The three-day pilgrimage of Pope Francis to the Middle East was replete with symbolism. On the way to Bethlehem in the West Bank the papal entourage made an unscheduled stop beside the security barrier that separates Israel and the Palestine territories. Built in 2002, the eight-meter-high concrete wall has long been denounced by the Palestinians as an instrument of Israeli oppression, and has remained a prickly issue during talks to resolve ancient enmities in the Holy Land.
The 77-year-old Pope walked to the wall, pressed his head against it, and made a silent prayer. No words were needed to convey the pontiff’s thoughts. The gesture said it all.
The papal act was widely interpreted as a tacit approval of the aspirations of the Palestinian people for statehood. A political adviser to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas praised it as “an eloquent and clear message to the whole world, particularly to Israel, that we cannot reach peace while Israel continues to build racist separation walls between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples.”
The Pope’s impromptu appearance at the security barrier may have dismayed Israeli authorities, but he more than made up for it when he arrived in Jerusalem on the final day of his trip. He made another unscheduled stop, this time at a memorial for Israeli civilians killed in deadly militant attacks. The unspoken message was clear: The Pope will not stand for acts of terrorism, and grieves for all its victims.
Later in the day, the pontiff laid a wreath on the grave of the founder of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl. It was an act that reflects the efforts of the Catholic Church to remove the generations of distrust and animosity between Christians and Jews.
In many ways, Francis was taking the path of Saint John Paul II, who was the first pope to officially apologize for the centuries of discrimination and persecution of the Jewish people by the Catholic Church.
Also in Jerusalem, Pope Francis sought to heal the long rift between the Catholic and the Orthodox churches by holding a joint service at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I.
Towards the end of his trip, the pontiff invited Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Abbas to the Vatican to join him in a “heartfelt prayer” for peace.
“Building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment,” he reminded them.
But it may not have been an invitation at all. It was more like a veiled admonition to the two leaders for not doing enough to stop what Francis described as an “increasingly unacceptable” conflict that has bloodied their peoples.
The pope’s pilgrimage to the Middle East was billed primarily as a mission to build bridges of reconciliation with other faiths. Francis has accomplished that mission and transcended it by expressing strong convictions on volatile issues that have made peace so elusive in the region.
“He’s unlike other popes in terms of his humanity, and I hope he can bring real change on the ground,” said one resident of Bethlehem of Pope Francis. “Through faith, you can move mountains.”
We wholeheartedly share the sentiment.