The strange, lukewarm visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land is now a couple days past. The rhetoric and imagery produced by the visit have been assessed and reassessed from every imaginable perspective, and something close to a consensus has developed: the pope didn’t make any mistakes.
It is hard to convey, perhaps, the scale of this achievement, but it must be attempted because it reveals much about the conflict, and about the pope.
The Holy See has no hard power. The pope can’t tax or arrest the estimated 1.2 billion adherents of the Catholic Church. His only influence over them is voluntary, driven by powerful images and narratives of redemption and belonging. In an important sense, then, the pope is a symbol, a stand-in for a higher reality, and all his statements and actions are consciously undertaken as part of his symbolic role.
So when the Palestinian Authority brought the pope to a concrete-walled portion of Israel’s West Bank security fence, the pope was hardly confused by the intentions of his hosts. They wanted to create a symbol, and he, a master of symbolism, gave it to them willingly.
(To those who insist, as former PLO legal adviser Diana Buttu did in a recent debate with this reporter on Huffington Post Live, that the trip to the wall was unplanned but simply happened to be on the path of his itinerary in the Bethlehem area, the graphics of this Palestinian Authority flyer reveal that the PA’s itinerary had no purpose other than to create that image.)
The pope’s visit, together with the repeated mention of the “State of Palestine” in Vatican press releases and in the pontiff’s own speeches, quickly set Twitter atwitter with the predictable cheering and hand-wringing. Yet while the Palestinians claimed the pope for their own, one Palestinian official noted to the press that the visit to the wall was engineered because the pope’s Israeli itinerary included, for the first time, an explicit Vatican recognition of the justice of Zionism, in the form of the first papal visit to the tomb of Zionism’s founder Theodor Herzl — something no previous pope, and no Palestinian leader, had done before.
And in the wake of the visit to the wall, the pope was invited by Israel to the national memorial for terror victims — with Israeli leaders noting that over 1,000 Israelis were killed in Palestinian suicide bombings by the time the government decided to build fences and walls between Israelis and Palestinians.
This time, too, the pope acquiesced, even delivering live on Israeli national TV news a brief but strident rejection of terrorism.
By the time he left the region on Tuesday, Pope Francis had gone out of his way to accept both sides’ narrative. Unlike previous popes or more junior Vatican officials, Francis did not hedge or equivocate for a moment. He signaled without hesitation his belief that the Palestinians are traumatized by occupation and deserving of long-denied national freedom, and simultaneously that the Jews of Israel are victims of indiscriminate violence who also deserve to live as a free people in their land.
Miserando atque eligendo
Tens of thousands of articles, if not more, have been written about the new ideology that Pope Francis has brought to the papacy. While he has not compromised on any aspect of dogma or ethics — he is as intransigent on contraception, homosexuality and abortion as his two famously conservative predecessors — he has brought a new “style” and a new rhetoric to the post.
Last July, Francis gave a remarkable interview to journalists aboard his flight back to Rome from Brazil.
In it, he distinguished between the alleged homosexual “lobby” in the Vatican — activists trying to push for a change in doctrine on the issue — and the homosexual individual. “When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The [homosexual] tendency is not the problem…they’re our brothers.”
He has railed against the dehumanizing mechanisms of the troubled global financial system, called for a new, expansive “theology of women” to replace the current debate in the Church on the roles women can hold, and brought new standards and expectations of austerity and humble living to the gilded pomp of the sprawling palace that is the Vatican, himself moving out of the papal residence to a more humble guesthouse.
He has even suggested that atheists are the brethren of believers, and as redeemed by Jesus Christ as the most ardent Catholics.
These statements and actions have sparked intense debate in Catholicism. Conservative Catholics have agonized over questions such as: Are atheists only potentially “redeemed,” as are all people, by Christ’s sacrifice, or did the pope suggest they are actually “saved” despite denying Christ?
Non-Catholics have also started talking. The American pro-gay magazine The Advocate named Francis their “Man of the Year” on the grounds that his acceptance of gays as human beings is the most important thing to happen to gays last year. “Pope Francis is leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics all over the world,” the magazine noted. “There are three times as many Catholics in the world than there are citizens in the United States. Like it or not, what he says makes a difference.”
Thus the man who vociferously opposed the introduction of gay marriage in his native Argentina became a hero of the gay community in the United States simply for stating that gays must be treated as human beings.
There is a unifying thread in all these statements, an ideology and a strategy of evangelism and renewal for the church which Francis has made the centerpiece of his papacy. It is summed up in the official motto of his papacy, which he has carried over from his post as archbishop of Buenos Aires: “Miserando atque eligendo,” a Latin quote from the seventh-century English monk Bede that means, roughly, “By having mercy, choosing.”
The quote is part of a homily by Bede on the Gospel of Matthew which describes how Jesus called on Matthew, a sinful, hated tax collector, to be an apostle. It was through his mercy, or, interchangeably, his compassion and humility, that Jesus could call upon such a sinner to become “chosen,” a follower and emissary of God. Indeed, as Jesus himself notes in the relevant passage in Matthew 9, the apostle was chosen precisely because he was a sinner. “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick,” Jesus explains of his ministry in that passage.
That, in short, is Francis’s message, both to the world at large and to the immensely wealthy, globe-spanning church he now oversees. Indeed, it constitutes to a great extent his identity as a pastor. Francis’s own spiritual transformation, he has said many times, took place when his 17-year-old self first felt the overwhelming call to faith and ministry. The year was 1953. The day: September 21, the feast day of St. Matthew.
