The pope’s visit confounded many, and maybe that was the point

The pope’s visit confounded many, and maybe that was the point

Is Francis, whose message of peace was overshadowed by political passions and who is about to host Peres and Abbas in the Vatican, a naif or an inspired visionary?

Lazar Berman is a former breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Pope Francis prays against the security barrier at Bethlehem, May 25, 2014 (photo credit: Nour Shamaly/Flash90)
Pope Francis prays against the security barrier at Bethlehem, May 25, 2014 (photo credit: Nour Shamaly/Flash90)

The dust has settled, and verdicts are in — some are pleased with Pope Francis’s visit to the Holy Land last week, but more are upset.

And many are simply perplexed.

This was to be expected, to some extent; after all, Francis is known for defying convention with his informal, warm style. But even as the Catholic faithful and other observers grow used to the unexpected with their new pope, almost every aspect of the 3-day visit left Israelis, Palestinians, and Catholics around the world scratching their heads.

There were certainly highlights for all parties. Jordanians saw Francis driven personally by King Abdullah to the Jordan River, where he met with disabled children and Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Palestinians, including some from Gaza, enjoyed the opportunity to celebrate mass with him in Manger Square.

Israelis witnessed a Roman Catholic pope laying a memorial wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, something unimaginable more than a century ago after Herzl’s frosty encounter with Pope Pius X. The warmth with which the pope greeted Shimon Peres and his emotional meeting with Holocaust survivors also moved Israeli hearts. The friendship is to be renewed next week, when Francis hosts Peres and the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for a joint prayer encounter at the Vatican.

But there is too much of the trip that seems not to make sense.

There were question marks even before he arrived, as the itinerary itself made Francis’s goals for the trip difficult to attain. This was his first non-World Youth Day trip abroad, and it is no secret that the Jewish people and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are both close to Francis’s heart. Why, then, was his trip so short, when his predecessors stayed for significantly longer, many wondered? Benedict XVI’s 2009 visit lasted 8 days, whereas John Paul II spent 5 days in Israel in 2000.

Francis aimed to call attention to, and show support for, local Christians, but he did not reach the Galilee at all, home to the preponderance of Israel’s Christian population.

He wanted to do his part to help Palestinians and Israelis progress toward a breakthrough in the quest for peace, but brought no Palestinian or Israeli clergy together. “So he brings an Argentinian rabbi and an Argentinian imam, that’s very nice, but there’s no event where he’s bringing together an imam or rabbi here,” noted Rabbi David Rosen, American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious affairs.

Francis hoped to help Jews and Catholics take the next step in their ongoing dialogue and reconciliation, but scheduled only a whirlwind tour of Jewish sites in Jerusalem, and gave himself no opportunity to interact with — and possibly win over — regular Israelis.

During the trip itself, it seems he managed to upset both Israelis and Palestinians — not the hardest thing to do, but hardly the goal of a pope coming with a message of love and peace.

“His proclamations fell far too short of what Palestinians needed to force Israel to live up to its peace obligations and embrace two states,” wrote Ray Hanania in the Arab Daily News. “The latest papal visit has destroyed a great deal of the good work of Vatican II and those who labored in the fields of building bridges,” wrote Frank Diamant in Algemeiner. “Each papal visit to the Holy Land is filled with symbolic gestures and each move is calculated and orchestrated, and this visit was meant to embarrass and berate the Jewish state.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres with Pope Francis at a monument in honor of victims killed in terror acts, at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on May 26, 2014. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres with Pope Francis at a monument in honor of victims killed in terror acts, at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on May 26, 2014. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Israelis, though increasingly excited and interested in the trip as it grew closer, were suspicious from the outset. Francis would be the first pope to fly directly into Palestinian-controlled areas, and his itinerary mentioned the State of Palestine repeatedly.

And when Francis actually arrived in Bethlehem, he stunned Israelis by making an impromptu stop at the security barrier separating the city from Jerusalem. His hand on the concrete barrier, Francis bowed his head and prayed… next to fresh graffiti comparing the barrier to the Warsaw Ghetto.

Though the gesture was celebrated by Palestinians, the image touched a nerve among Israelis, and among many Jews around the world. Here was a man who speaks and writes forcefully against the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust — who would shortly condemn the murder of three people at the Jewish museum in Brussels — engaged in what looked like an act of protest against the very wall that has prevented the deaths of likely hundreds more Jews? And next to that graffiti equating Israelis with Nazis, a recurring and particularly nasty canard sounded by those who see no legitimacy in the Jewish state.

The Church has done admirable and effective work building bridges with Diaspora Jewish communities, but it continues to be wholly inept at reaching Israelis. The stop at the wall shows how little it even understands their worldview. For Israelis (and let’s not forget, it was the Israeli public that demanded the wall while politicians stalled), the security wall allowed them to get onto buses again, to let their children go into town, to stop wondering if every day would be their last.

