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Catholic Herald view: Francis showed power of the personal touch in Holy Land

The trip showed Francis’s remarkable persuasiveness is rooted in a gift for friendship

By on Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Pope Francis embraces Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud (AP)

Pope Francis embraces Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud (AP)

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.

  • Gemma L Rivera

    Have any of you seen those barriers? The Pope was not drawn by the graffiti but saddened by the massive, crushing presence of the wall. It was a Christian response to injustice and helplessness. I would think that the Pope felt the birthplace of Christ, the Prince of Peace, should be a haven for openness and encounter – a constant theme of his papacy. Here’s a well-written CNN piece on why the Pope prayed at the wall by Jay Parini

  • Charles

    That is all great…if he were there as UN Secretary General. Unfortunately he is there as the Vicar of Christ and his hiding of his pectoral cross so as not to offend is an utter scandal.

  • Gemma L Rivera

    This is rumor-mongering that is so petty & disrespectful. I watched the entire pilgrimage and he and his cardinals/ archbishops entourage had their pectoral crosses all the time. If you follow the Pope well enough – you would notice that he’d hold on to his crucifix when he’s feeling quite emotional.

  • Guest


    Could not have said it better myself.

    Fellowship is real friendship; reaching out in understanding of one’s brother, or spouse, or children.


  • Charles

    Well he has already refused to bless journalists in the Name of the Trinity “respecting the conscience of each one”.

    So he clearly has form.

  • Andrew Milhurst

    You see with clear eyes Gemma, and a good heart.

  • Guest

    Now that is true, and woefully misguided – as well as confused. I am not at all sure how we, his sons and daughters, can encourage him to do otherwise .. other than than pray, remind him of his singular role, and of Lord and Master in Whom he may be asked to give his life completely – more than his own fondly held (modernist-founded/ -instructed/ -guided) opinions.



  • Humbler yet

    Before one leaps to praise, read the Jerusalem Post,

    Hardly a success from an Israeli perspective.

  • Even humbler yet

    Why did the Pope choose a piece of graffiti in English, not Arabic, which pinned hopes on him, was the graffiti put there by a papal news-manager just before the Pope’s arrival?
    Seems a bit posed too posed my liking, hardly spontaneous.

  • Liturgically Abused

    Rorate Caeli reports further liturgical abuse during the sign of peace – q.v.
    If the Pope can’t properly celebrate the Mass of Paul VI, what hope has our parish priest? How long must us faithful suffer?
    Why do bishops (including now, unfortunately, the bishop of Rome) and priests think they can make things up at Mass? Does this show a structural deficiency in the Mass of Paul VI?

  • Tony Efflavium


    Popes have been doing it for decades.

    The New Mass is deficient in every sense, not just structurally. It’s totally deficient in teaching that the Mass is a propitiatory sacrifice for sin for a start.

    That, any young readers here should know, is the definition of the Mass. The modern junk about “an assembly of the faithful” is all pure protestantism.

  • Tony Efflavium

    Yes, you are right.

    Scripture tells us about hiding your lamps under bushels. The modern Church makes it obligatory.

  • Tony Efflavium

    Better if he had told both Jews and Moslems to convert to Christ, Who would then sort out their difficulties with one another rather fast.

    But conversion – preaching Christ – is not what the modern Church is about, is it? It’s all about “Man”.

  • Guest

    He is a ‘modernist., L A, it would be hard for him not to be so, as his, and my generation, were fed on the diet of ‘being modern’, of being ‘Now’, of being ‘tuned-in’ the world’s times. Thus, while the Sovereign Pontiff very properly seeks to distance himself from the likes of unbridled liberation, and points our the dangers in Liberation Theology, nonetheless, he acts as if ‘liberty’ were the same as redemption, salvation and glory .. as taught, encouraged and guided by previous (and still influential) modernisers (if not out and out Modernists).

    He has to ‘feel’ he is ‘free’ to be himself – I’m-OK/ You’re-OK California psychobabble stuff – even where he must most forget himself and serve with complete attention Another’s will.

    Such libertinism, for such it is, is extremely habit forming, aka addictive, and it is hard to break free from its imperious demands .. yes, many have to be freed from the ever itching desire to be more ‘free’ than the freedom offered by serving the Truth. Condemning those thus addicted for being enslaved ‘addicts’ to their current ‘time’ is often pointless, even while important remember; it is like condemning Alexander VI or Leo X for being renaissance princes .. erm .. well .. ah .. this is what they were (like it or not, for better or for worse).

    ‘Several good habits about one same specific thing are distinct in reference to their suitability to various natures, as stated above. But several bad habits in respect of one action are distinct in reference to their diverse repugnance to that which is in keeping with nature: thus, various vices about one and the same matter are contrary to one virtue.’ Aquinas, ST I-II 54, 3.

    Pray for him, LA; remind him of is calling, assist him (in so far as possible) in breaking from vicious habits and in form virtuous ones!


  • Guest

    Almost, but not quite. The Church of the Faithful is called to attend, participate in, and be nourished by that atoning propitiatory offering, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass .. that is a key element in the Mass. A catechumen or heretic or unbeliever, while no longer dismissed for further teaching, attends to this once-for-all Sacrifice but does not participate in it, so as with the non-communing sinner or the excommunicated he may contemplate upon and offer up a spiritual union – again a key element in the Holy Mass, whether of Ambrose, Chrysostom, Pius V or Paul VI.

    Unfortunately, the Roman Missal approved by Paul VI offers far too many evasions from and insufficient focus on that once-for-all Sacrifice in the only Name by which we may be saved – a dire calamity that cannot be said of the Roman Missal approved by St Pius V, St John XXIII, and the still awesome Benedict XVI.


  • Guest

    T E, there is no such thing as ‘the modern Church'; the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church is Jesus Christ, Himself, in Person, no other, yesterday, today and for each tomorrow.

    There have been ‘modernisers’ (like Paul) demanding ‘progress’ and archeologisers (like James) insisting on puritan ‘traditionism’ in all periods; thus the Rock set His choice of rock as the stone on which He shall build His ‘Assembly’ (Peter) through the treasure from the Holy Ghost that is our living Faith aka Sacred Tradition .. when that chosen rock wobbles in its great duty, to Sacred Tradition, the whole edifice seems to tremble – yet it cannot fall, no matter how modern or ancient its builders currently (sic) like to make it appear.



  • Miriam

    A well measured and cooled down synopsis of the trip.
    Thank you.

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

    caught up in a small hole?

    “Why do bishops (including now, unfortunately, the bishop of Rome) and priests think they can make things up at Mass?”

    General rules are for common good. But world is too wide and situations vary.

    Have a stiff neck?

    Lost in the ages past and have FIXED ideas?

    Surrounded by people who are grown too old for any change or an open outlook?

    Entry into the Lord’s kingdom is restricted to those who are child-like.

    Take it easy, please.

    We brought nothing into this world and carry with us nothing when exit except what we have done in the Spirit of true Children of God.

    LIVE and LET LIVE.

    Jesus The Lord KEPT the rule…..and BROKE the rule…when needed.


    God bless all of us.

  • Matt McLaughlin

    I can’t imagine why the pope visited herzl’s grave. Isn’t all of Palestine’s problems due to a euro-peon moving from europe to palestine?