Nothing illustrates the power of personal relationships to overcome divisions better than the image of Pope Francis, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Islamic leader Omar Abboud embracing in front of the Western Wall on Monday. The three friends from Argentina looked overjoyed as they achieved their long-held dream of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem together. “We did it!” Rabbi Skorka said as photographers frantically clicked away. That extraordinary moment – which will stand forever as an image of Jewish, Christian and Muslim harmony – was the fruit of a friendship cultivated patiently for decades in Buenos Aires.
Francis’s three-day trip to the Holy Land showed more clearly than ever that his remarkable persuasiveness is rooted in a gift for friendship. When he invited the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli president Shimon Peres to pray with him in Rome he avoided the stuffy, impersonal language of international diplomacy, asking them simply to visit “my home in the Vatican”. That down-to-earth touch was also on display during his appearances with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. At their first public meeting Francis greeted Bartholomew I by kissing his hand and they supported each other as they negotiated the worn stones of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The purpose of the Pope’s visit – inevitably somewhat obscured by regional politics – was to mark the 50th anniversary of another historic embrace, between Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras on the Mount of Olives in 1964. That encounter led to the lifting of the mutual excommunications of 1054, which had formalised the division between the Eastern and Western Church after a millennium of unity. In a common declaration Francis and Bartholomew noted the steps towards unity that had followed in the half century after the meeting of Paul and Athenagoras. They rightly said that dialogue “does not seek a theological lowest common denominator on which to reach a compromise, but is rather about deepening one’s grasp of the whole truth that Christ has given to his Church”. They also looked forward to the day “in which we will finally partake together in the Eucharistic banquet”. Speaking in the Holy Sepulchre, Francis once again called for a frank discussion of primacy, saying he needed help to find “a means of exercising the specific ministry of the Bishop of Rome which, in fidelity to his mission, can be open to a new situation and can be, in the present context, a service of love and communion acknowledged by all”. We must hope that all Orthodox leaders – especially the Patriarch of Moscow – will take up his invitation.
Francis had insisted that his three-day visit was “strictly religious”. But the religious is political in the Holy Land, and so it was no surprise that the Pope quickly became entwined in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is difficult to know how spontaneously Francis took the decision to pray at the separation barrier dividing the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank from Israel. Some suggested the Pope wanted to associate himself with the specific political graffiti sprayed on that stretch of concrete: “Apartheid wall”, “Free Palestine” and “Bethlehem look like Warsaw Ghetto”. But it is more likely that he was drawn by the the word “Pope” in the message “Pope: we need someone to talk about justice”. What did his gesture mean? Probably that he prayed that one day there would be no need for the barrier. Clearly he was not endorsing anti-Israeli sentiment. As he said at Mass in Bethlehem, all “are obliged to make ourselves instruments and artisans of peace, especially by our prayers”.
That was the message he also brought to Israel. When Paul VI visited the country in 1964 he had strenuously avoided using the very word “Israel”. By contrast, last weekend Francis became the first pope to lay a wreath at the tomb of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl. A Vatican spokesman said the act showed the Pope’s “recognition of the sacrifices of Israelis in building their nation”. That is what Francis also conveyed when he poignantly kissed the hands of six Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem.
The Pope’s visit undoubtedly generated anger in some quarters. But the risks he took were well worth taking. By the end of the visit he had raised new hopes of ending two of the worlds most intractable disputes: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Church. That’s not bad for 55 hours’ work. In the Holy Land we saw what the BBC correspondent David Willey aptly described as “a dynamic new personal diplomacy”. We hope that this is just the beginning of his disarming, effective presence in world affairs.