Pope Francis was responding to an idea hatched by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, an invitation from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and insistence from Israeli President Shimon Peres. For three days in Jordan, Palestine and Israel his only agenda was unity and his only program was peace.
“This Pope is a disciple of St. Francis,” said Yahad-In Unum founder Fr. Patrick Dubois as Pope Francis’ visit came to its conclusion. “He is trying to bring back the peace process from a personal point of view. It’s not a theological question. It’s a peace question.”
But Dubois’ definition of theology may be too narrow. Theology that excludes the political, that concerns itself exclusively with cosmology and moral theory, would never suit this Pope. For Pope Francis, theology lives in the real events of people’s lives. This Pope will not stand to one side and theorize while history passes by. This Pope makes history.
Beginning in Amman, Jordan, Pope Francis did what politicians have failed to do in 60 years of conflict in the Middle East. He brought God into the peace process. He praised King Abdullah II for the Amman Message, a statement the King co-ordinated among Muslim scholars which has become a standard for judging genuine Islamic thought and for condemning acts and ideologies of terror. He also spoke of the urgent need for “a peaceful solution… to the crisis in Syria, as well as a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
In Bethlehem the Pope put those words into action. There he did two things unscheduled and unplanned as far as Vatican officials knew. First he dismounted from the popemobile and prayed silently before the concrete barrier that separates Israelis from Palestinians on three sides of Bethlehem. He touched and silently prayed before the three-metre-high wall built to keep Israelis safe and Palestinians contained.
There was nothing “polemical” about the gesture, explained Fr. Federico Lombardi of the Pope’s minutes of vigil before the wall. It was just typical of Pope Francis, who does not shun his own human inclinations — who listens to his heart.
“It was a very significant way to demonstrate his participation in suffering … It was a profound spiritual moment in front of a symbol of division,” Lombardi said.
During Mass Pope Francis made the usual exchange of peace among the concelebrating patriarchs, bishops and priests behind the altar with him. But then he elicited a wave of applause from more than 9,000 in the sun-drenched congregation when he stepped around the altar and embraced Abbas.
The warm, friendly hug would have been news on another day. But Pope Francis almost immediately overshadowed that moment — or rather completed it — when at the end of Mass he invited Abbas and Peres to “my home in the Vatican” to pray together for peace.
“All of us want peace. Many people build it day by day through small gestures and acts; many of them are suffering, yet patiently persevere in their efforts to be peacemakers,” said Francis. “All of us — especially those placed at the service of their respective peoples — have the duty to become instruments and artisans of peace, especially in our prayers.”
The Mass ended with a sudden, colourful, accidental harmony of religions. The call of the muezzin rang out from loudspeakers on the minaret of the mosque right next to Manger Square during the dismissal. Women in the crowd expressed their joy and appreciation of the Pope with high, pulsing ululations and the whole congregation broke out in a wave of applause. It was as though all the possibilities of human love of God were suddenly exposed and discovered a way of fitting together.
The peace process has always been about aligning the political and economic interests of two peoples in one land. It’s been about power, possessions and diametrically opposed positions. There have always been too many square pegs for too many round holes.
Here and now, in an historically important gesture, the Pope was inviting God into the process.
“This is a Pope who knows how to communicate, not in a harsh way. He’s a people person,” said Bar-Ilan University religion scholar Prof. Adam Ferziger. “He’s got great image. He knows the power of image.”
Pope Francis completed the picture the next day. After a day of extraordinary and even quite ordinary gestures that showed concern and respect for the Palestinians — acknowledging as natural and right that the United Nations has recognized the State of Palestine, acknowledging the pain and humiliation of the security wall — he extended an equal hand of friendship and respect to Israelis.
In laying flowers at the grave of Theodore Herzl, the 19th-century progenitor of modern Zionism, Francis recognized more than the political legitimacy of Israel. Just being there spoke about the moral legitimacy of the Jewish country.
Just as he had stood before the separation wall in Bethlehem, Pope Francis also stopped by the wall that commemorates Jewish victims of terrorism, touching it and uttering those essential words ever since the Holocaust, “never again.”
Within Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, Pope Francis delivered perhaps the most heartfelt homily of his papacy — more poetry than exhortation:
“No, this abyss is not merely the work of your own hands, your own heart…
Who corrupted you? Who disfigured you?
Who led you to presume that you are the master of good and evil?
Who convinced you that you were god?
Not only did you torture and kill your brothers and sisters, but you sacrificed them to yourself, because you made yourself a god,” said the Pope playing prophet, speaking for God.
It is significant that the Pope was taking on the sin of idolatry, said Fr. Pascal Gollnisch, the general director of the Paris-based L’Oeuvre d’Orient, French equivalent of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
“It is a religious problem,” said Gollnisch. “If I have respect for God then you are my brother. If I don’t respect God, I can kill you. Naziism is an idolatry of self.” It’s a delicate balancing act, Palestinian suffering versus Jewish suffering.
“I think the Pope succeeded in his challenge,” said Dubois. “In one way he showed strongly his friendship with the Palestinians. On the other side he showed also his friendship with the Jews.”
It’s not so much what he said as how he behaved that gives weight to this papal pilgrimage, according to Dubois. Pope Francis’ non-European attitude toward the conflicts of the old world are creating a new reality for Christian thinkers, said Furziger, an expert on the historical and theological relationship between Christians and Jews.
“I’m waiting to see how Catholic theology is going to catch up,” he said.
The end point of this journey was the meeting between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians — a branch of Christianity that barely survived the communist onslaught of the 20th century and now finds itself threatened by immense displacement in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere. The text the two men signed will underwhelm many who have been living with the assumption that Christians basically believe the same things and feel the same way about the necessity of faith. From 2014 it is hard to appreciate how far we have travelled in two or three generations.
In 1964 the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenegoras was shocking. The 1965 recanting of anethemas that began the Great Schism of 1054 opened a new horizon, but an unexplored one.
Now the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch are able to speak about what communion between East and West is for. The joint statement makes it clear that ecumenism is not an exercise in theological consolidation. It’s not an attempt to correct history. Just as Christ died for the world and Christians live in the world, Christian unity is for the sake of the wholeness, the integrity, the peace and harmony of the world.
“Together, we pledge our commitment to raising awareness about the stewardship of creation; we appeal to all people of goodwill to consider ways of living less wastefully and more frugally, manifesting less greed and more generosity for the protection of God’s world and the benefit of His people,” says the statement.
If you ask people what ecumenism was about, how many would say it aims for a peace treaty between industrial humans and the natural world? That peace between the natural and the human also supposes there must be peace among nations and peace between religions.
“We invite all Christians to promote an authentic dialogue with Judaism, Islam and other religious traditions. Indifference and mutual ignorance can only lead to mistrust and unfortunately even conflict,” said the patriarchs of Rome and New-Rome.
In the end, the measure of these three days is courage. Courage not as the opposite of caution and good judgment, but courage as an anxious and eager anticipation of what might be, what could be and what will be. Pope Francis has reached out a hand of healing and compassion and touched the walls of our fears. He has spoken words across our walls and our wounds.