When Pope Francis announced he was visiting Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel in January, he emphasized that his journey to these holiest of lands was going to be one of pilgrimage. The focus was to be the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras — an important moment in the progression of relations between Roman Catholics and the Orthodox Church.
That occasion was marked as planned, and Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew signed a joint declaration while together in Jerusalem on May 25 pledging that both parties would continue to work for unity among Christians. But that moment of ecumenism was overshadowed by what could be called Pope Francis’ “pilgrimage of the walls” — the Holy Father’s stops at the sacred Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, the graffiti-covered “separation wall” dividing Bethlehem and Jerusalem and the memorial wall dedicated to victims of Israeli civilians killed mostly by Palestinian terrorist attacks.
As Pope Francis traveled from one wall to the next, he touched them with his hands, even his head, pausing for
moments of prayer and reflection.
This pilgrimage within a pilgrimage, while filled with both visually poignant and prayerful moments, also was teeming with potential pitfalls as Pope Francis walked a political tightrope between the two sides embroiled in conflict. As he traveled from one wall to the next, the pope touched them with his hands, even his head, pausing for moments of prayer and reflection. Into the Western Wall — echoing the actions of his predecessors Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI — he slipped a piece of paper with the Our Father written on it in Spanish.
With simple gestures, the pontiff showed respect for each of the three faiths struggling to coexist in this small, conflict-ridden part of the world. His peacemaking and ecumenism, too, further underscored his respect for the dignity of each person. And, as the Holy Father landed back in Rome on May 26, it seemed that he had managed to successfully negotiate the minefield.
Three keys to Pope Francis’ success? First, his decision to include old friends from his Argentine home on the trip with him: in particular Jewish Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud, a leader from Buenos Aires’ Islamic community. This decision, announced prior to the trip, immediately intensified its interfaith dimension and showed that the pope was not only speaking about efforts of peace and reconciliation, but also living those efforts. The most powerful public moment among the three was a shared embrace after praying together at the Western Wall.
Second, Pope Francis’ surprise invitation to Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to an upcoming “peace initiative” at the Vatican. While this summit likely will be considered of little consequence in the eyes of the world, Catholics, looking through the lens of faith, should view the meeting as a positive step forward.
Finally, Pope Francis’ somewhat overlooked, but significant, words of appreciation to King Abdullah II of Jordan for his role in welcoming refugees, especially from nearby Syria, and for promoting interreligious dialogue and Mideast peace efforts. “Such generosity merits the appreciation and support of the international community,” the pope said.
Pope Francis’ most significant trip to date was an opportunity to model for all of us his commitment to dialogue, community and continued assistance for the least among us.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor