In Israel, the Pope Is a Pilgrim, Not a Politician

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Pope FrancisCredit: AFP

On Sunday afternoon, the pope will sally forth from the helicopter that will land him in Israel after a visit to Bethlehem. His face will shine with the warmth of humanity, he will smile in every direction and wave his hands in greeting, as is the custom of popes meeting their welcomers — whether they are figures of authority or the common folk, Catholics or others.

That is Pope Francis: a friend of everyone and a man known for his modesty. Maybe this is not so surprising — after all, until his election a year ago as pontiff, former priest Jorge Mario Bergoglio served in a senior role in the church in Argentina, his homeland.

The pope will be met at Ben-Gurion International Airport by the highest levels of the Israeli government, but it is better not to be deceived by illusions: The main purpose of his journey to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel is not diplomatic, but clearly religious. The pope is first of all a pilgrim, especially when he visits the Holy Land. It is understood that every sermon the pope gives — and he is scheduled to give a number of them during his trip — is open to interpretation. But there is no doubt it is a religious visit.

That is why, for example, the Vatican’s official schedule for the visit emphasizes in very prominent fashion the fact that a short time after landing in Israel, the pope will hold a gathering to mark the 50 years that have passed since the meeting between Pope Paul VI, the first pope to visit Israel, and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The Patriarch, whose seat is in Turkey, is the head of the Orthodox Church; and despite the efforts of him and Paul VI, the split between the churches has still not been healed. Catholics cannot pray with Orthodox Christian believers, since the prayers are different in both language and wording.

On his trip to Israel, the pope will be accompanied by Conservative Jewish Rabbi Abraham Skorka from Buenos Aires. Skorka is a personal friend of Francis from the years both of them served in the Argentinian capital. The height of this friendship may be expressed in a book of conversations the two held even before Francis was chosen as pope. On the television show 60 Minutes, Skorka was called the “pope’s rabbi,” and the pope never disagreed. The conversations were translated into Hebrew and collected into a book, “On Rome and Jerusalem: The Conversations between a Pope and a Rabbi” published by Toby Press. (The title of the book in the original Spanish was “On Heaven and Earth.”)

There is no mention in the conversations of hatred between Judaism and Christianity, in fact quite the opposite. Sometimes you can feel while reading the book as if the pope is speaking as a rabbi, and the rabbi is speaking as a priest. The two hold similar views, and the conversations are held on a day-to-day level, without religious disagreements. Sometimes, you can get the impression that they are in fact preaching to a different, ideal non-religious leadership.

In one of the conversations, the pope tells how, when he was a student in the seminary, he discovered that despite the requirement for celibacy placed on all Catholic priests, he was attracted to a young woman he met at a wedding. “I was surprised by her beauty, the clarity of her thought ... In short, I was entertained by the possibility,” he says. He also says that after he met the woman, he could not pray for a week, since every time he prepared to pray, her image appeared in front of him. “I was forced to think about what I was doing. I chose the path of religion again,” he concludes. Nonetheless, in the dispute being conducted in the church, the pope is on the side of the requirement of celibacy.

The deeper we delve in attempting to decipher the pope’s character, the more his liberal attitudes are revealed; but not in every matter. “Abortion is murder,” he rules. Usually, Skorka does not disagree with what Francis says, but in a conversation on the Holocaust, Francis disappoints in defending one of his predecessors, Pius XII. He even grabs on to what then-Prime Minister Golda Meir wrote in a letter of condolence to the Vatican on the death of Pius — that he saved a great number of Jews. “Maybe we could have done more,” the pope tells the rabbi in the book, but he emphasizes that the documents he saw in the Vatican are in Pius’ favor.

In the conversations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is mentioned, but while Rabbi Skorka hopes for its end and supports the “two-state solution,” the pope (or in truth, Bergoglio, his pre-pope name) prefers not to speak directly about the conflict; and in his response, he points an accusatory finger at the media, blaming it for fanning disagreement and conflict by looking at the reality in only two colors: black and white.

It is doubtful whether in his sermons during his visit the pope will mention political matters, or propose to Israel and the Palestinians solutions or ways to bridge their differences. It is possible that such avoidance stems from the awareness of the enormous sensitivity in the region, since along with Skorka the pope will be accompanied by the former secretary general of the Islamic Center of Buenos Aires, Omar Abboud. Maybe, after the conversations with the leader of the Catholic world, Skorka will also find time for a dialogue with Abboud.

It is a shame that during the visit, we will not be able to hear parts of the conversations between Skorka and Abboud about the visit here of their mutual friend Francis. It is better not to be deceived by illusions: The main purpose of his journey to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel is not diplomatic, but clearly religious.

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