant before sin, warning that "evil and betrayal can enter even into religious and priestly life."

Pope Francis' May 24-26 visit to the Holy Land was set up to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. He met multiple times with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and, as Pope Paul VI did in 1964, he planted an olive tree sapling in the Gethsemane garden.

Local Franciscans were said to have been grown the sapling from a cutting from one of the eight oldest trees in the garden, dating back possibly to 900 years ago.

Afterward, he celebrated Mass with Ordinaries of the Holy Land at the Cenacle and spoke about the importance of the site.

"Here, where Jesus shared the Last Supper with the apostles; where, after his resurrection, he appeared in their midst; where the Holy Spirit descended with power upon Mary and the disciples; here the church was born, and was born to go forth," he said. "The Upper Room reminds us of sharing, fraternity, harmony and peace among ourselves. How much love and goodness has flowed from the Upper Room. How much charity has gone forth from here, like a river from its source, beginning as a stream and then expanding and becoming a great torrent."

During his visit, Pope Francis invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to the Vatican for a prayer meeting. Apparently they accepted the invitation, and Israeli TV spoke of the meeting taking place within two weeks.

At his departure at the airport in Tel Aviv, Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were there to see him off. After a few final words, the pope went to say goodbye to the local church officials who had been at his side throughout the visit, then shook hands with the police and military officers who guaranteed his security while in Israel.

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