JERUSALEM: 29 May 2014 — Pope Francis indicated the reason and purpose of his visit to the Holy land from the outset. It was to show that he was close to the peoples of the region and he wanted to give a renewed impulse to Christian unity, inter-religious dialogue and the quest for peace. He had asked everyone to support him in prayer before, during – and most importantly too, now afterwards. – The three days of the visit were so filled with events and had drawn such wide appeal that it would really be difficult to sum it up adequately, including for someone who was involved non-stop at the press office. So here one can only expect a tentative appraisal.
1) Unity amongst Christian Churches: “Ut unum sint”. Pope Francis wanted to remind Religious and clergy in particular (who came together in the Basilica at Gethsemane) and Catholic Bishops (who concelebrated with him in the Upper Room) that we need to grow in our basic attitude: fraternal love amongst ourselves and towards members of our sister Churches. The culminating moments and most significant gestures here were: the common declaration signed at the Apostolic delegation where 50 years back an embrace took place between Athenagoras and Paul VI. Those present this time around witnessed a very warm atmosphere of profound friendship between Francis and Bartholomew to the point where the encounter went for an hour longer than planned. It was a followed by prayer together in the Holy Sepulchre/Anastasis (‘the Resurrection’ Basilica for Easter Christians) Basilica, and involved Armenian, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopian Eastern Churches and Lutherans and Anglicans. Since 1054 that place had never witnessed the Our Father prayed by these groups in common – on this occasion firstly by Bartholomew and Francis in Italian, then in each of the languages together of those present. In their addresses, the two highest representatives of Catholicism and Orthodoxy solemnly repeated their commitment to do everything possible to overcome the obstacles which still prevent us being together around the Eucharistic table. Most significant of all was the moment when Francis, taking up John Paul II’s words, asked everyone to “look for the best ways together for the Bishop of Rome to exercise his ministry.”
2) Inter-religious dialogue between Jews and Muslims. This dimension had been emphasised by King Abdullah of Jordan and the Pope when they recalled the joint initiatives at a world and bilateral level (such as “the annual week of interreligious harmony” promoted by the UN). Powerful moments here were the Pope’s visit to the Dome of the Rock, followed by his meeting with the Grand Mufti and then, respectively, the visit to the two Great Rabbis of Israel in Solomon’s Palace where the Vatican and Israeli delegations have been continuing their bilateral dialogue at a religious level. Joking, Pope Francis observed that this dialogue had already reach it’s ‘bar mitzvah’ age and hoped that it would now come fully of age. The symbolic dimension of the entire trip in which Pope Francis was accompanied by a Rabbi and an Imam, his old Argentinian friends, was clear. The most stunning icon here was the photo of the three of them in a warm embrace before the Wailing Wall, indicating that Jerusalem can and must be the place of encounter for these three great religions, not a place of division.
3) Progress to a just and lasting peace. The urgent need to establish a just and lasting peace in the region (with explicit reference to Syria) and in the Holy Land was repeated many times, in the latter case, following the setting up of “two States for the Jewish and Palestinian Peoples” (the formula used also by Shimon Perez). Here Pope Francis encouraged political leaders to dare more, be more courageous and creative and at the same time abstain from unilateral actions which could negatively affect mutual trust and create new obstacles. He also clearly denounced terrorism. violence and the arms trade; at this point he raised his voice and spoke strongly, first before Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the church on the Jordan then in his homily at Mass in Bethlehem. Significant actions on his part were his two unscheduled stops, one at the ‘wall’ separating Bethlehem from Israel and the other at the wall erected to victims of terrorism on Mount Herzel. On both occasions the Pope appeared very thoughtful, disturbed even; his feelings were those of compassion for all victims, and a prayer that walls of this kind should no longer exist in a reconciled world. And finally, the most important fact that Pope Francis stressed throughout was that the small Christian minority is an integral part by right of the civil, national and religious fabric of the three nations: Jordan, Palestine, Israel. Well aware of the problems they must tackle, the Pope encouraged Christians to strengthen their active involvement in inter-religious dialogue and in building a better future.
4) The power of prayer when backed by faith and open to hope. Pope Francis entire visit to the Holy land was clothed in an atmosphere of prayer which he sought and himself helped to create. There was prayer before he set out, it marked each stage, and it was his final recommendation before boarding his flight home. But here was the great surprise for everyone – that this prayer is to continue, involving Presidents Perez and Abbas who accepted the invitation to pray together “at home with me”. This is a world first! There was a precedent when Pope Francis succeeded in bringing hundreds of thousands of people of good will together (in St Peter’s Square and beyond) to pray that there would be no military assault on Syria, which at the time seemed inevitable. Pope Francis is certainly moved by the “certainty of faith”: where mere human efforts are inadequate, prayer to God our common Father can open new avenues and bring down walls, especially in hearts and therefore also in ecumenical and diplomatic rapport. It is the challenge that lies before us all if we want this journey to be more than just another news item, but an event capable of making history.