Having had the good fortune of being able to watch the close-ups of almost every moment of Francis’ visit to Israel while acting as AJC (American Jewish Committee) guest commentator at the TV studios of the Italian Bishops Conference in Rome, I was touched by this Pope’s genuine humanity. His warm, informal, intimate and spontaneous but also well thought out comments and gestures completed a process of transformation of the papal image that first began over a half-century ago with John XXIII, known as “the good pope”.
Despite the extreme briefness of his trip (which pessimists had predicted would make it meaningless), Francis managed to balance out the conflicting expectations of both Palestinians and Israelis by acts of highly symbolic significance.
He won approval from the Palestinians via an out of program stop to pray leaning on the wall dividing the Palestinian territories from Israel, while its anti-Israel graffiti were caught by the cameras* (*subsequently discovered to have been written by an Al Fatah militant just a few moments before the Pope’s arrival). He mentioned “the State of Palestine” and prayed in Manger Square while in the background paintings propagandizing the Palestinian cause were seen, configuring baby Jesus swathed in a kefia, or a dove wearing a bulletproof vest, among others. But at the Temple Mount, according to Muslim media, Pope Francis emphasized to the Grand Mufti the necessity of disavowing violence and working together with Israelis for peace. “May no one abuse the name of God through violence” he said.
Then, during the next six hours he compensated for his mention of the “Palestinian State” by stating that the two State solution would have to be achieved through negotiations and with a highly significant move, visited Mount Herzl placing flowers on the tomb of the founder of Zionism (the first pope to have done this! ) implicitly recognizing the legitimacy of the “Judenstadt”. In fact, one might say, with this gesture he recognized that “the Jewish State” is not a definition invented by the present Israeli government!
He also stopped to pray at the monument for Israeli victims of terrorism.
At Yad Vashem, in another spontaneous and unprecedented overturning of traditional protocol, he kissed the hands of each of the six Holocaust survivors. In his usual unhurried fashion, he took as much time as was needed for eye to eye, person to person communication.
His poignant and poetic meditation on the Shoah, “Where are you, Adam?” with references to Genesis and the Psalms, was written and spoken with deep feeling.
The “Pater Noster” prayer slipped by him into the Kotel wall (following John Paul II’s example), contained nothing that could not have been said by a Jew. And displaying the same religious respect and sensitivity as his illustrious predecessor, he did not name Jesus Christ nor “the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost” at the end of the prayer, as normally done.
Jorge Bergoglio is a man who does not censure his own genuine flow of feelings. Unashamedly, he distributed bear hugs, including a portentous three-faiths embrace of two old friends from Buenos Aires whom he had chosen to accompany him, a Jew and a Muslim, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Sheikh Omar Aboud. President Shimon Peres received a warm embrace accompanied by the words, “You are a good and wise man”.
His disarming warmth and frankness qualify his description as a pastoral genius of communication who has chosen to do away with centuries of pomp and ceremony that characterized past papacies, replacing it with the humility, the directness and simplicity of a parish priest — a human being relating to other human beings on an individual and equal level. His 2-room apartment in the Vatican is no larger than 70 square meters, a silent but flagrant testimony against the 300 square meter Vatican apartment being renovated for Vatican’s retired former Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone.
Further revelations of Pope Francis’ character and indications of what the years to come may bring can be read in the transcript of his impromptu replies to questions asked by international correspondents traveling with him on his return flight to Rome, and published by the Vatican’s official newspaper, “L’Osservatore Romano”.
“The most authentic gestures are those one does not expect to come about, no?” None of his, he said, were planned ahead of time, except for the invitation to the two Presidents to pray together which he had thought to organize “there”, but because of the complicated logistic, territorial problems “in the end this invitation [to meet and pray in his home at the Vatican] came about, which I hope will turn out well.”
“It will be a meeting for prayer, not for meditation or for seeking solutions, no. We will meet only to pray. And then each returns to his home. But I believe prayer is important, praying together without discussions of other kinds, this helps. Perhaps I did not explain well before, how this will be. It will be a meeting of prayer: there will be a rabbi, an Islamic [officiating clergyman] and myself. I have asked the Custodian of the Holy Land to organize the practical aspects.”
Referring to the future of Jerusalem, he said the Vatican’s “religious position is that it will be the City of peace for the three religions…” while “the concrete measures for peace must result from negotiations. There must be negotiations. I will agree to whatever is decided by negotiations: it [Jerusalem] will be the capitol of one state, of the other…. I do not say ‘it must be so and so’, no, these are hypothesis that they [Israelis and Palestinians] must negotiate. I truly don’t feel competent to say ‘this or that must be done’, because it would be madness on my part. But I do believe the negotiations must be approached with honesty, brotherhood, mutual trust. And there, everything must be negotiated: the entire territory, also the relations. For this, courage is needed and I pray deeply to the Lord that these two Leaders, these two governments, will have the courage to move ahead. This is the only road towards peace…”
Regarding Pius XII’s ongoing Cause for Sainthood, Francis cut short by stating “still no miracle has been found, and if there is no miracle we cannot proceed. At least one miracle is necessary for beatification. This is the way things stand today with Pius XII’s Cause, and I cannot think about ‘Shall I beatify him or not?’ because the process is slow.”
