The Genius of Pope Francis in the Holy Land

Yisca Harani, an expert on Christianity in the Holy Land, said she was disappointed with the visit. While the pope arrived to celebrate peace, he was instead greeted by two angry parties who tried to pull him in their direction.“I expected someone stronger. I expected some strong words of encouragement or a real push,” she said. “I found a frail pope. There were very few moments when I saw his face lit up. From the moment he landed he looked afraid.”

Well what are we to make of Pope Francis' visit? Was he timid? Afraid? Frail? Or has this 'expert' missed something?

In a snippet of video taken as the Pope was walking to his plane at Ben Gurion airport he is caught in mid conversation with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel. Netanyahu is beaming, and expressing his obvious surprise and excitement that the Pope had actually read his father's book. What book? International best seller? New Your Times list? Well, not exactly. It was a historical treatise on... the Spanish Inquisition and its treatment of... the Jews. The Times of Israel reported back in December  2013 that the PM had given the book as a gift to the Pope when he met him at the Vatican. He obviously didn't actually think the Pope would read it, given the elation and genuine chuffed expression. The pope said twice, 'its a good book', underscoring the sense of respect. It had obviously won Netanyahu round as an admirer, which is no mean feat. It gives a tantalising glimpse as to the way the Pope works, and of what his approach is actually achieving.

I was at the Mass in Bethlehem when he invited President Abbas and President Peres to come and pray with him for peace in his own home in the Vatican. To be honest the sound system was so bad I couldn't hear anything the Pope said, and there was no translation into any other language so few people picked it up at that moment. But the invitation was issued, and Abbas walked up the steps of the Papal sanctuary to exchange the sign of peace with the pope. Previously the two men had hugged when they met at the Presidential palace. Again, a warm, genuine rapport.

Another iconic moment was when the Pope hugged the rabbi and the Muslim leader who he had taken with him on his trip as part of his official entourage. Both of them had known him from his time in Buenos Aires. The rabbi was Abraham Skorka, an Argentinean rabbi with whom the Pope has written various articles and books. Back in October Skorka was reported as saying that it was  Pope Francis’s “lifelong dream” was to visit the Holy Land and “to embrace” with the rabbi in front of the Western Wall. And that's what they did, and Pope Francis is overheard as saying at that moment "we did it! we did it!" Another very personal moment touching and meaningful, not outlandish but deeply thought through. 

And what of the Muslim leader? This is what the Vatican Insider reported earlier this month:
He explained that he is going on this visit to the Holy Land with the Pope – “something I had never even imagined could happen” – because Francis personally invited him on 28 February.  
Earlier that month, he said, he had travelled to the Holy Land with a group of 45 Argentineans from different walks of life: 15 Christians, 15 Jews and 15 Muslims.  They visited the shrines that are sacred to all three monotheistic religions in Jerusalem, and on that sojourn he had one of the most deeply spiritual experiences of his life when he prayed at the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Holy City. At the end of their journey they stopped over in Rome to visit their old friend, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires with whom they had had a long history of involvement in the inter-religious field.

During that joyful encounter in Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse where Pope Francis lives, Abboud recalled how Pope Francis came to him and said, “Let us go together to the Holy Land’.”  It was “a totally unexpected honor”, he added. Weeks later, “the Nunciature  (Vatican embassy) in Buenos Aires gave me the formal invitation”, he said.
Again, the ability to forge authentic, respectful, warm relationships and from them creating opportunities for good things, almost unthought of good things, to happen. The invitation to Abbas and Peres obviously falls into the same mould.

And what is it that the pope is getting these two Presidents to do? Pray together. Sounds nice. But lets not forget this is a Catholic pope inviting a Muslim and a Jew to pray with him. Interfaith assemblies such as Assisi called by Pope John Paul II in 1986 pale into insignificance at this new gesture. All sorts of hoops were jumped through in explaining how precisely the times of prayer were to be understood, nuanced, contextualised etc. so that no one got the idea that this was worshipping 'strange gods', or that different religions teach the same basic truth with different language and symbols. Pope Benedict was intensely uncomfortable with it all when Prefect of Propaganda Fide, publicly criticising it, and when the 25th anniversary occurred under his pontificate, put his stamp clearly on the occasion by making prayer optional and shaping the proceedings more as  'a religious and agnostics unite for peace' event. Francis seems to have no time for such quibbling. Bigger things are at stake than theological nuances, and while he will not give any ground to those wishing to undermine Catholic principles he won't let potential misunderstandings get in the way of doing what needs to be done, especially at such a critical junction in one of the most troubled spots in the world.

It is clear from this little rummage around the media that Francis was very much in control of his trip, and how he saw the visit panning out. He knew that the Israeli state is pretty much hostile to the Christian Church, and Catholics in particular, being both the largest Christian group on the planet, and responsible, as Netanyahu's book will no doubt have pointed out, for some of the most blatant acts of anti-semitism. The Pope will not have done his cause any good by making sure that his itinerary ipso facto recognised the State of Palestine. With the assistance of Jordan and its peace accord with Israel, he was able to go straight to Palestine from Amman, bypassing any Israeli checkpoint or border. This was, as various Zionist commentators have pointed out, the first time any international leader had chosen to do so. Pope Francis made it very clear that as far as the Catholic Church is concerned the development of the Palestinian people according to the two state solution which the international community has been working so hard to facilitate, goes ahead regardless. As with theological nuance, Francis is having non of the hair splitting which, as a Jesuit, you thought he would have excelled at. Just as the French don't need the permission of Germany to form own state, nor do the Palestinians need the permission of Israel. End of story. People are people. Get on with it.

