Much has been made of the fact that the first state visit Pope Francis is making on his own initiative (last year’s trip to Brazil was originally planned for his predecessor, Benedict XVI) is to the Holy Land. While some have been quick to ascribe the pontiff’s early arrival to his well-attested Judeophilia, others have suggested far more prosaic reasons for the timing.
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“From the moment the pope was chosen, Shimon Peres has been begging him to visit before he ends his term in July,” says one senior Israeli official involved in planning the visit. “And Peres is hard to say ‘no’ to.”
The president got his wish and the last major reception at the presidential residence in Jerusalem, a mere seven weeks before Peres is due to vacate, will be for the Bishop of Rome.
Papal visits are always important. The spiritual leader of the world’s largest established religion commands the allegiance of a great number of people, to a degree like no other mere head of state. But despite all the hype surrounding next week’s visit, it’s actual significance − and especially its effect on Jewish-Christian ties − will most likely be minimal. That’s actually a good thing. The relationship between Rome and the Jews has never been as harmonious at any period in history as it is today. Disputes over taxation and sovereignty of church property notwithstanding, there is no burning crisis or festering problem that needs Francis’ urgent intervention.
In keeping with the unassuming conduct and humble demeanor that has transformed this pope into a media superstar, he isn’t arriving with any promises to bring peace to the war-weary region, which is probably a sensible idea, seeing that religious leaders hardly have a shining record in that particular Mideast department. He’s actually doing everything to lower expectations, cutting down the length of his stay in Israel proper to just about 27 hours, the bare minimum of a state visit along with the essential meetings with ecumenical leaders and tour of the main religious sites. That’s it.
And when coupled with a whirlwind stop in Jordan and just six hours in Bethlehem with the Palestinian Authority, including a medium-sized public mass (by papal standards, 10,000 in Bethlehem’s Manger Square is trifling), you get the impression that Francis and his entourage are approaching their journey to the Holy Land like traversing a minefield − to get through as quickly as possible with minimal casualties.
Previous popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI stayed for longer, going up to the Galilee for enormous open-air masses; Benedict also tried to chair an inter-faith forum with rabbis and sheikhs, which descended into chaos when the head of the Palestinian Islamic Court used the forum to criticize Israeli policies. Francis is doing everything to make this the shortest state visit in memory.
That, of course, isn’t stopping the region’s leaders Peres, Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah, all of whom intend to exploit and milk the visit for all its worth in political and propaganda terms, but there won’t be much of that. Francis and his handlers will exercise extreme caution and do their utmost not to give any side satisfaction.
“We are on standby for anything he may say, and stuck between the Jordanian hammer and the Palestinian anvil because anything may happen when the pope is with them,” says an Israeli government media advisor. “But it will be very surprising if Francis actually says something controversial.”
So why is the pope coming if it’s such a hassle and if there really is nothing he can hope to achieve, besides disappointing or offending at least some of his hosts? The simple answer is that he must. Besides the urging of Peres to come while he’s still president and the timing of the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting between the leaders of the Western and Eastern churches on the Mount of Olives in 1964 (John XXIII at the time wouldn’t even recognize Israel, which shows how much relations with the Vatican have come along since then), it is clear that in the 21st century a visit to the Jewish state is a required event in every papacy. Rather than leave it for later, Francis prefers to get it over quickly while he is still in his long period of honeymoon with the world outside the Vatican, and particularly the media.
Francis’ term so far has been a studied exercise in avoiding all the pitfalls of Benedict. His success has been stellar and while the grouchy German pope could do nothing right (his speech at Yad Vashem was analyzed to death for its lack of compassion and acceptance of German responsibility for the Holocaust), Francis’ PR sense is unerring. For now he can do no wrong and though he has changed nothing within the church, he is being seen by the usually skeptical press as a fresh wind of change in the fetid air of St. Peter’s; despite the fact that the few reforms actually going forward were all put in place by his unpopular predecessor. Wise Francis knows exactly how risky a visit to this part of the world can be, so he’s coming while he’s still virtually untouchable and getting it over with.