Pope Francis prays in front of the Israeli security wall in Bethlehem, West Bank, May 25.

CNS PHOTO | L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO, POOL

Pope Francis prays in front of the Israeli security wall in Bethlehem, West Bank, May 25.

June 9, 2014
GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Pope Francis said his three-day trip to the Holy Land was a religious pilgrimage, one that would bring to mind the famous encounter between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople 50 years ago.

While the pope did meet today's patriarch – several times, in fact – his trip will be most remembered as a political pilgrimage that tackled the humanly impossible task of bringing peace between Israel and Palestine.

Who better to assume the role of the impossible peacemaker than the vicar of Christ?

If peace is humanly impossible, what alternative exists other than to ask God to bring it about?

What better day than the June 8 celebration of Pentecost – the solemnity of the descent of the Holy Spirit – to have Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas come to the Vatican to pray for peace with Pope Francis?

In typical Pope Francis fashion, he asked the Catholic faithful to join in the prayers. Back at the Vatican for his May 28 general audience in the square, the pope pleaded with the tens of thousands in attendance:

"Please, I ask all of you not to abandon us; pray hard so that the Lord gives us peace in that blessed land. I am counting on your prayers – pray hard, and a lot, so that peace may come."

The 77-year-old pope's whirlwind trip was packed with gestures of solidarity with Jews and Arabs who suffer because of religious and territorial conflict.

Indeed, he brought along two travelling companions from his Argentina days – Sheikh Omar Abboud and Rabbi Abraham Skorka – who personified the solidarity that was at the heart of the pilgrimage.

The pope began the trip in Amman, Jordan, May 24 calling for religious freedom in the Middle East, including respect for the right to change one's religion.

He then went to Amman's International Stadium to celebrate Mass. There, he issued the first of many appeals for peace.

"The way of peace is strengthened if we realize that we are all of the same stock and members of one human family, if we never forget that we have the same heavenly father and are all his children, made in his image and likeness," he said in his homily.

Pope Francis embraces Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka after praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem May 26. Looking on is Omar Abboud, Muslim leader from Argentina. " We did it," Rabbi Skorka said he told the pope and Abboud.

CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING

Pope Francis embraces Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka after praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem May 26. Looking on is Omar Abboud, Muslim leader from Argentina. "We did it," Rabbi Skorka said he told the pope and Abboud.

En route to Mass the following day, the pope spontaneously leapt out of his car, walked to the massive barrier separating Israel from the West Bank and stood for several minutes in silent prayer.

For the Palestinians, the wall symbolizes their exclusion from what they believe is their rightful homeland; for the Israelis, it is a means of keeping suicide bombers out of their country.

The pope's act of spontaneity ruffled Israeli authorities, leading him to add another stop to his agenda May 26 – a visit to a cemetery for victims of terrorism. The pope also paid a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial where he met half a dozen survivors of the Nazi genocide, kissing their hands in honour.

"He took my hand in his two hands and kissed my hand," Joe Gottdenker of Toronto told Catholic News Service. "I was dumbfounded. I never had a rabbi do that."

Also on May 25, the pope visited a camp for refugees and told Palestinian youth that "violence is never defeated with violence."

At a meeting with Palestinian leaders that day, Pope Francis voiced his sympathy with "those who suffer most" from the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a situation he called "increasingly unacceptable."

The pope said lasting peace would require the "acknowledgement by all of the right of two states to live in peace and security within internationally recognized borders."

He began the final day of the tour with a visit to the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, a site sacred to Muslims as the place from which Mohammed ascended to heaven.

There, he called for closer relations among Jews, Muslims and Christians – the three faiths which find their roots in Abraham.

Just as Abraham left his own people and his own house to follow God's call, so "we must constantly be prepared to go out from ourselves, docile to God's call," especially "his summons to work for peace and justice," the pope said.

Pope Francis also stopped at the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Jewish Second Temple, where he prayed for more than a minute and a half with his right hand against the wall.

Then, he recited the Our Father and left a written message inside a crack between two blocks.

UNSCHEDULED VISITS

The pope also briefly visited a memorial to Israeli victims of terrorism and placed a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl, father of the Zionist movement that led to Israel's founding.

If Pope Francis appeared throughout his visit to be straddling the fence that separates Israelis and Palestinians, his actions might better be seen as an effort to build trust with both sides of the enduring conflict.

Talking with reporters on the trip back to Rome, the pope said his most dramatic gestures during the visit – praying at the Israeli-built separation wall in the West Bank and kissing the hands of Holocaust survivors – were spontaneous.

AUTHENTIC GESTURES

The "most authentic gestures are those you don't think about . . . mine were not planned gestures, it just occurs to me to do something spontaneously that way," he said.

While the pope's gestures may contribute to the building of trust, the realization of such trust lies in God's hands, making it fitting that the pope has called the Israeli and Palestinian heads to come together in prayer.

Back at the Vatican in his May 28 audience talk, the pope urged Christians "to let themselves be anointed" by the Holy Spirit. That will enable them always to "be ever more capable of gestures of humility, fraternity and reconciliation" in their interactions with people of different cultures and religions.

(With news reports from Catholic News Service)