And Francis, only too well attuned to the reality of suffering among the poor and disenfranchised, demonstrated his absolute solidarity with Palestinians living under the reality of Israeli occupation. That's what the stop at the wall was all about. That the Israeli military were caught on some some captivating photos chasing an unarmed Palestinian who had just written a message to the pope on the wall simply underlines just how important that stop was. (The Israelis had possibly got wind of the possibility of a stop along the wall because they had spent a lot of time and money painting over significant pieces of the wall on the Palestinian side in the week or so leading up to the Pope's visit). 

Just as he would stand and pray at the Wailing Wall, like his predecessors, so he chose to stop and pray, silently, at this visceral sign of everything that the occupation means for those on the receiving end of it.  No other image is as powerful as this one here, especially for those who can't pass a week or even a day without having to encounter it. I guess the pope had prayed about how to show his solidarity, his empathy, his love for those enduring something his priests and bishops will have recounted to him in sobering and frequent detail. His sensitivity to the human person, and to the power of symbol over the complications of words, is something on the level of genius when brought together in this way. Certainly this was how it touched one of the people who had written that graffiti on the wall, just moments before he arrived and they thought he would just pass by:
“We just thought he will pass in front of us and just say hi or something and go to the Nativity Church, but he came and stood in front of the Wall and prayed there…it was a good thing for us as Palestinians.  He’s supporting us and he respects us and he respects our suffering,” Abu Srour said.

This obviously touched a deep nerve in the Israeli Jewish psyche too, and Francis would, with that sensitivity of his, have known that. In Israeli mythology, the wall is what has prevented countless number of deaths by suicide bombings.  Whether that is true or not is another matter, but Israelis, whether liberal or extremist, believe it absolutely and without question. But he wasn't going to change course because someone would get upset and give him a hard time, as Netanyahu subsequently indeed seems to have done

Rather he stuck to his script, but then developed the relationship by touching into what mattered most to the other he was reaching out to - in this case to the Jewish psyche which lives in almost pathological fear of annihilation which has been ratcheted up relentlessly over the past decade. Fear doesn't negotiate, fear doesn't make peace because it never has the emotional space to comprehend that is even possible without the 'other' somehow being obliterated, or leaving or just simply being air-brushed out of the picture. What Francis did must therefore have had the Jewish establishment in Israel apoplectic, and indeed it is seemingly in response to Netanyahu's remonstrations about why the wall was necessary that Francis deftly deflated that angst by another unscheduled stop at the memorial for those killed in the bombings. Given that he was already on his way to the grave of the founder of Zionism, Francis was really pushing the boat out to keep the hands of a loving father outstretched to a fearful child. 

Goodness knows what that cost him, after all this is the head of the Catholic Church, Supreme Pontiff and Head of State of the Vatican, etc. etc. but he did it. He didn't stand on his dignity, or stay aloof, or hand out platitudes or moral warnings. He patiently gave from himself with humility and, I believe, out of a genuine love for the man and his people. He was obviously aware of the rather hostile, febrile attitude of the man and his government to his visit, not least from the official welcome. Over half the cabinet were missing, including the foreign minister and the minister responsible for relations with faith communities. It was also indicative that the Prime Minister in his welcoming speech downgraded the pontiff to the leader of millions of Catholics, when the Catholic Church actually numbers one point two billion, a fact which was hardly difficult to research via Google. They were obviously miffed by his recognition of the State of Palestine and his welcome was, presumably, downgraded to make the point. These aren't men and women to miss the point, and to make sure you know they mean it. I remember the day after Pope Benedict visited the Aida refugee camp and said that walls were not what were wanted etc. that the Interior Ministry announced that hundreds of clergy visa's had been rejected. Francis would have been fully aware of what treatment he could expect at the hands of the Israeli establishment should he make such gestures.

This is what makes that final snippet of his visit so intriguing - an obviously purring Netanyahu with a gentle Francis who had shown this fearful man that he need not be so afraid, that not everyone who understood the pain of his enemy meant he didn't understand his. This was Francis who had visited Herzl's  grave, accepted to stop at the victims of terrorism memorial, who spoke out strongly against anti-Semitism and the attack on the Jewish museum in Belgium, and...kissed the hands of Holocaust survivors. As one of them said, not even my rabbi has done that. Despite all that Francis had done to endorse Palestine and its core issues, he nevertheless reached out with a determination and without thought to himself, to those whom he knew would fin
d his actions the hardest to swallow, even to understand. 

Yet unless such a gulf is breached there can be no peace. I believe that Pope Francis understands that Abbas and Peres are people who are already working through their own fears of the other because, fundamentally, they believe in peace and have the spiritual capacities to grasp what God is doing, offering. Thats why he has drawn them closer to himself, and in doing so to each other. At the same time he has reached out to their respective communities and showed he senses their fear, their angst, their emotional paralysis which traps them and makes peace impossible. 

So no, I don't think Francis was timid or afraid, except in the sense that he knew the immensity of the task before him and how easily it could all end in tragedy, and knowing his own weakness was afraid of what was being asked, that he would fail, make some slip or surrender to the assaults on his dignity. He looked sombre because he was in the midst of a deep, dreadful battle with the evil one and all the forces mustered around the sacred places where the Redemption of our world was won. 

God save our dear Pope Francis.


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