Pope Francis’ three-day visit to Jordan, Israel and the West Bank was not merely a religious event. He is, after all, the head of a state. And even more than the charismatic John Paul II, Francis is everyone’s pope. He came, as one commentator put it, “mostly to do what he does best — project friendliness to the world.”
He seems to have succeeded. His visit balanced countries and faiths with a kindness and humility that we have come to expect from Francis during his short tenure. From Jordan, where he met Syrian refugees, the pope went to Bethlehem, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. He held mass at the spot on Mount Zion where Christians believe Jesus held his last supper and also prayed at the Western Wall, visited Yad Vashem and made a special trip to Israel’s national cemetery on Mount Herzl and to the grave of Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl.
These were potent symbolic acts of reconciliation — recognizing the Jewish connection to the Holy Land’s holy places, paying respect at Israel’s memorial to the Shoah and affirming the State of Israel. His message was clear and most welcome.
But the pope also veered off the expected course, telling a crowd gathered in Bethlehem that he prayed for the “State of Palestine” and then, a short time later, stopping his entourage to pray alongside Israel’s security barrier, his arms outstretched alongside graffiti with the words “free Palestine.” While it is hard to be critical of a man who preaches peace and who exudes kindness and compassion, these two events, coming on the heels of the latest failure of peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, understandably raised the hackles of Israelis and their supporters throughout the world.
Before ending his pilgrimage, Francis extended an offer to Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to join him next month at the Vatican for a peace/prayer summit. While the invitation was a nice gesture, no one appears to be terribly optimistic about this papal initiative. Indeed, it borders on naive to expect much to come from the planned Vatican visit.
Sure, it will be nice to see Peres and Abbas talk and pray together. And we expect Francis to be an active, welcoming host. But peace rests on a lot more than recognition of each side’s aggrieved status and joint prayer. Indeed, as we have learned from the past many efforts to bring the parties together and to an agreement, it will take a sustained effort to get them back to the same negotiating table that fell apart so unceremoniously last month.
At the end of the day, however, Francis’ soothing words and gestures, coupled with his warm personality, resonated with all those he visited. As noted by Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a colleague of Francis’ from Argentina who accompanied the pope on his visit, “This was a very delicate trip.” Yes it was.