Can Pope Francis’s Friendly, Accessible Style Survive the Middle East?

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Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives for his general audience at St. Peter's square on November 27, 2013 at the Vatican. But will he be allowed to do so in Israel?Credit: AFP

 When you think of public appearances by past popes − especially when it comes to their trips  abroad − the picture that comes to mind is that of a figure far from the crowds, protected, far away, whether at a formal address on a stage or travelling down the streets in the protected bubble of a “Popemobile” waving to the adoring masses through bullet-proof glass.

Pope Francis, while he has only been in his post for a short time, has already gained a reputation for subverting this expectation as best he can, demonstrating an informal style and a penchant for actual contact with human beings.  

I asked an American journalist friend who covered the pope on his maiden overseas trip to Rio de Janeiro last summer what it was like. She recalled that when his car took a wrong turn in Rio and was mobbed, he was “completely sanguine” about it. She said he “had his window rolled down and seemed to enjoy the hordes reaching for him.”

If there’s a hand to shake or a baby to kiss, he’s eager to do it. Journalists who cover him on a regular basis report that he has kept his security team on their toes, enjoying wading directly into crowds and offering contact that is more up close and personal, and is cementing him with a reputation as a man of the people.

He is equally as comfortable interacting freely with the press. On the plane trip back home from Rio, Pope Francis held his famous candid press conference when he made headlines by saying “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” My friend recalled the occasion: “He stood and spoke without notes for 82 minutes, despite white-knuckle turbulence.” And that was after he carried his own bag on and off the plane.

But that was in the mainly Christian part of the world. My friend wondered out loud to me if his down-to-earth style and spontaneous gestures would play better in the confines of St. Peter’s Square and the warm embrace of Latin America than in the Middle East. I told her that I couldn’t speak for his time in the West Bank and Jordan, but it is likely that Israelis − big fans of informality − will likely eat it up. If his crowded itinerary offers any opportunity to display this winning humble style.

He sounds like the David Ben-Gurion of popes − down-to-earth humility is a refreshing change from the grandiose mannerisms of both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. Unfortunately, it is highly debatable as to whether the pope will have the opportunity to display these qualities under the circumstances of the visit.  

There are already signs of dissatisfaction coming out of St. Peter’s Square. A story ran in The Economist quoting a papal spokesman as complaining that Israel was driving a wedge of security fears between the pope and his followers in Israel.

“The pope wants to see the people. But Christians won’t be able to see him ... Israel is turning the holy sites into a military base,” the spokesman said.

The magazine contrasted the Israelis with the Palestinians in their treatment of the visit: “While the Palestinians are opening up the streets of Bethlehem and providing the pope with an open car when he visits their side of the biblical land, Israel is taking no chances. It is planning a strict permit regime, insisting that the Holy Father travels in an armored car, with the public kept at arm’s length behind a security cordon.”

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Pope Francis greets the crowd of faithful from his popemobile in downtown Rio, July 22, 2013.Credit: Reuters
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Pope John Paul II in Damascus. May 7, 2001.Credit: AP
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Pope Benedict XVI arrives for Holy Mass in the Kidron Valley. May 12, 2009.Credit: Bloomberg News

It’s not that the push for caution is unjustified. After all, Christian leaders in Israel have the security jitters big-time − for themselves and their holy sites, not just the pope − after Israeli security services warned them that they expected hate crimes from right-wing extremists that will target Christians and Christian sites during the visit.

It’s sad, but with graffiti such as “Death to Arabs and Christians and all those who hate Israel,” you can’t really expect a pope, no matter how friendly, to spontaneously wade into the crowd. Will he? And if he tries, will he be permitted to take the risk?

We won’t know until he arrives. What we do know is that if fear prevents Israelis, Christians or not, from seeing the real Pope Francis, it will be our loss.

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