The unnecessary exchange with Netanyahu over the language spoken by Jesus — though it is a fascinating historical question — didn’t help matters either. It gave plenty of ammunition to those who think that the Church still believes at its core that it has replaced historical Israel, and those who simply want to portray the Church in a bad light. While in the West Bank they were claiming that Jesus was actually a Palestinian, here was the pope seemingly (but not actually) minimizing the Jewish connection to the land by insisting Jesus spoke Aramaic, a language spoken across the Middle East, and not Hebrew, the specifically Jewish language tied to that land. After going along with the wishes of both sides throughout the  trip — stopping at the security wall, visiting the terror victims’ memorial — why make a stand on this, of all issues?

Pope Francis celebrates an open-air mass in the Manger Square, next to the Nativity Church, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 25, 2014 (photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90)
Pope Francis celebrates an open-air mass in the Manger Square, next to the Nativity Church, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 25, 2014 (photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90)

And perhaps most perplexing — why did Francis, on a visit that was supposed to focus on intra-Christian reconciliation and pilgrimage, allow himself to become a “commodity” used by both sides to push their own narratives? “It sometimes seemed to me that, to Israelis and Palestinians, Pope Francis was less a person — and less a spiritual leader — than a rare marketing opportunity,” lamented Murray Watson, cofounder of the Center for Jewish-Catholic-Muslim learning at Ontario’s Western University, “to be carefully manipulated and exploited for maximum effect — to attain the best, most memorable and most useful photo ops.

“One sometimes had the impression that the pope’s main value in coming was to be a source of useful sound bites and images, to be a tool of the propaganda machinery that suggested that, if the pope had kind words for ‘the Other,’ then he couldn’t really care about Us,” Watson add–ed.

But didn’t Francis put himself in that position by including purely political sites in his itinerary in the first place? Not to mention adding in last-minute stops at the security wall and terror victims’ memorial, places that will inevitably be interpreted as political victories.

So what message was Francis trying to convey? Were the aspects of the trip that confounded — and in many cases upset — observers simply blunders, or were they part of a carefully crafted message by a uniquely insightful leader, designed to defy expectations and conventions?

Those who interpret the trip as evidence that Francis, for all his gifts, can be naïve in his messaging wouldn’t be the first to make that claim. The pope has enjoyed an extremely warm relationship with the media, enjoying positive coverage from a press corps that has been more prone in recent years to focus on scandals at the Vatican. But his statements that have played so well in newspapers have fallen flat at times in his own flock. In September 2013, Francis insinuated that Catholics’ focus on abortion, gay marriage, and other social teachings was locking the Church up in “small-minded rules.” The press loved it, and even began to wonder if he would alter the Church’s position on these issues (he won’t).

But what about the Catholic woman in Boston who has been in the trenches for the last 30 years, advocating for the Church’s positions on the sanctity of human life or the importance of the procreative covenant between a man and a woman? How would she react to hearing that her dedication to her church’s magisterium was “small-minded”?

Francis, for all his ability to generate positive coverage, might sometimes lose sight of the way his message will play in key constituencies, be it Catholic laity or the Israeli public.

Or perhaps the pope was instead trying to convey a message that will resound above the petty political needs of Israelis and Palestinians. He may intend to return to Israel for a longer visit in the future, having now only begun the long, slow work necessary to encourage the sides to make peace.

Rejecting the idea that one must be either for or against one side, Francis came to recognize the suffering and legitimate aspirations of both sides. He was aware of the political hoops he would be asked to jump through — and as a famously humble man did not argue with his hosts (with the exception of the Aramaic exchange) — but to him, issues of political gain and power are of lesser importance.

“Power is the very thing Pope Francis really isn’t interested in — or at least the kind of worldly power that politicians so often focus their attention on,” explained Watson. “But there is another kind of power — the power of love and inclusion, the power of peace and justice, the power of generosity, hope and prayer — which Pope Francis radiates, and which has made him such a beacon of hope for so many around the world, even beyond the boundaries of Christianity. That was the power Pope Francis came to demonstrate, and for those attuned to it, his visit was a magnificent success, and a historic example that many Jews and Christians (and many Israelis and Palestinians) will gratefully reflect on for a long time to come.”

The question is how much of that message got across — when many chose to focus on the political implications of his trip. This is, after all, the Middle East, and nuances matter. Sometimes, they mean the difference between life and death.

What is certain is that the pontiff left many feeling that he was too indulgent of the other side’s narrative, and too kind to those who did not deserve it.

“But for those who know the message of Pope Francis’s lord and master,” said Watson, “that probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, because similar criticisms were made of him 2,000 years ago.”

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