Pope Francis has done very well in his first year in office.
His laid-back style has played well both in the pews and on the front pages, bringing Catholics back to church and winning over a media that has seemed far more inclined to portray the Vatican in a negative light.
And now, after countless invitations and endless speculation, Francis is heading for one of the arenas that holds the most potential peril, and opportunity, for a pope — the Holy Land.
Any papal visit to Israel risks sending an unintended message via a poorly worded statement or even an improvised gesture. Pope Paul VI’s historic 1964 visit was remembered here for his telegram of gratitude sent to Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem — taken by many Israelis, and presumably intended, as a diplomatic slap in the face. Benedict XVI was criticized for his 2009 speech at Yad Vashem in which he did not specifically apologize for the Church’s conduct during the Holocaust.
Visiting Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel, Francis has a dizzying array of interests and expectations to balance on a three-day trip in which every word, every gesture will be examined. In this difficult environment, a visit must be planned meticulously to ensure that no party feels slighted and the intended message gets across as meant.
But even with a brief, low-key trip, in a land where some of his goals seem mutually exclusive, Francis risks stepping on the very message he intends to convey.
There are three competing “claimants” to the focus of this trip, explained Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s director of interreligious affairs: the Orthodox ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew, Francis’s close friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and President Shimon Peres, whose retirement is impending. That is, the trip is being presented simultaneously as an intra-Christian affair, an opportunity to advance Catholic-Jewish relations, and a political encounter.
In all three arenas, Francis faces significant challenges.
‘That they may be one’
The view of the visit as a celebration of intra-Christian reconciliation is, officially, the correct one.
The trip marks the fiftieth anniversary of Paul VI’s visit to Israel, during which he met with the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, the “first among equals” of the Orthodox patriarchs. The meeting was a major step in healing the rift between the two churches, estranged and mutually excommunicated for nine centuries over a variety of cultural, political, and theological issues.
“It will be a purely religious trip,” Francis told pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday.
Indeed, the motto of the pontiff’s trip is Ut Unum Sint, meaning “so that they may be one,” and the official logo is an embrace between St. Peter, representing Catholicism, and St. Andrew, representing Orthodoxy.
Over the course of his two days in Israel, Francis will meet with current Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew four times in Jerusalem, for private talks, prayer, and a joint dinner.
“By commemorating it [Paul VI's meeting with Athenagoras],” George Weigel, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and biographer of John Paul II, told The Times of Israel, “the pope is underscoring his support for closing the breach between Rome and Constantinople — a process made much more complex by the aggressive actions of Russian Orthodoxy in recent years.”
The Russian Orthodox hierarchy has been at odds with Catholics since the fall of the Soviet Union, when the reinvigorated Russian church began a propaganda campaign against the Vatican, and passed laws targeting Russian Catholics. Catholic priests were kicked out of the country, and dialogue between the two communities ground to a halt.
The current crisis in Ukraine hasn’t helped matters. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church — in communion with Rome — has sided with the Ukrainian government in Kiev, while the Russian Orthodox church is considered close to the Putin regime and to separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Still, Francis has seen some success moving reconciliation forward, with Bartholomew attending his inauguration, the first time the leader of Orthodox Christians has done so since the 1054 split.
Striking a difficult balance
Though the visit is a Christian religious affair, Francis has other goals, some difficult to balance with the others.
“The pope also wants to demonstrate his love and esteem for Israel and its people,” Murray Watson, co-founder of the Center for Jewish-Catholic-Muslim learning at Ontario’s Western University, noted to The Times of Israel, “his solidarity with the Palestinian people and their aspirations, and his desire to support efforts toward a just and lasting peace between both peoples, which have encountered some rough spots in recent weeks and months.”
“The pope wants, most of all, to be a messenger of love and hope for all the peoples of this region, and to do whatever he can to strengthen the local Christian communities.”
But how many of these worthy, but complex, goals will Francis be able to advance in just 72 hours? And is his program even built for these ideas to be properly expressed?
