Pope Francis praying in Bethlehem, at the wall that divides Israel and Palestine.

A Crack in the Wall

With his surprise invitation to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Francis undermined every scheme, including politics. Thus, opening the path toward a peace that is “to be built day by day like an artisan.”
Andrea Tornielli

We need to believe that, just as the stone before the tomb was cast aside, so too every obstacle to our full communion will also be removed. Every time we ask forgiveness of one another for our sins against other Christians and every time we find the courage to grant and receive such forgiveness, we experience the resurrection!”It’s the end of the day on Sunday, May25th , and Pope Francis is tired. He speaks in a low voice, but one that is full of joy. He allows himself to be led by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, his brother, just like Peter might have done with Andrew from time to time, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where both, casting their nets, were “caught” by He who would make them“fishers of men.”

What happens beneath the ancient stones of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Anastasis) in Jerusalem, where the empty tomb of Jesus of Nazareth is guarded, has no precedent: every Christian denomination in the Holy Land unites to pray in the place of the Resurrection, unfortunately also known as the place of division. Fifty years after the historic meeting between Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras their successors, in the same spirit of courage and humility, bear witness to the longing for unity of the followers of a God who became a child, who teaches his disciples to serve, who lowers himself unto death on a cross and who rises from the dead.

It is not easy to spend three days visiting the Holy Land, speaking to people of different faiths, entering directly into the heart of one of the most complicated political situations in the Middle East, and trying to do so without being exploited.More than by his words, Pope Francis succeeds–by his testimony and his gestures–in living a profoundly religious and spiritual pilgrimage. Indeed, in the very same way, he is also earth-shattering from a geopolitical point of view.

It is a three day journey in three stages–Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem–and among three religions, that the Pope, in accepting the invitation from his brother Bartholomew, decides to begin in Jordan, a country that is still a symbol of coexistence among different faiths. Here Francis was welcomed by King Abdallah II. The Pope recalls the war, the“civil strife”that has overwhelmed Syria for the past three years and the resulting humanitarian catastrophe.During an encounter with a group of refugees, at the site of the baptism of Jesus, abandoning his speech he says:“Who is selling arms to these people to make war? Behold the root of evil!Hatred and financial greed in the manufacturing and sale of arms.” I call on you to return to“negotiations,” asking God to change “the hearts of the violent... and those who seek war.” Just a bit earlier, during the mass celebrated at the Amman International Stadium, he had recalled the role of Christians as minority that carries out a “significant and valued” role in the fields of education and healthcare, and emphasized the importance of religious freedom and “...the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public.” The Pope asked Jordanian Muslims and Christians to abandon their resentments and divisions. The path of peace, the Pope reiterated, is strengthened if “we are all of the same stock and members of the one human family; if we never forget that we have the same Father in heaven.”

Sunday, May 25th is the day in Bethlehem and the embrace of the Christian communities of Palestine and Israel. Many were not able to come and meet the Pope due to the limited number of permits that were made available. Before arriving in Manger Square where the mass was to be held, Francis made his entourage stop the “pope mobile” beside the high cement dividing wall put up by the Israelis as a means of defense but which causes a lot of suffering and resentment for the PalestinianChristian andArab population by cutting families and communities in half. The Pope says nothing about it at all. Instead, he stops for a few minutes to pray in silence, first with his hand and then with his forehead resting against the wall. It was an unexpected and powerful gesture.

The homily of the mass is dedicated to the God who became a little child, to the God who was born in a precarious situation, in need of everything, in need of being welcomed, in need of protection. It is an occasion for a moving meditation on children who are to be welcomed right from the moment they are in the womb of their mother, children who are dying of hunger, children who are enslaved and exploited, and those child refugees who drown in the “death boats” in the Mediterranean Sea.

At the end of the celebration, there is a surprise announcement: Francis invites the presidents of Palestine and Israel,Abu Mazen and Shimon Peres, to come to the Vatican to pray for peace. He is not acting as a political leader with a road map in mind to awaken a stagnant peace process. He genuinely believes in the power of prayer. He knows that peace is a gift to be implored and“crafted”, day by day, in the lives of each one of us. Bergoglio would have liked for that encounter to have taken place there, in the Holy Land but it was not possible. So he calls them to Rome. The purpose of the encounter is prayer, it is not a summit.It is an initiative more akin to the international day of fasting for Syria than any sort of peace conference.

Before leaving the “State of Palestine”, Francis meets with the children from the refugee camp in Dheisheh. He listens as they speak to him about the “occupation”, wishing “to tell the world” about the sufferings of their people. He says to them: “Don’t ever allow the past to determine your lives.” And almost in a prayer, he adds: “But you must understand this: violence cannot be overcome by violence.Violence is overcome by peace!”

On Sunday afternoon Francis arrives in Israel, where he is welcomed by President Peres and Prime Minister BenjaminNetanyahu.He reiterates the condemnation of anti-Semitism and intolerance, citing the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and expressing his sympathy for the victims of the anti-Semitic attacks in Brussels.

“Never again!” The day comes to a close at the Holy Sepulchre, with a communal prayer amongChristians, where the Pope repeats his willingness to find a form for exercising the Primacy of Peter as “a service of love and of communion acknowledged by all.”

Monday, May 26 is dedicated to Israel. After the encounter with the Gran Muftì at the Esplanade of theMosques and a visit to theWailing Wall, Francis makes another gesture that was not on the schedule. He prays silently in front of the memorial stone dedicated to the victims of terrorism. Another wall where he says: “Never again!”

The most moving moment of the day, however, is the visit to Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Shoah. “Who are you, o man? What have you become? Lord...Save us from this horror,” he affirms in a low voice in front of the perennial flame that commemorates the abyss of evil that was the Holocaust, showing “shame” for man who has made himself a “god” and “sacrificed [your brothers and sisters] to yourself.” What is most striking, even more than his words, are his gestures.The Bishop of Rome, greeting some of the survivors presented to him, kissed each one’s hand. Once again, he shows himself to be a shepherd capable of bearing witness to the tenderness of a God who, out of love, gave himself up to death, showing his people the way of humility and service. Francis is a believer who trusts and who allows himself to be led and who is capable of sharing in the situations and sufferings of anyone. His gestures also made inroads in Israel. The successor of Peter came to the Holy Land only to bear witness to the Gospel. And his presence made an impact on the reality of the region in a way that no political-diplomatic strategy could have had, so much so that ChristopherJ.Hale of Time magazine wrote: “It’s hard to argue that Pope Francis is not the world’s best politician after his trip this past weekend to the Holy Land.”

The final moment on his pilgrimage, before departing, is the mass in the Upper Room: “here the Church was born, and she was born to go forth.From here she set out, with the broken bread in her hands, the wounds of Christ before her eyes, and the Spirit of love in her heart.