Many times in my journeys throughout the Middle East, I have heard individuals cite a proverb: “You cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs.” Invariably, this is the response to my objections to various forms of violence in the region, whether by terrorists or governments. The proverbial wisdom is an attempt to explain the situation of violence (broken eggs) and express the hope for an improvement (an omelet).
Yet, central to Pope Francis’ message is a firm rejection of such a logic of violence as the only future for the Middle East. During his May 24-26 Holy Land pilgrimage, he highlighted by his words and gestures that the weak and vulnerable are not eggs to be broken, but people to be cherished. He recognized the variety of small people who suffer in the Middle East, giving them a place on the world’s stage that politicians rarely share with them, thereby showing to everyone their importance and preciousness.
He showed the world the refugees who have found safety from violence in the Bedouin culture of the Kingdom of Jordan. Though the many Bedouins I saw living in tents in the 1980s have moved into permanent houses with electricity and water, their renowned hospitality that once had opened tents to desert wanderers has been perpetuated by opening Jordan’s borders to refugees from Palestine (especially after the wars of 1948 and 1967), Iraq and, most recently, Syria.
The warm, dignified welcome by King Abdullah was answered by Pope Francis’ equally warm commendation of the kingdom’s hospitality to refugees who would have died if they had remained in Iraq and Syria. He then urged the rest of the world to recognize the need to help Jordan care for these people, since, in truth, the burden is overwhelming the country’s small resources as a desert nation of 4 million.
Pope Francis also turned his attention to the sick and disabled throughout his pilgrimage. These, too, are not “broken eggs,” but sufferers whose stories show a tremendous courage that contrasts with the pseudo-bravery of terrorists or government agents who kill and maim and even make victims of the very handicapped people met by Pope Francis.
The Pope commended the doctors, nurses, religious sisters and brothers and others who care for the handicapped by extending tremendous love and, in some areas of violent conflict, great courage. Their love contrasts with the nationalistic ideologies of the governments or radical Islamism of some terrorists, which overwhelm compassion and drive the ideologues to evil acts against their enemies, whom they have reduced to the status of “eggs” for the omelet. Pope Francis’ recognition of loving caretakers pointed out their authentic courage and love to the world — an action that evoked joy from the observers, not politicized cheers.
Pope Francis highlighted the plight of children, especially among the poor, the sick and the refugees. Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal responded with stories of homeless children and families, especially in the refugee camps in the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank and in Gaza. Particularly touching was Pope Francis’ visit to children dying of cancer, whose wish was to meet him before they die.
The Pope prayed at Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Shoah, the destruction of the Jewish people by the Nazis. By going there, he entered into the heartrending grief of Jews throughout the world, as well as in Israel. A great portion of the Israeli population is made up of survivors of those racist horrors, their children and their relatives. Just as the Babylonian Captivity became a defining moment in the history of ancient Israel, so has the Shoah become for modern Jews — how can it be otherwise?
His meeting with survivors, kissing their hands out of respect for them, reminds everyone that no person should be dehumanized. Rather, the world must seek to restore the dignity and honor that inherently belongs to each individual.
Certainly, with most political visitors to the Middle East, the primary issues are political negotiations, particularly between the Israelis and Palestinians. The recognition of Israel and Palestine as legitimate entities, the rejection of force and terrorism and rights to land and water are among the political and economic issues that divide the peoples and frustrate the negotiators. These issues must all be confronted directly and dealt with justly.
Tragically, however, the most vulnerable members of society are considered too small and insignificant, mere “eggs” in the omelet, outside the reckoning of political negotiations. During his pilgrimage, Pope Francis has restored them to the world spotlight by inviting them onto the stage set for him. He turned his attention toward them so that the world could recognize them, too. He drew attention to these little ones in order to evoke the world’s love rather than political theory or search for fame. This type of action and attitude is consistent with everything he has done as a priest, cardinal and, now, pope.
Also of note — in keeping with Pope Francis’ pastoral way — was his surprising invitation to Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to join him for prayer and serious dialogue at his home. Various attempts at such a meeting in Israel or Palestine have failed to materialize, but Pope Francis’ offer of the Vatican as a venue for prayer and dialogue may be a good option. In this, we can also note that the Pope’s attention was not on hopes for the human negotiators, but on prayer.
While his visit placed much attention on little, vulnerable and suffering people, instead of the politicians, his offer for the presidents to come to the Vatican for prayer was a turn to God. In his meetings with the various religious leaders, he emphasized the role of God over theologians; so did he emphasize God’s role to the two presidents, too.
In one visit, he turned our attention from politics to the little people and to the great God. He did this with love for the suffering and for Our Lord, rather than out of frustration with politicians’ failures. By emphasizing the love of the neighbors we see and the God we do not see, he charmed everyone, including the politicians. Some of them showed joy in their faces, a fruit of authentic love of God and neighbor.
We can place hope in the good God that Pope Francis’ pilgrimage will be a small step forward toward the authentic peace he prayed for throughout the Holy Land.
Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa is the host of EWTN Live and
Threshold of Hope on EWTN. He is president of Ignatius Productions.