His itinerary will make it tough to win over Israelis. Francis is rushing through Jewish sites — the Western Wall, Mount Herzl, and Yad Vashem — in little more than an hour, and from his schedule, it appears he will have almost no opportunity to improvise and interact with regular Israelis, one of his most important strengths.
In addition, it will be a major feat if Francis is able to satisfy both Israelis and Palestinians.
The official Vatican program says that Francis will be visiting “the state of Palestine,” which has led some to speculate that the Vatican may recognize a Palestinian state. Palestinian officials have publicly expressed their expectation that Francis will demand an end to Israeli occupation; it will take a very carefully worded spiritual message to satisfy Palestinian anticipations while not turning off Israelis.
Meeting with children who have grown up in refugee camps, while sure to demonstrate compassion for the suffering of Palestinians, also presents an opportunity for an slip-up. But insufficiently sympathetic statements will be taken as a slight by Palestinians.
On the stalled peace process, the pope’s role is quite limited. He can encourage efforts already in place, but is clearly in no position to bring about peace on his own.
But, says Watson, he is likely still looking to convey a message.
“He can encourage grassroots individuals and groups — especially in the Christian communities, but not only Christians — to continue their efforts toward greater respect, justice and cooperation, and he can speak — as someone who is respected as a friend of both ‘sides’ — a message that can challenge both groups.”
‘In the program at the moment, there is nothing’ dedicated to advancing peace between Israelis and Palestinians, noted Rabbi Rosen
Even that message won’t be simple to convey. Francis will have to communicate “without yielding to the temptation of a polarized discourse that might seek to ‘recruit’ the Pope as an ‘ally’ of their particular point-of-view, and against ‘the other,'” said Watson.
Francis might have missed an important opportunity to make a statement about Israeli-Palestinian peace with his choice of official travel companions, fellow Argentinians Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Sheikh Omar Abboud. While the inclusion of his colleagues sends “an extremely strong and explicit signal” about interfaith dialogue, in the words of chief Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi, the fact that he is not bringing together any Jewish and Muslim clergy who actually live here could send a different message.
“In the program at the moment, there is nothing” dedicated to advancing peace between Israelis and Palestinians, noted Rabbi Rosen. “So he brings an Argentinian rabbi and an Argentinian imam, that’s very nice, but no event where he’s bringing together an imam or a rabbi here.”
His schedule is not conducive to the goal of supporting local Christian communities either. Most of Israel’s Christians live in the Galilee, especially in Nazareth, Haifa, and Shfaram, but Francis will not reach the area at all.
This is all the more perplexing given that the plight of local Christians is of prime concern for the Church. The Vatican’s local spokesman for the visit, Father David Neuhaus, told The Times of Israel that “we would like the theme to be increased awareness of the Christian presence in the land, an essential part of what this land is about.”
“Great concern arises from the condition of life faced by Christians who in many parts of the Middle East suffer gravely as a consequence of the current tensions and conflicts underway,” said Francis in November 2013.
“We must not resign ourselves to thinking of a Middle East without Christians, who for 2,000 years have confessed the name of Jesus, and have been fully integrated as citizens into the social, cultural and religious life of the nations to which they belong.”
The Christian population in the Holy Land, once 10 percent, has dwindled down to less than 3 percent, and vandalism by Jewish extremists has sparked growing concern by the Vatican over the seriousness of law enforcement efforts to stop the attacks.
“The problem about any claim that he’s coming for the Christians is not only why is his visit so short, but why isn’t he going to the Galilee at all, where 80% of the Christians live. Therefore it’s rather disingenuous to say you’re coming for the Christians and ignore the vast majority of them,” said Rosen.
A question of legal personality
For more than four decades after Israel’s founding, the Vatican refused to officially recognize the Jewish state. Finally, after years of hints and small gestures, the two sides sat down in 1991 to negotiate what would become the Framework Agreement.
The talks covered three areas — the relationship between the Vatican and the State of Israel, Catholic-Jewish relations, and the status, or “legal personality,” of Church property and interests within Israel.
The negotiations, which wrapped up in 1993, succeeded in forging an agreement on the first two issues. Talks over the third have still not culminated in a comprehensive settlement.