Significantly, Francis neglected to mention that an exception was made just last month when John XXIII was deemed qualified for sainthood even without a miracle.
Further questions related to the Catholic Church’s profile and the most urgent issues of the day received other straightforward replies.
Clergy guilty of pedophilia: “Zero tolerance…there can be no ‘daddy’s children’ [i.e. privileged]. At present three bishops are being investigated …such an ugly crime…We know this is a problem everywhere but I focus on the Church. A priest must lead a child to holiness; this child, this boy, this girl trusts him and instead he abuses them. And this is very serious. It is comparable … only as an example … to a black mass. You are supposed to lead [the child] to holiness and instead you lead him to a problem that will last throughout his lifetime.” Pope Francis announced a forthcoming mass and reunion with abused persons together with Cardinal O’Malley and a special commission.
The Vatican’s financial scandals: “The Lord Jesus once said to his disciples…’Scandals are inevitable’… We are human, all of us sinners…We must take care to reform the Church every day, because we are sinners, we are weak and there will be problems.” However, two special commissions have reported back and “the Economics Secretariat directed by Cardinal Pell will see to the reforms advised by these commissions.”
Europe’s economic distress: Francis focused on the unemployment crisis for young people, leading to “a lost generation” (“50% in Spain alone” he said), the downward birthrate trend, the expendability of the elderly…”This economic system is inhuman” said Francis, referring to his Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium”.
Marriage for priests and communion for the divorced: The Pope pointed out that within the Catholic Church there were already married priests of the Greek Catholic, Coptic and Eastern rites. “Celibacy is not a dogma of faith” he said, “therefore the door remains open…” He added that for the moment this has not been discussed because “there are more important things to tend to…” Regarding divorce, “…divorced people are not ex-communicated, and often they are treated as such. This is serious.” He explained that the forthcoming Synod on the Family will discuss the many issues related to the family, which is in crisis. “Case by case must be studied” he said, mentioning that Benedict XVI paved the way for these reflections.
Reform of the Roman Curia: Some departments will need to be unified in order to lighten the entire structure, and others, such as the Economics Commission and the Secretariat of State should work together “because things are connected”.
Papal resignations: “I will do what the Lord tells me to do — pray, seek the will of God. But I believe that Benedict XVI is not a unique case. He “opened a door, the door of Pope Emeritus. Will there be others or not? God only knows. But this door is open. I think that a Bishop of Rome, a Pope who feels that his energy is waning – because nowadays we live so long – must ask himself the same questions as Pope Benedict did.”
Ecumenism: The meeting with Bartholomew the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople on the 50th anniversary of the previous encounter of Pope Paul VI with Athenagoras in Jerusalem, was the main object of Francis’ trip. Aimed at healing a 1000 year rift of the two branches of Christianity Francis said “Bartholomew and I speak to each other like brothers. We great affection for one another…one topic we talked about at length was Ecology. He and I are very concerned – we discussed undertaking a joint project in this area…We also talked about the date of Easter, because this is a bit ridiculous – tell me, when was the resurrection of your Christ? – Next week? – Mine arose last week…. Yes, the date of Easter is a sign of unity… Perhaps the next pan-Orthodox Council can do something about this…:”
Today’s Christian martyrs: “I believe I am not wrong in saying that today there are more Christian martyrs than in the early years of the Church….In some places one cannot wear a crucifix or have a Bible … the Bishops and the Holy See work discretely to help these countries, the Christians in these countries. But it is not easy. For example, let me tell you something. In one country praying together is forbidden. But Christians there want to celebrate the Eucharist. And there is a worker who is a priest. And he goes there, to the table, making believe he is drinking tea, and they celebrate the Eucharist. If policemen come they immediately hide the books and appear to be drinking tea. This happens today. It is not easy.”
A small “happening” on the plane denotes Francis’ characteristic good humor and informality. Noting an Israeli (David Cohen Cymerman of Channel 2) sitting next to a Palestinian (Imad Freij of the Catholic Center for Media Studies) the Pope turned to the former and said with a smile, “Take good care of him during this trip!”
For the Catholic Church, for those of us engaged in interreligious dialogue and especially in Christian-Jewish relations — as well as for the world at large today, plagued with wars, with resurging anti-Semitism, racism and political radicalism, with corruption and economic distress, lacking charismatic leaders – Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis, appears providential as just the right man in the right place at the right moment.
*AJC Representative in Italy and Liaison to the Holy See