JERUSALEM — Pope Francis, about 48 hours into his historic trip to the Holy Land, stepped into public view at the Presidential Residence May 26. Hundreds of guests waited for the pontiff in the garden.
Shimon Peres, president of the state of Israel, followed closely behind the pope. The Holy Father had already accomplished so much, arguably because his popularity and likeability persuade leaders to stand with him.
Pope Francis and the president planted an olive tree together as a sign of peace. They walked through the garden, stopping to exchange words along the way. The 77-year-old pope seemed to slow his pace to walk side-by-side with the 90-year-old Peres, whose term ends in the next few months.
When they arrived on stage, hundreds of children — Jewish, Christian and Muslim — sang for them, including an adaptation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
“I believe that your visit and call for peace will echo through the region and contribute to revitalizing the efforts to complete the peace process between us and the Palestinians, based on two states living in peace,” the president said, adding, “A Jewish state, Israel, and an Arab state, Palestine.”
The day before, in Bethlehem, Pope Francis had invited both Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to pray together for peace. “I offer my home at the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer,” he said.
President Abbas eventually accepted the invitation. Peres accepted in the presidential garden.
“Your visit to the Holy Land is an important opportunity for a joint prayer to God in Heaven for peace,” the Israeli president said. “We would be honored to offer such a prayer either in our home or yours — in accordance with your kind offer.”
The pope warmly embraced Peres after his speech. The two exchanged a long, meaningful stare — eye-to-eye, face-to-face. Perhaps the best way to understand Pope Francis’ Apostolic Pilgrimage to the Holy Land May 24-26 is through his oft-used phrase “a culture of encounter.”
The pope spoke of this culture of encounter at his March 29 General Audience at the Vatican, contrasting it with “a culture of exclusion.”
“We think of the many whom Jesus wanted to meet, above all people marked by illness and disability, to heal them and to restore their full dignity to them,” he said. “It is very important that such persons become witnesses of a new approach, that we could call a ‘culture of encounter.’”
The pope spoke of the culture of encounter in Brazil in an interview after World Youth Day last August. He encouraged media to promote this culture in his first message for World Communication Day in January. And he urged Mexican bishops to foster it in the face of ongoing violence.
Encountering the other
The Holy Father — accompanied by Jewish Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim Professor Omar Abboud, friends from Argentina — made the first pilgrimage stop in Amman, Jordan. There, he met with King Abdullah II, who called the pope’s call for dialog “an inspiration.”
The pope called the king a “peacemaker,” noting his promotion of a better understanding of Islam and “a climate of serene coexistence between the faithful of the different religions.”
The Holy Father condemned arms dealers and pled for an end to violence in Syria. He prayed that God “convert those who seek war, those who make and sell weapons.”
“The mission of the Holy Spirit, in fact, is to beget harmony — he is himself harmony,” the pope said later during a Mass celebrated at the International Stadium.
The pope noted how close they were to where the Holy Spirit descended “with power on Jesus of Nazareth after his baptism by John in the River Jordan.” The Holy Spirit creates “peace in different situations and between different people.”
In Bethany, the pope encountered Syrian refugees and those with physical disabilities. The pope had thanked King Abdullah for welcoming refugees from Syria, Palestine and Iraq earlier.
The next day, Pope Francis travelled to Palestine to visit Bethlehem, where he celebrated Mass and prayed the Regina Coeli.
“The Child Jesus, born in Bethlehem, every child who is born and grows up in every part of our world, is a diagnostic sign indicating the state of health of our families, our communities, our nation,” the Holy Father said in his homily.
“Such a frank and honest diagnosis can lead us to a new kind of lifestyle where our relationships are no longer marked by conflict, oppression and consumerism, but fraternity, forgiveness and reconciliation, solidarity and love.”
Benedictine Father Jean Michel, abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Sainte Marie de la Résurrection in Abu Gosh, said the Palestinians were happy to welcome the pope, “despite a difficult situation.” While it can be difficult to be a Christian here, Israel is more tolerant than in surrounding countries, he said.
“The pope brings hope to the heart of the people,” the abbot said. “We want to let the Holy Spirit strengthen this hope. The pope’s motivation is religious, not political.”
The pope made an unexpected stop in front of an Israeli security wall before the Mass in Bethlehem. He climbed out of his vehicle and prayed there, laying his hand and resting his forehead on the graffiti-covered wall.
“It was a profound gesture in a situation of division,” said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, during a May 25 press conference in Jerusalem. He said the gesture was a sign of the pope’s solidarity with the suffering of the people.
“We have to encounter and engage people,” Father Lombardi said. “If there’s peace, there are no walls. We have to engage in a situation where there are no walls between us.”
