Pope Francis' Holy Land Triumph

by Michael Sean Winters

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The image, understandably, went viral. Pope Francis had just finished praying at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism and, just so, one of the holiest sites in Christendom. This last remnant of the Temple loomed above him as he prayed silently, then placed a note into one of the crevices of the wall. So far, the image recalled the earlier images of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI doing the same. Then, the Holy Father took a few physical steps and a great, necessary, almost inevitable spiritual step: He embraced his two Argentine friends, one a rabbi and the other an imam, and the three men held each other. The message was a simple as it was stunning: Religion should bind us to one another not divide us.

There were similar gestures throughout the three day trip. After an impromptu stop at the occupation wall erected by the Israelis to stem the flow of terrorists intent on bombing Jews in pizza parlors and on buses, Pope Francis added an impromptu stop at a Jewish memorial to the victims of terrorism. Again, the message was obvious: There are many walls that divide and they all need to come down if peace is to be realized and security is to be achieved.

Perhaps the most poignant gesture came at Yad Vashem. Here, the pope was reminded that there is a moral authority to Jewish alarm. Here, he recalled that there are evils worse than occupation zones and walls and, yes, even worse than war. When he was introduced to six victims of the Shoah, he bent down and kissed their hands. We are accustomed to the negative of that image, of people great and small bending over to kiss the pope’s ring. Here, he reversed the image and the significance: It was they, the victims of the worst atrocity in history, who merited the veneration of a kiss. It was not an embrace, like he and the Ecumenical Patriarch shared the night before at the prayer service. That embrace was an embrace among brothers, of equals. At Yad Vashem, there is no such equivalence and it is the survivors, only the survivors, who merit veneration and Pope Francis seemed to grasp this and demonstrate it to the world.

The biggest “news” from the trip was the evidently spontaneous decision to invite the presidents of Israeli and the Palestinian territories to the Vatican for a day of prayer. As I wrote before the trip, the problems in the Holy Land are political, not religious, but perhaps the solution, or at least the start of a solution, must be religious. Diplomats have failed but diplomats come with an agenda, their goal is to advance, by peaceful means, the interests of their government, to compromise on whatever they think inessential but to stand tough on whatever is essential, to secure at the table what they might have to secure on the battlefield if the discussions fail. And so, when the Israelis and Palestinians begin their negotiations, they bring their lists of grievances, their many and divergent objectives, and they end up talking past each other. Perhaps, brought to the Vatican, Presidents Abbas and Peres will be able to talk with each other in a way that the diplomats cannot. Perhaps, they will be able to recognize that the key to solving their problems is not to begin by rehearsing grievances but by sharing hopes. Maybe, they just need to learn again how to sit down with one another as fellow human brings. Who knows what will come of the meeting, apparently planned for June. But, it is a measure of this pontiff’s moral and spiritual authority that his invitation, delivered spontaneously, was accepted by both governments within the hour.

In this morning’s Washington Post, the reporters penned this sentence which caught my eye: “The pontiff has said his visit would be ‘strictly religious,’ but it was not.” Of course, we can draw distinctions between the religious and the secular, and those distinctions can be useful at times, but they are, to the believer, artificial divisions, created by men and women, not by divine law. Modernity built on the dualism of Gelasius and Thomas to understand the religious and political realms as distinct and best separated one from another. But, the distinction does not really grasp what transpired in Bethlehem and Jerusalem the past three days. That embrace of his Jewish and Muslim friends at the foot of the Western Wall, his prayer at the occupation barrier in Bethlehem, his silence at Yad Vashem, these were religious acts with potentially political consequences. They pointed to a different and better reality than the one the politicians have been able to devise.

This distinction was brought home to me watching the arrival ceremony at  Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. It was hot outside, yet the pope, President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu stood in the blazing sun as the military band played the anthem of the Holy See (which needs to be changed!) and the hauntingly beautiful Israeli anthem, Hatikvah. Then, the military attaché led the pope and president on an inspection of the military honor guard. The pope looked somewhat uncomfortable, and not only because of the blazing sun: The guards at the Vatican carry halberds, not rifles. But, the anthems and the military honor guard, the flags and the protocol, these are the trappings of sovereignty. I hope his rabbi friend explained that while sovereignty has been something of a curse for the papacy, especially from the Congress of Vienna until the Lateran Treaty, sovereignty has a different meaning for Jews. For them it is an accomplishment of the highest order and means that, at least here, Jews need not be at the mercy of a hostile majority and that here, in Zion, they can defend themselves.

Perhaps, however, it is time for the issues of sovereignty, and borders, and the right to return, and all that to recede. Perhaps, it is time for the Israelis and Palestinians to take a step back, and learn again what it means to be a neighbor, the challenges but also the possibilities. Perhaps, a day of prayer together at the Vatican will prod both sides in ways a U.S. Secretary of State cannot prod them. Perhaps, both sides will ask what impediments to peace they discern in themselves and their political allies back home, instead of simply casting aspersions at the other. Perhaps. But, in his most challenging foray into the murky world where religion and politics inevitably collide, Pope Francis showed did not put a foot wrong. 

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