BETHLEHEM — Pope Francis, despite being a 77-year-old man missing part of one lung, has already shown that he has a remarkable reservoir of energy. If more proof were required that this pope has no off switch, however, day two of his three-day swing through the Middle East certainly delivered it.
On a single Sunday, Francis delivered four blockbuster moments, any one of which would probably have been enough to label the day historic.
The pontiff began with a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, after which he celebrated an open-air Mass in Bethlehem, believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
Along the way, he decided to hop out of his car to walk up to the massive barrier that separates Israel from the West Bank, standing for several moments of what a Vatican spokesperson later described as silent prayer, and finished by physically placing his forehead against the wall and then making the sign of the cross.
Images of the moment, which was not part of the pope’s planned schedule, quickly made the rounds of the world. For Palestinians, who see the barrier as a symbol of what they regard as Israeli oppression, it was hailed as a gesture of solidarity with their cause.
Some Jews saw it that way, too. The chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo di Segni, testily told Italian television that he will listen to Francis offer criticism of Israel’s barrier when the Vatican tears down the massive stone walls that surround its own physical territory.
On the other hand, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the official Vatican spokesman, gave the moment a loftier interpretation. He said it was the pope’s way of expressing “participation in the suffering” of the peoples of the region, and illustrating his hope for “harmony, union, and peace in this land.”
In a way, that’s the beauty of gestures, in that they are open to multiple interpretations. In any event, the impromptu flourish grabbed attention and stirred conversation, providing an iconic visual that will resonate long after Francis is back in Rome.
As it turns out, that was only a prelude to the day’s real news flash.
In a surprise announcement at the conclusion of his Mass in Bethlehem, the pope said he was inviting both President Shimon Peres of Israel and Abbas to the Vatican to take part in a common prayer for peace, saying that “the men and women of these lands, and of the entire world, all of them, ask us to bring before God their fervent hopes for peace.”
Lombardi called it a “creative and courageous” gesture on the part of Francis, adding that the hope is to organize the encounter quickly. Though Lombardi did not say so out loud, the rush is in part because Peres’s term ends July 27.
Both leaders quickly accepted the invitation, which comes one month after the latest attempt at restating peace negotiations broke down. Though the official motive for the meeting would be the prayer, it might also be an occasion for the two leaders to talk informally about substantive matters.
Francis then visited a camp for refugees and warned Palestinian youth that “violence is never defeated with violence.”
Afterward he departed for Israel, arriving at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. Going there first, rather than taking the more direct route from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, was notable; Israel prefers its guests to first step foot in the country on undisputed Israeli territory.
During his brief address, which marked his introduction to the Israeli public, Francis demonstrated his sensitivity in two key ways.
First, in a passage devoted to the Holocaust, the pope’s prepared text included a reference to the fact that Christians were among its victims. Francis added that those who paid the ultimate price were “in the first place, Jews,” thereby avoiding potential criticism that he might have been trying to suggest equivalence between Jewish and Christian suffering.
Second, he inserted a last-minute reference to the atrocity on Saturday at a Jewish museum in Brussels that left four people dead, including two Israelis. Francis said he was “very saddened” by what happened, explicitly called it an “anti-Semitic attack,” and invoked God’s healing for the wounds it caused.
Undoubtedly Israelis would have found it disappointing had Francis been mute on the subject, so the pontiff demonstrated a good sense of what his audience is feeling at the time he meets them.
Francis also repeated the invitation he had first issued on Palestinian territory for Peres and Abbas to join him in Rome.
Finally, later Sunday, Pope Francis held a meeting with Orthodox leader Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, commemorating a historic encounter between a pope and a patriarch in Jerusalem 50 years ago. Francis and Bartholomew were to sign a joint declaration, committing their respective churches to partnership on a variety of fronts.
Afterward, the two men made history by holding a joint prayer service for the very first time in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is where Christians believe Jesus was buried, making it one of the holiest spots on the Christian map.
It is also one of the most disputed, with a variety of Christian churches jealously guarding their powers of guardianship. In 2008, a brawl famously broke out between Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks at the site.
In that context, the show of unity between Francis and Bartholomew, considered “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, looms as a virtually unprecedented gesture in favor of what experts call “ecumenism,” meaning the push to heal the divisions in the Christian fold.
For the record, Francis is hardly finished. On Monday he is scheduled to visit the Dome of the Rock and meet with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem; to visit the Western Wall and meet the chief rabbis of Israel; to lay a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism and a father of the State of Israel; to meet both Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel; and to encounter various local Christians.
In addition, he has also said that he will hold a second airborne press conference on the flight home to Rome late Monday night. His first such encounter with the press, on his return from a trip to Brazil in July, produced his celebrated “Who am I to judge?” line about gays.
One can dispute the merits, or the lasting significance, of any of Sunday’s milestones in papal activity. Taken together, however, they at least suggest a pope who is hardly running out of gas.
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