The Impact of Pope Francis
During Pope Francis' short tenure as leader of the Catholic Church, he has demonstrated an keen understanding of the transformative power of spontaneous or unexpected gestures to impact opinion and bring hope to those who have felt the sting of rejection.
On his first Holy Thursday Mass, for example, Francis washed and kissed the feet of prisoners, one of whom was a Muslim woman. Although this gesture shocked Catholic traditionalists, it was widely seen as a profound demonstration of humility and solidarity. A few months later, Francis made his first trip out of Rome traveling to Lampedusa, the island refuge for Africans seeking entry into Europe. It was his way of confronting the continent's growing anti-immigrant sentiment.
In addition to these planned gestures, there have been the more frequent unexpected papal acts that have made "Francis-watching" a rewarding exercise. Both the scripted and unscripted Pope Francis were on display during his three day visit to the Holy Land, and, as always, his impact was real.
From the outset, the Vatican insisted that the Pope's purpose was primarily religious, befitting his role as the leader of the world's largest Christian church. Emphasis was given to his efforts to promote ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. They pointed to his scheduled meetings with Greek Patriarch Bartholomew - marking the 50th anniversary of their predecessors' historic meeting in Jerusalem. Also noted was the fact that accompanying the Pope on his journey were two Argentine friends, a Rabbi and an Imam, and that, while in Jerusalem, Francis would meet with the Grand Mufti and Israel's Chief Rabbis.
But there were clear indications, even from the schedule, that there was going to be more to this papal visit. There was, for example, the pointed reference to his coming to "The State of Palestine". And if that message were not clear enough, the Pope's delegation made the journey from Amman to Bethlehem direct, via helicopter - without first going through Israel.
In the lead up to the visit, there were growing concerns of disruptive violence emanating from ultra-nationalist Israelis upset with the papal visit and the permission given allowing Francis to celebrate Mass at a site Christians hold to be the scene of the Jesus' Last Supper. There had been had been a spike in these anti-Arab, and specifically anti-Christian, actions in the weeks before the Pope's arrival. Following a statement from the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem rebuking the lax response of Israeli authorities to this threat, a concern echoed by the Vatican, the Israelis finally acted to detain several instigators.
While the visit's schedule and itinerary made it clear that Francis would be traveling in Bethlehem in open air vehicle and would have direct contact with Palestinians, it was made equally clear that while in Israel, all aspects of the trip were to be controlled by the authorities. In a pre-trip briefing, the Vatican spokesperson used rather undiplomatic language to describe this state of affairs, noting that “the State of Israel has imposed conditions 'sine qua non' and has asked to introduce new diplomatic aspects and protocols” and “It is regretful that in Jerusalem the Christian faithful will not be able to see the Pope because when and where the Pope goes is decided by restrictions set forth by security forces.”
As powerful as were these messages sent by the planned aspects of the trip, the Pope's spontaneous acts were even more powerful. Francis' unplanned stop for a moment of prayer at the Wall that cuts Bethlehem off from Jerusalem is a case in point. The photo of the Pope resting his head against the Wall at a place where clearly written were the words "Free Palestine" and "Bethlehem looks like the Warsaw Ghetto" was on the front pages of newspapers world-wide. Then there was the unscheduled stop at Dheisheh refugee camp and the compassion he demonstrated during his conversations with families who had lost homes and land in the continuing conflict with Israel.
While in Israel, the Pope continued to surprise observers with gestures of compassion and hope. He pointedly referred to the Muslim community who gathered during his visit with the Grand Mufti as "my dear brothers". After denouncing the evils of terrorism and the Holocaust, he greeted a small group of assembled Holocaust survivors by holding and kissing the hand of each. And, in a message directed at all of the religious communities of the Holy Land, Francis prayed that " this blessed land may be one which has no place for those who, by exploiting and absolutizing the value of their own tradition, prove intolerant and violent toward those of others".After the image of Francis resting his head in prayer against the Wall, probably the most reported of the Pope's unscripted moves was his invitation to the Presidents of Palestine and Israel to meet with him in Rome next month. While Francis has said that he is merely inviting the leaders to join him at his home in prayer, with Francis at the helm, one must always expect the unexpected.
In the end, aside from the Pope's gestures for peace and his ability to speak with conviction and compassion there is another area where this visit has had an impact. His commanding presence has given Palestine's Arab Christian community hope and strengthens their resolve to remain rooted to their land and to affirm their role as part of a unified Palestinian people. That may or may not have been on the papal agenda, but it may well be this papal visit's most significant contribution.