WASHINGTON — On May 25, after Pope Francis finished his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he was expected to drive directly to Bethlehem, where he would serve as the chief celebrant at a papal Mass.
Instead, the Pope stopped at the security wall that divided Israel from the West Bank, and he got out of his car to stand quietly in silent prayer. Then he leaned forward to touch his head to the wall, close to where a scrawl of graffiti described the looming barrier as a symbol of Israel oppression.
A phalanx of news photographers captured the moment, and Palestinian authorities said the Pope’s gesture would be commemorated in a portage stamp. Meanwhile, the intense local and international reaction to his unscheduled stop at the security wall underscored the high-stakes mission of a papal pilgrimage in a land shadowed by extremist violence and defined by political and religious polarization.
The key moments of the papal pilgrimage confirmed that history and geography often constrain efforts to overcome long-standing conflicts, and those same moments also showcased the power of symbolic actions that can touch hearts and revitalize high-wire diplomacy.
Experts are skeptical about whether the pilgrimage will yield concrete successes, especially in the wake of the failed U.S.-led peace talks between Israel and Palestine.
Still, many applauded the Pope for extending an invitation to President Abbas and Israeli President Simon Peres to join him for a joint prayer service in the Vatican — an invitation the two leaders accepted and which is scheduled for June 8, Pentecost Sunday.
But even as the global media focused on Pope Francis’ outreach to Jews and Muslims — from his visit to the Western Wall to his stop at the Dome of the Rock — his call for dialogue as a path to unity was primarily directed to his fellow Christians.
“The Pope’s main theme was unity, against various divisions: unity in the Christian Church and overcoming the division between Roman Catholics and the Orthodox faithful; unity between Christians and Jews and among believers of all faiths; and unity among those who live in the region,” said Joseph Wood, who teaches at the Institute of World Politics in Washington and has published extensively on U.S. foreign-policy issues.
‘Unprecedented Gesture’ of Ecumenism
Indeed, the central purpose of Pope Francis’ trip was to meet with Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landmark meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras.
This time, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew made history at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where they led an ecumenical prayer service for Catholics and Orthodox that served as a powerful testimony of Christian unity and a sign of solidarity for the region’s beleaguered Christians.
“So my meeting with His Holiness Bartholomew, beloved brother in Christ, was the highlight of the visit,” Pope Francis explained during a May 28 papal audience in St. Peter’s Square, where he seemed intent on advancing the mission of his pilgrimage.
The festering divisions between Christians, he said, make “my heart sick.” Yet, while kneeling in prayer with Patriarch Bartholomew before the tomb of Jesus, “we heard the strong voice of the Good Shepherd, of the Risen One who wants us to all be one.”
The Boston Globe’s John Allen, a leading expert on Vatican news, described the joint prayer service as an “unprecedented gesture” of ecumenism, in part, because the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been one of the “most disputed” Christian sites in the world, with different Churches defending their right to guard it.
Most newspapers published images of the Pope standing before the security wall and, later, before the Western Wall. The jam-packed pilgrimage also included time with local Christians, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the chief rabbis of Israel, as well as visits to a refugee camp and the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, upon which the Holy Father laid a wreath.
Egypt, Syria and Iraq
But the optics of the Pope’s meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew were especially important for Christians in Syria, Egypt and Iraq, whose ancient communities have been decimated by violence and who have expressed doubt that their fellow believers in the West understand their plight and are advocating for them in the corridors of power.
“We especially pray for the Churches in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, which have suffered most grievously due to recent events,” said Francis and Bartholomew in their joint statement.
“It was very significant that Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I ... raised only three countries by name, and they did so in the context of expressing concern for religious freedom,” Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute in Washington, told the Register.
“These are the same three Christian communities that the May 7 Pledge of Solidarity, signed by some 300 American Christian leaders, also singled out for prayer and action. In these three countries, Christians of all faith traditions are being targeted because of their faith with severe violence and oppression by Islamic extremists. As a result, there is a real threat of religious cleansing, as thousands of these Christians flee,” said Shea.
Wilhelmus Valkenberg, a professor of religion and culture at The Catholic University of America and an expert on interfaith relations, agreed that the historic meeting between the two religious leaders was critically important.
“Many people talk about the precarious situation of Christians in the Middle East. One of the most important things the Pope could do was to show that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches are in this together and must see what they can do together,” he said.
“I hope that it encourages Christians in the Middle East to know that Christians in the West are aware of their situation. That is extremely important,” Valkenberg told the Register.
But he also observed that the Pope’s outreach to Muslims and Jews reflected a striking personal commitment to interfaith dialogue that pre-dated his election as pope, and thus helped to more effectively advance the long-term engagement of the Holy See in the region.
José María Poirier, director of the Argentinian magazine Criterios and a friend of Pope Francis, confirmed that international diplomacy may be a new duty for the Latin-American-born pope and said that a desire to bridge the boundaries of faith was a hallmark of his episcopal ministry in Buenos Aires.
“First as an auxiliary bishop, later as a coadjutor and finally as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio surpassed his predecessors in both his ecumenical and interreligious involvement,” Poirier told the Register.
“He is certainly better known for his relationship with Judaism. He even published a book co-written with his friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, On Heaven and Earth. Both even shared a TV program in which they would talk about spirituality and relations with other religions.”
Valkenberg noted that the friendships then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio formed in Argentina “gave his Holy Land pilgrimage a personal coloring.”
Pope Francis traveled with his longtime friend Rabbi Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, and another friend, Omar Ahmed Abboud, a Muslim and the former secretary general of Argentina’s Institute of Interreligious Dialogue. Valkenberg suggested that the presence of a Muslim and a Jew in the Pope’s entourage sent a striking message to Palestinian and Israeli leaders.
He added that the Pope also revealed an ability to acknowledge and adjust to a shifting religious and political landscape.
“He adapted his travel plans twice, responding first to an invitation to visit the security wall and then later stopping at a memorial for Israelis who were killed in a terrorist attack,” noted Valkenberg.
“In general, he tried to steer away from direct political involvement, but he invited Abbas and Peres to join him to pray for peace.
“It reminded me some of St. Francis of Assisi’s famous meeting with the sultan in the 12the century,” said Valkenberg. “One thing we know from historical documents is that Sultan Malik Al Kamil and St. Francis decided to pray for one another. This theme of prayer was part of Pope John Pau Il’s agenda in 1986 at the meeting in Assisi.”
Joseph Wood at the Institute of World Politics believes that the Pope’s sensitive response to concerns from both Muslims and Israeli was well-received by both sides, and he sees an important opening for Vatican-Israeli relations.
“There is long-standing diplomatic tension between the Holy See and Israel, and that tension has delayed for years the full implementation of the 1993 Fundamental Agreement negotiated under St. John Paul II that brought diplomatic relations between the two,” said Wood.
The “Fundamental Agreement” was announced in 1993 and provided an opening for Vatican recognition of Israel. However, the ongoing negotiations over a number of disputes, including the tax status of Church properties, have delayed formal approval of the accord.
“Some on the Israeli side have questioned whether the Holy See accepts the fundamental legitimacy of the Jewish state. By laying a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism and the intellectual force behind the creation of the state of Israel, Pope Francis in a single, deft stroke has calmed such suspicions.”
That simple gesture by Pope Francis, Wood predicted, “will give impetus to the talks long under way to complete the necessary protocols to bring the Fundamental Agreement into full effect.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.