In September last year, Pope Francis delivered the most impassioned petition of his papacy. Following the Angelus in St Peters Square, the Pope beseeched the faithful to fast and pray for the sake of peace in Syria as the threat of military intervention grew all too real.
His cry for peace was one that haunted the human heart; the image of Francis gesticulating in desperation remains one which always provokes an inexplicable sense of shame and humility.
As the faithful obeyed their Holy Father and spent the following Saturday in prayer and abstinence, the ominous rumble of war faded. The man in the pub or driving the taxi will always praise Francis for his humility but his commitment to peace, the highest form of humility, is too often underestimated – and yet it will be crucial in the coming days.
Speaking with an Israeli over dinner yesterday while we watched the Sea of Galilee, I asked him if the papal visit was controversial. After all, the Christian minority in the Holy Land has dwindled significantly and as we walked through Nazareth yesterday, tracing the footsteps of Jesus, the Muslim call to prayer pierced our thoughts and words.
“No, it’s not controversial,” he insisted. “It will be nice to have some good news coming out of Israel for a change.”
I could sense his frustration with the world’s perception of a place he loved so dearly and the pressure on Francis dawned on me. His task is immeasurable. After all, what can he realistically want or expect to achieve in this holy yet heartbroken land?
We can at least expect Pope Francis to lead by example. He will stand on soil drenched in conflict and pray with Patriarch Bartholomew before signing an ecumenical declaration. In addition to this he has invited an imam and a rabbi to accompany him.
Pope Francis once said that his primary task as Holy Father was to bind up the wounds of the faithful and this clearly extends to the deep wounds within the Christian family. His manifest desire to embrace his estranged Christian brothers, will be his example to the the Holy Land and the world.
It seems naïve to overestimate the power of his influence once he arrives in Jerusalem tomorrow. But whether it is a small telephone call to a disgruntled atheist, lunch with Palestinian refugees or a plea to the whole world, one day we may remember our Pope as Francis the Peacemaker.