An entourage that includes a rabbi and a Muslim leader is one of several differences that will set apart Pope Francis from his predecessors during his upcoming visit.
Almost 15 years ago, Pope Saint John Paul II’s visit to the state of Israel featured many historic firsts. He visited as a head of state because of the diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See that had been established only a few years earlier. He also took the unprecedented and iconic action of praying at the Western Wall according to Jewish custom.
He asked God’s forgiveness for the sufferings inflicted by Christians on Jews over the centuries and solemnly committed the Catholic Church “to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.” Ordinary Israelis, who had previously been rather blasé, responded with enthusiasm.
Today it has almost become routine for popes to visit Israel. When Pope Francis visits Israel at the end of this month, he will be the third successive pope to do so. So what will be new or different about this papal trip?
First, Francis is the first pope to have enjoyed genuine camaraderie with a living, vibrant Jewish community, including engaging in regular and substantial theological conversation. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he modeled what he recently wrote as pope: “Dialogue and friendship with the children of Israel are part of the life of Jesus’ disciples.” He also engaged in building positive relations with Argentinean Muslims.
As a sign of his esteem for interreligious friendships, Francis will be accompanied in Jordan and Israel and on visits with the Palestinian Authority by two colleagues from Buenos Aires, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim leader Omar Abboud. One should not underestimate the potential impact in the tension-ridden area of the novel sight of the three fellow travelers.
Second, Pope Francis has a particular concern for those suffering from poverty or the violation of human rights. He strongly believes that it is the duty of all religions to work together for the promotion of each person’s welfare. Surely, he will call upon Christians, Jews and Muslims to live up to their common responsibilities toward those who suffer injustice and deprivation in the region.
His predecessors voiced similar concerns, but Francis brings a liberationist theological perspective to the plight of the most vulnerable because of his labors in the barrios of Buenos Aires. His words referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially as peace negotiations drag on, could be significant.
Third, Francis’s trip to Jerusalem has a special meaning within the Christian world. He will embrace Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the representative of millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians, in commemoration of a similar encounter 50 years ago between their respective predecessors Paul VI and Athenagoras. That 1964 meeting was the first time since 1054 that Eastern and Western Christianity had experienced friendly relations. Watch during the upcoming trip for statements or actions from both leaders regarding intensified commitment to unity amid diversity within the sometimes fractious Christian family.
Fourth, unlike previous papal visits, it seems that Francis’ upcoming trip has provoked a certain amount of political jockeying and civil disturbance in Israeli society. This is unprecedented. So-called “price tag” vandalism of Christian property and personal assaults have reached a new crescendo, and alarmist rumors have spread concerning negotiations between the Vatican and Israel over the building that houses the venerated sites of David’s Tomb and the Upper Room of the Last Supper.
It appears that the publicity surrounding Francis’ visit has prompted some people to try to bring attention to their particular viewpoints. At a minimum, it can be expected that the pope will insist on the free exercise of religion and respect for religious diversity in all countries in the Middle East, whatever the specific religious majority might be.
Finally, since his election to the papacy, Pope Francis has demonstrated a certain spontaneity, informality and genuineness that has endeared him to people of many different backgrounds. During his trip, for instance, he has shunned the use of high-security vehicles to enable him to be as close as possible to ordinary people. It may well be that unexpected small human moments may prove to be the most memorable feature of his journey.
Philip A. Cunningham is professor of theology and director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of Saint Joseph’s University.