Monday wrapped up the end of an arduous, three day trip to the Holy Land for Pope Francis, only the fourth such trip by a pope since the inception of the Catholic church some 2,000 years ago.
Before embarking on his historic journey, Pope Francis and the Vatican insisted that the purpose of the journey was strictly religious, with the main goal being the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew of the Orthodox Church, a meeting marking the 50th anniversary of the first meeting between a Catholic pope and Orthodox patriarch since the Great Schism in 1054 CE. Pope Francis even hearkened back to the 1964 meeting and Pope Paul VI’s reputation as the “pilgrim Pope” in his latest tweet:
Dear friends, please pray for me during my pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) May 24, 2014
While creating better ties between the Catholic and Orthodox churches was perhaps the stated purpose of the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land, the Argentinian-born leader of the Catholic Church was able to accomplish much more.
The Pope’s visit could have started on rocky ground as he decided to fly directly into Bethlehem, a Palestinian city, instead of heading to Israel first. Pope Francis only complicated matters further by referring to the “state of Palestine”, giving credence to the UN upgrade of Palestine to non-member observer state status in 2012, and by also making an impromptu stop at the separation wall constructed by Israel along the West Bank, taking a moment to pray for an end to the violence which has surrounded the Holy Land for the past two centuries.
While the first half of the Pope’s ventures were concentrated on paying homage to the plight of the Palestinian state, Francis spent the second half of his visit attending to the Israeli aspect of the equation.
The day started with Pope Francis visiting the third holiest place in the Islamic world, the Dome of the Rock. From there, the Pope continued his visit of religious intersectionality by praying at the Western Wall, the holiest place for Jews to gather and pray. Holding to Jewish tradition of placing a note in the crack of the wall, Pope Francis left behind a Spanish version of the “Our Father” prayer.
Francis’s next stop, while not the most religiously significant, was perhaps the most politically important gesture of his three-day trip. When Theodor Herzl went to Pope Pius X in 1904 to ask for assistance in the creation of the Israeli state, he was adamantly denied, with Pius even insisting that the remaining Jews convert to Christianity.
110 years ago, Pope Pius X rejected Zionism and suggested to Herzl that the Jews convert to Christianity. http://t.co/HSNL0DxGWQ
— Jeffrey Goldberg (@JeffreyGoldberg) May 26, 2014
To atone for such a political insult with long-lasting implications, Pope Francis spent much time at the Mount Herzl cemetery, becoming the first Pope to lay a wreath on Theodor Herzl’s grave. Pope Francis would also lay a wreath, composed of yellow and white flowers, in the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. While at the memorial, Pope Francis had a message for the world concerning the events of the Holocaust: “Never again, Lord, never again! Here we are, Lord, shamed by what man — created in your own image and likeness — was capable of doing.”
And if the political implications of Pope Francis’s trip were not evident enough, he also invited both the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to the Vatican for all three gentlemen to pray for peace. Both presidents eagerly accepted the invitation.
In a time with ever-rising tensions and declining Christian and Catholic populations, the Pope’s visit could not have been more important. Perhaps Pope Francis’s calming nature and egalitarian principles will be the first to appeal to an area which has been plagued by power grabs for centuries.
Image via YouTube