The church’s mission of redeeming humanity, of evangelizing and elevating, cannot be conducted through political partisanship or theological bickering, Francis has said. It must evangelize as Jesus did, by seeing past the discord and sinfulness with which people interact with the world to the suffering and brokenness at the core of the human experience.
For Francis, the essence of the church’s current crisis in the secularizing West, and in facing conflict and opposition in the Muslim world and elsewhere, is its abandonment of this original Christian impulse. As he put it, “the church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently… We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
In response to the Palestinians’ and Israelis’ efforts to get him to legitimize and magnify their narratives, his response was simple: He refused nothing. He recognized every symbol, stood at every wall and memorial, recognized both Palestinian suffering and Israeli victims of Palestinian violence, Zionism and the State of Palestine. In doing so, he wasn’t being a “pawn.” He was simply but emphatically refusing to play the Israeli-Palestinian game
Humility, Francis has taught, is the necessary precondition for growing the church’s ranks. Humility, especially in the face of conflict, is the only way for the church to offer guidance to those who suffer war or deprivation. And only through humility, Francis believes, will the battered Catholic Church once again become a moral beacon in global affairs.
So atheists are also redeemed by Jesus Christ — not because the pope has abandoned the demand for faith as a precondition for salvation, but because it is only by speaking to the hungering inner human core of the atheist that the church can speak to him at all. The homosexual, “if they accept the Lord and have goodwill,” cannot be judged badly, even by the pope — since their sinfulness is merely the distraction that stands between their innermost humanity and the church’s promise of salvation.
The lion’s den
It may be strange to say that the Pope – Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of St. Peter, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Servant of the Servants of God, among other titles – seems uncomfortable with excessive ceremony. But that was the distinct impression of many who observed the pontiff up close at his meetings in Jerusalem this week.
The highlight of Pope Francis’s visit, from Israel’s perspective, was the meeting between the spiritual leader of over a billion Catholics and the titular head of the world’s only Jewish state, President Shimon Peres.
Yet Francis did not seem to share the Israelis’ enthusiasm for the symbolic event. Wearing a bland, tired expression, the 77-year-old pontiff walked slowly – slower than the nonagenarian Peres, it often seemed – down the red carpets and hallways of the President’s Residence. Whereas Peres spoke movingly about the undying nature of dreams, Francis delivered a bureaucratic memo of a speech that seemed to focus primarily on the status of religious sites.
Yet his palpable lack of enthusiasm for the ceremonial demands of the visit was all the more noticeable because it was set against a handful of moments of glowing enthusiasm. When, in the grassy courtyard behind the residence, 120 Jewish, Christian and Muslim children, dressed in flowing white, sang a multilingual medley around the refrain of “Hallelujah,” a smile finally came to His Holiness’s lips. Every contact with the children – a handshake, a moment of on-stage choreography that saw a few of the children circle the pontiff – elicited a warm smile.
He paused for a long, touching moment to speak to sick Christian children who were brought to meet him. It seemed for a brief minute that he finally understood what he was there to do.
The Catholic Church is a dictatorship, and the pope its supreme ruler. His personality, like that of any monarch, is thus central to the public life of the institution he rules. At the President’s Residence, one could see with stark clarity the extent to which the ideology underlying his papacy is a product of his own personality.
And this ideology explains, too, why he handled himself the way he did when treading through the Israeli-Palestinian minefield that has entrapped and frustrated so many other global leaders.
In response to the Palestinians’ and Israelis’ efforts to get him to legitimize and magnify their narratives, his response was simple: He refused nothing. He recognized every symbol, stood at every wall and memorial, recognized both Palestinian suffering and Israeli victims of Palestinian violence, Zionism and the State of Palestine.
In doing so, he wasn’t being a “pawn,” as many on both sides accused, and at times mocked. He was simply but emphatically refusing to play the Israeli-Palestinian game. And, like Matthew in the New Testament narrative, this humility saved him. Both sides are convinced that he saw and acknowledged their narrative, and have written off as unimportant the pope’s public acknowledgements of the other side’s narrative as well.
Pope Francis is not as foolish as Israelis and Palestinians believe. He did not invite Abbas and Peres to the headquarters of the church to negotiate — but to pray
Before leaving the country, the pope extended an unplanned invitation to President Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to join him in the Vatican for a prayer for peace. The invitation, which the two leaders immediately accepted, was soon the subject of much head-scratching.
Abbas and Peres have met hundreds of times. Abbas is forming a government with Hamas, which continues to openly advocate terrorism against Israeli civilians, while Peres holds a symbolic post from which he is in any case retiring in July.
The pope “doesn’t know Peres doesn’t make political decisions at all,” PLO official Hanan Ashrawi explained in comments echoed by officials close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who were embarrassed by the pope’s favoring of Peres over the prime minister who holds the actual power to broker peace.
But perhaps Pope Francis is not as foolish as Israelis and Palestinians believe. He did not invite Abbas and Peres to the headquarters of the church to negotiate — but to pray. Having walked through the lion’s den of their mutual distrust, he was reaping the reward for the Catholic Church: making the Vatican the site where Jewish and Muslim leaders, locked in a generations-long conflict and sunk knee-deep in mutual recrimination, come to ask God for peace.