Known as the pope of the people and a seeker of peace, Pope Francis touched the hearts of both Palestinians and Israelis in his three-day visit to the Holy Land, which included personal interactions with Palestinian, Syrian and Iraqi refugees and disabled children in Jordan, refugee children and Palestinian families in Bethlehem and Holocaust survivors in Israel.
The expressed purpose of the pope’s visit was religious in nature. His meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew commemorated the historic visit 50 years ago of Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras. But Pope Francis’ trip was full of symbolic gestures, such as stopping for a moment of silent prayer at a section of the separation wall dividing Bethlehem and Jerusalem on his way to the only papal Mass held in Israel/Palestine. Through a similar prayer at a stop at a memorial to terror victims in Israel at the request of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the pontiff indicated in his way that he was well aware of the struggles both peoples are facing.
The meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew was meant to support unity among the local Christians. Franciscan Custos Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the head of the Franciscans in the Holy Land, noted the significance of the meeting of the two religious leaders in shared prayer at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, something that had not been possible 50 years ago. Then, the meeting took place on the Mount of Olives and not at the heart of Christian Jerusalem.
Pope Francis also lived up to his reputation of spontaneity with his unprecedented invitation to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to come to the Vatican for a joint prayer meeting. Though purely symbolic in nature — especially since the Israeli presidency serves only as a figure head — the pope’s venture into the stagnated political arena is very strong. According to media reports, the meeting is scheduled to take place in early June before Peres finishes his term as president in July.
The third pope to visit the region in the recent past — in 2000, Pope St. John Paul II was the first to come to the Holy Land since Pope Paul VI, followed by a pilgrimage of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2009 — Pope Francis’ warm reputation preceded him, and he was greeted with wide approval.
In Jordan and Bethlehem, where the pope held open Masses for local Christians, he was met with joy and enthusiasm and rode through Bethlehem in his open popemobile. This was in stark contrast to Jerusalem, where local Christians protested the fact that, due to the stringent security measures imposed by Israeli security, which essentially sterilely cleared areas where the pope and his dark SUV passed with his convoy, they were prevented from greeting Pope Francis as he drove through empty streets.
Israeli police were on high alert for the duration of the visit, with some 9,000 officers posted throughout the city following anti-Christian vandalism and provocation just days before the pope’s visit, mostly surrounding the issue of the Cenacle on Mount Zion, where the pope was scheduled to celebrate Mass with the Ordinaries of the Holy Land on May 26. They also put several Jewish extremists under house arrest for the duration of the pope’s visit. Police helicopters flew over the city throughout the day.
In the days before the pope’s visit, Jewish extremists had begun making claims that the Vatican wanted sovereignty over the Upper Room, which is on top of the Jewish and Muslim holy site believed to be King David’s Tomb.
Space was limited at the papal Mass in Bethlehem, which was festooned with Palestinian and Vatican flags for the pope’s arrival, but the spirit was great and cheers rose from the crowd as the pope’s helicopter flew overhead on its way from Jordan to the helipad in Bethlehem on May 25.
The faithful again cheered when it was announced that the pope had stepped onto Palestinian soil. In another symbolic gesture, the pope had chosen to enter into Bethlehem directly from Jordan, in a move some felt was an assertion of his recognition of Palestinian sovereignty.
Local Christians spoke of the pope’s humility and closeness to the people and said his presence strengthened them. Like many others who came to the Bethlehem Mass, Samer Odeh, 45, of Ramallah, said he did not mind having to wake up early and wait for several hours at Nativity Square for the 11 a.m. Mass. He traveled for 1 1/2 hours with his wife and two daughters. Others came from the Galilee in northern Israel for the Mass, and some were a bit disappointed that Pope Francis had not conceded to celebrate Mass in Nazareth as his two predecessors had done.
“It is wonderful that he is here,” Odeh said. “We are few Christians, and it gives me strength to see him and to hear his call for peace. We hope he can do something for us.”
While some Jewish Israelis grumbled at the adjustments made for the pope’s visit to Jerusalem, such as the disruption of morning prayers at the Western Wall, most understood the importance of such a visit despite the inconveniences and traffic jams.
Waiting for the light rail train after the traffic had opened up again near the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Guy Abramovsky, 24, said that as a Jew, he viewed the pope’s visit as important for Israel.
“It shows that he has some connection and is trying to strengthen those connections to Judaism. It is important that everyone have their own beliefs but that we understand each other,” he said. “So we have traffic jams for a day, but we can deal with it.”
In accordance with recent Israeli protocol for visiting heads of state, the pope laid a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, earning him more accolades from Israelis.
Calls for peace
The pope traveled to the Holy Land with Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim leader Omar Abboud, longtime friends from his native Argentina. After the pope visited the Western Wall, placing, in the Jewish custom, a note in the wall — reportedly with the Lord’s Prayer written in his native Spanish — the three men embraced.
Throughout his remarks to Israelis and Palestinians, and to the religious and political leaders, the pope continued to call on them not to abuse God through violence and to work toward peace. At Dehiyshe Refugee Camp, he told refugee children not to let the past determine their future and to continue to strive for what they wanted.
“Violence is not defeated by violence,” he told them. “Violence is defeated by peace.”
At Yad Vashem on May 26 in a prayerful call, Pope Francis reflected emotionally on the depths to which man had fallen during the Holocaust, and as he greeted six Holocaust survivors at the remembrance ceremony, he kissed their hands. Survivors said his words and actions were “the right thing to do” and had “comforted” their hearts.
“The Father knew the risk of freedom; he knew that his children could be lost ... yet perhaps not even the Father could imagine so great a fall, so profound an abyss! Here, before the boundless tragedy of the Holocaust, that cry — ‘Where are you?’ — echoes like a faint voice in an unfathomable abyss,” the pope said. “Here we are, Lord, shamed by what man, created in your own image and likeness, was capable of doing. Remember us in your mercy.”
Palestinian families who met with Pope Francis on May 25 for a private lunch to speak about specific difficulties facing Palestinians remarked on his simplicity.
“He is a pope who knows how to listen. He is incredibly humble,” said Elias Abumohor, whose lands near Bethlehem face the risk of being confiscated by the Israelis.
Dedicating his final hours in the Holy Land to the local religious, the pope met with them at the Church of All Nations at the foot of the Mount of Olives and at the Cenacle on Mount Zion, and emphasized the importance of their presence in the Holy Land, urging them to remain steadfast in their faith. In his last gesture of peace, he planted an olive tree sapling cut from one of the eight ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, following in the footsteps of Pope Paul VI.
And then he was gone, leaving in the same humble way he had arrived, with little fanfare, taking the plane from Tel Aviv back to the Vatican. According to reports, the pope had been very involved in the planning of the details of his visit, so he clearly knew the significance of even of these small gestures — assuring even with his arrival and departure that he recognized both Palestinian and Israeli right to self-determination, peace and security.
Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.