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Pope Francis’ visit is not primarily about us

The central theme of the Pontiff's visit to the Holy Land is the unity of the Church

As I follow the coverage in the Israeli press about Pope Francis’ visit, I am struck by the assumption that the purpose of the trip is particularly to honor Israel (laying a wreath on Herzl’s tomb) or Israelis (the audience with President Shimon Peres), or to take something away from Israel (the false rumor that the Vatican intends to take ownership of the Last Supper Room on Mount Zion).

Israelis should feel honored by the fact that this pope’s first planned trip abroad is to our country (together with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority). The Vatican has made clear, however, that the central theme of this trip is the unity of the Church, symbolized by the meeting of Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew today.

On the Vatican’s website, the trip is being promoted as “a pilgrimage of prayer on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras.” This is about the reconciliation of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, a slow but significant process after many centuries of division, exclusion and even violence. This is not primarily about us.

On the other hand, the visit of Pope Francis is significant for Israel. The pontiff will show respect for Israeli protocol by visiting Peres in the president’s residence and the chief rabbis in Heichal Shlomo. I am most struck by the fact that he will arrive in Israel at Ben Gurion airport (again, following official protocol for arrivals of heads of state to Israel), even though he will be coming from Bethlehem and then heading to Jerusalem. The 15 minute drive from Bethlehem to Jerusalem would have been much simpler than a helicopter ride to Ben Gurion airport and then another helicopter to Mount Scopus.

Doubtless all those responsible for the plans, from the Vatican and from Israel, are aware that in 1964 Pope Paul VI was the first pope to visit Israel and managed to get through the whole trip without acknowledging that he was in the State of Israel. Pope Francis (like his predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II) will actively demonstrate his respect for the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

Particularly striking is the Vatican’s decision that the pontiff will lay a wreath on the grave of Theodore Herzl: Francis will be the first pope to do so. It cannot be a coincidence that almost exactly 110 years ago, in 1904, Theodore Herzl met with the pope at that time, hoping for his support in the Zionist effort.

According to Herzl’s diary, Pope Pius X answered, “We are unable to favor this movement. We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem—but we could never sanction it. The ground of Jerusalem, if it were not always sacred, has been sanctified by the life of Jesus Christ. As the head of the Church I cannot answer you otherwise. The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people.”

The Catholic Church has come a long way in 110 years, including Nostra Aetate (1965), the revolutionary reworking of theology regarding other religions generally, and Judaism in particular, by teaching Catholics to respect Jews and Judaism, official recognition of the State of Israel (1993) and many other statements and actions in the last 50 years to promote understanding between Jews and Christians.

While symbols of respect have great importance, particularly given the history of Catholic-Jewish relations, there may be a more significant gain for Israelis in this trip. Pope Francis is talking about peace and reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. He also is traveling with his long-time friends from Argentina, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Shaykh Omar Aboud. He is actively seeking to continue learning from and about others.

All of these relationships, Catholic-Orthodox and Catholic-Jewish-Muslim, are being built upon centuries of misunderstanding and violence. The rapprochement between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches is significant but incomplete, because there are still major differences and even conflicts between the communities. Still, despite these challenges, the leaders of these communities are moving forward and showing respect for one another.

Even though this aspect of the pope’s trip is not about us, we in Israel should be inspired by what we are witnessing and follow this model of moving forward toward reconciliation and understanding. Unlike those who say we cannot sit with the other until we know that we will have an agreement, just as the pope is proceeding without necessarily knowing the outcome, we Jews need to be talking to Christians and Muslims exactly because we don’t understand each other.

Marcie Lenk is live tweeting the pope’s visit on Sunday and Monday

See more Times of Israel coverage of the papal visit.


About the Author
Dr. Marcie Lenk is a Shalom Hartman Institute research fellow, the institute's Director of Christian Leadership Programs and Co-Director of New Paths: Christians Engaging Israel. She received her Ph.D. at Harvard University and, for more than two decades, has taught Early Christianity, Hebrew Bible, and Rabbinic Literature at institutions such as Boston University and City College of NY, as well as at Jewish and Christian seminaries in Israel and the United States.