He said walls stand in the way of an authentic encounter in other parts of the world as well, including on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We have to pray so that the walls won’t be there,” Father Lombardi said in an interview with The Tidings. “This is not a political statement. It’s an acknowledgment that we are not there yet.”
Issa Lama, who works at The Three Arches Catholic souvenir shop in Bethlehem, attended the May 25 Mass there. He believes the Holy Father’s visit will help the Holy Land.
“He gave us a push, to live here, to stay here, to struggle for peace and harmony,” Lama said. “He accomplished something, first of all for our souls. It’s a long time we’re hoping and praying for peace. It starts within our hearts.”
Ecumenical and interreligious unity
Later that day, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I signed a common declaration, pledging to work toward unity between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. They then prayed together at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.
“This is the first time Christians of different traditions have prayed together at the same time at the Holy Sepulchre,” Father Lombardi said. The declaration marked the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I.
Father Lombardi noted that the declaration itself didn’t have many new aspects. The Holy Father and the patriarch got along so well, he said, it delayed the rest of the day’s schedule. A sign of full communion, Father Lombardi added, would be celebrating the Eucharist together.
The following morning, Pope Francis visited Yad Vashem, a memorial to the six million Jews killed in Nazi death camps in World War II.
“Here we are, Lord, shamed by what man, created in your own image and likeness, was capable of doing,” he said while standing before the memorial. Rabbis, President Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined the pope. The pope greeted survivors of the camps one by one, kissing their hands.
At the Western Wall, the pope laid his hands on the ancient stones of the foundation of the temple of Herod. Between the cracks, he laid his handwritten prayer — the Our Father in Spanish. St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI also prayed at the wall during their pontificates.
Pope Francis visited the Dome of the Rock at Temple Mount, where the Jews believe the sacrifice of Isaac would have taken place.
“May no one abuse the name of God through violence,” the pope said, encouraging all faiths to “respect and love one another as brothers and sisters.” “May we work for peace and justice.”
Ruad Halak, a Palestinian Muslim, is a merchant in the Old City of Jerusalem. He took a break from serving his customers coffee and tea to discuss the papal visit.
“This man wants to make peace in our country,” he said of the pope. “I hope he will. We’re waiting for someone that wants real peace.”
Halak believes the divisions between Israel and Palestine are mostly between political leaders, not the people. Orthodox Jews walk the narrow streets of the Old City, alongside Christians praying the Via Dolorosa at the actual site of Christ’s Passion. A nearby mosque calls Muslims to prayer.
“I don’t hate Jewish people,” Halak said. “We are sons of Abraham. We are cousins. We can’t run from our family.”
“Peacemaking demands first and foremost respect for the dignity and freedom of every human person,” Pope Francis said, continuing his message of peace during his public meeting in the presidential garden. He recognized Judaism, Islam and Christianity as three great religions that worship God and share Abraham as a patriarch.
“The holy places are not monuments or museums for tourists, but places where communities of believers daily express their faith and culture, and carry out their works of charity,” the pope said.
“Precisely for this reason,” the Holy Father continued, “their sacred character must be perpetually maintained and protection given not only to the legacy of the past but also to all those who visit these sites today and to those who will visit them in the future.”
Cultivating peace among Jews, Christians and Muslims means rejecting a culture of exclusion — “violence and terrorism, all forms of discrimination on the basis of race or religion,” he said.
Jiries Elies, 16, a Christian Palestinian living in Jerusalem, attended the public address at the presidential garden with Kids 4 Peace, an interfaith youth movement.
“For Jews, we are Arabs and for Muslims we are Christians,” he said describing the difficulties Christians face as a minority in the Holy Land. Christians make up less than 3 percent of the population, a number that’s been decreasing over the years.
Both Elies and Louis Salem, another Christian teenager with Kids 4 Peace, were delighted to see the pope.
“As an ambassador for our religion, he represents us well,” Salem said. “He’s showing how our religion is one of peace. He sits with children — all children — not just Christians.”
“Christians wish … to contribute to the common good and the growth of peace,” the pope said in his remarks. “They wish to do so as full-fledged citizens who reject extremism in all its forms and are committed to fostering reconciliation and harmony.”
The pope wrapped up his visit to Holy Land meeting again Patriarch Bartholomew on the Mount of Olives, visiting seminarians at the Garden of Gethsemane and celebrating Mass at the Cenacle.
“The Upper Room speaks to us of service, of Jesus giving the disciples an example by washing their feet,” the pope said in his homily. “Washing one another’s feet signifies welcoming, accepting, loving and serving one another. It means serving the poor, the sick and the outcast.”