The Gospel According to Francis I

Previous papal visits were either disastrous, successful or lukewarm; this time, Israel can stay calm: This visit is really not about it.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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An Israeli Arab Christian holds a poster depicting Pope Francis during a procession in the northern city of Haifa May 11, 2014.
An Israeli Arab Christian holds a poster depicting Pope Francis during a procession in the northern city of Haifa May 11, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

As opposed to the impressions one could get from the Israeli media over the last week, Israel, the Holocaust, Palestinians and even the dispute over the Last Supper Room on Mount Zion in Jerusalem are not at the top of Pope Francis’ interests when he arrives for his visit here in two weeks.

In reality, it is enough to take a quick glance at the official posters in honor of the Pope’s visit to understand that Israel and the Middle East are the less important part of the event. In addition to the figure of Francis adorning the center of the posters, there are two other pictures too: One in black and white from 1964 that shows the historic meeting between the Pop at the time Paul VI and the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras I. The second shows the meeting between the present Patriarch Bartholomew I and Pope Francis when the Patriarch came to Rome a year ago for the Pope’s investiture. The Pope’s visit to Israel is therefore not a crusader pilgrimage to the Holy Land and is not a diplomatic mission – and even the meeting with the local Christian communities has also been pushed off to the sidelines.

The central point of the visit and the major justification for it is the handshake between the two Christian religious leaders: The head of the Western church, the Catholic from Rome, and the head of the Eastern church, the Orthodox Patriarch from Constantinople (Istanbul). The historic handshake will mark the height of the visit and will take place in front of the empty tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

More about the pope's visit: The gospel according to Francis: Nir Hasson | A Jewish pope? Elon Gilad | Great expectations, great disappointment? Ariel David | What the pope won’t see in Bethlehem: Judy Maltz | Protecting the pontiff: Allison Kaplan Sommer | Too cozy with the church? Anna Momigliano | Israel and Vatican strive to resolve tensions: Ariel David | Jews 'have nothing to discuss' with Vatican: Anna Momigliano | Did the pope say that?!? An interactive quiz | A history of papal visits to the Holy Land: Elon Gilad.

These two halves of the Church split almost 1,000 years ago in 1054. Since then the relations between the Eastern and Western churches have known better times and worse - but more usually bloody wars. Exactly 50 years ago in 1964 the historic meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Athenagoras took place. “It was an earthquake, something like the handshake between Arafat and Rabin. There are those who were disgusted with it and there were people who saw in it the beginning of the end of days,” said Yisca Harani, an Israeli expert in Christianity.

The meeting in two weeks in Jerusalem is a historic and very symbolic gesture to the meeting 50 years ago. Jerusalem was chosen as the site of the meeting for the two partly because of its holiness; but no less because of its being the place where the united church was born. "The Church of the Holy Sepulchre symbolizes to a great extent the separation in the Christian world. There something fantastic will actually happen and they will shake hands. This is the opportunity to say that Jerusalem is a place that can unite and not just create divisions,” said Harani this week in a briefing to the press organized by the Jerusalem Center of Jewish-Christian Relations and the Jerusalem Institute in honor of the visit.

Pope Francis will be the fourth pope to visit the Israel since the state was established. Studying the history of papal visits to Israel shows that more can be learned from them than just about relations between Israel and the Vatican. The visits themselves can be seen as a sort of reflection on Israel’s international situation at the time and on processes within Israeli society.

The first papal visit to Israel was that of Paul VI in 1964. It is remembered here as a diplomatic failure and was filled with embarrassing moments. The official reception was held at Tel Meggido and not in Jerusalem – and lasted only 20 minutes. Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim refused to come to the event and the speeches were a sort of debate over the right of the Jews to the Land of Israel. The Pope never once said the words “the State of Israel” and when he sent his official telegram of thanks from his airplane on his way home he sent it to the “President, Tel Aviv.”

The second papal visit came 36 years later – and was the complete opposite. John Paul II visited in March 2000 and was without a doubt the most successful of the visits. Israel was in one of its best periods in terms of international standing, with the collapse of the peace talks at Camp David and the beginning of the Second Intifada a few months in the future. A sick and elderly John Paul was warmly welcomed and the entire visit symbolized a deep change in relations between the Vatican and Israel.

When Benedict XVI came in 2009 things were cooler. His German background raised expectations as to his attitude toward the Holocaust and the role the Vatican played during the period. The visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial left a bitter taste when attacked for not mentioning the word “Holocaust.”

“The papal visits are the litmus tests for Israeli society,” said Dr. Amnon Ramon of the department of Comparative Religion at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. This seems to be true about the coming visit too.

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