Though Francis will not involve himself directly in the ongoing talks, the pope’s visit has the potential to provide added impetus to conclude a final agreement.
Here, too, obstacles have arisen.
The Church seeks a recognition of a special status, giving it certain tax and property privileges, and the recognition of canon law within the Israeli legal structure, but Israel is wary of establishing a sweeping precedent for one particular group.
Instead, Israel has insisted on negotiating every item and property, despite the fact that the Vatican signed the Framework Agreement with Israel with the understanding that legal personality issue would be agreed upon and ratified quickly.
“It’s never been brought to the government,” explained Rosen. “Never been ratified. As far as Israeli law is concerned, it doesn’t exist.”
Though the Vatican has submitted to Israel on the itemized negotiations, it has insisted on increased usage rights on property that was historically under its control.
One of those sites is the Cenacle, the site of the Last Supper on Mount Zion.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews have been spreading the idea that Israel is considering giving control of the Cenacle to the Church, not just granting increased prayer access. The issue has struck a nerve, and rallies opposing the idea have drawn thousands of religious Jews to the site.
Both sides reject the idea that it is considering giving up control of the site.
“We are not asking for sovereignty over Mount Zion or the Tomb of David,” said Neuhaus, who also serves as the leader of Israel’s Hebrew Catholic community. “We are asking for something very small. In view of the enormous importance of the site, we are asking for access.”
“There is no truth whatsoever to these rumors” about ceding control, said Akiva Tor, head of the Jewish Affairs and World Religions Bureau at the Foreign Ministry.
“The room of the Last Supper will remain under Israeli ownership and possession and will be operated by Israel in any future agreement. And the negotiations with the Vatican on exactly what will be the standing of the Cenacle is part of our negotiation with them…The negotiations on the economic agreement deals with many practical issues such as taxation and municipal taxes and other items related to Church property in Israel. Among the many issues discussed there has also been discussion about appropriate arrangements for Christian prayer in the Cenaculum.”
A source who asked not to be named told The Times of Israel that Israel has “basically agreed to give them usage,” but because of the recent campaign by ultra-Orthodox Jews to prevent increased Catholic control on Mount Zion, Israel has decided to wait until things quiet down after the pope’s visit.
“We’re toward the end of negotiations, but signing is not imminent,” said Tor.
Despite the competing expectations of the pope from involved parties, and the omissions built into the schedule of his short trip, Francis still can accomplish much in his time here.
He has already chalked up one achievement before even showing up. Francis’s impending arrival has brought media attention — and subsequent political action — to the recent rise in “price tag,” or hate crime, attacks against Christian sites and property.
“They are paying attention now because of the visit of the pope,” said Rosen. “That now is leading to certain actions being taken by law enforcement… both monitoring with cameras, more police presence, and especially with regards to Mount Zion, reining in some more extremist elements.”
Watson believes the trip will be thought of as a success if Francis “is able to speak a message of respect, love and support for Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis alike, without any of those groups trying to exploit his words or actions for partisan political purposes, which could undermine his goals in coming here.”
He also expressed the hope that the pope’s visit to the Western Wall, his remembrance at Yad Vashem, and his meeting with Netanyahu, Peres, and the chief rabbis will serve as “visual parables” guiding Catholics in how they should think about Judaism.
Others believe that the key, at least to Jews and Israelis, to viewing the trip as a success is the wording of Francis’s statement at Yad Vashem.
“If there’s one word that Israelis really want to hear, it’s sorry,” Rosen explained. “And if at Yad Vashem he can say that the burden of Christian guilt or the role that the Christians played in paving the way or even collaborating in this most heinous of tragedies committed to Jews, should weigh heavily on the shoulders of every true Christian, that would gain him automatically his success card from Israeli society.”
Perhaps the most important fact to remember about Francis, however, is that one should expect the unexpected.
“He’s a man of surprises,” said Weigel, “so if something happens ‘off-schedule,’ I wouldn’t be completely surprised.”
AP and JTA contributed to this report.