What was the ‘real’ reason Francis made this pilgrimage?

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It’s time, once again, to face the obvious. There is no subject in the world of religion that matters more to the big-hitters in mainstream journalism than the world travels of a pope. Therefore, we have work to do, after the wave of media coverage of the Middle East trip by media superstar Pope Francis.

The big question for today: Why did Pope Francis go to Jerusalem, with stops in tense locales nearby?

Let’s ask The New York Times:

JERUSALEM – Pope Francis inserted himself directly into the collapsed Middle East peace process on Sunday, issuing an invitation to host the Israeli and Palestinian presidents for a prayer summit meeting at his apartment in the Vatican, in an overture that has again underscored the broad ambitions of his papacy.

Francis took the unexpected step in Bethlehem, where he became the first pontiff ever to fly directly into the West Bank and to refer to the Israeli-occupied territory as the “State of Palestine.” …

Presidents Shimon Peres of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority accepted the pope’s invitation to pray together; Mr. Abbas’s spokesman said the meeting would take place June 6. … Pope Francis’ actions on Sunday posed a striking example of how, barely a year into his papacy, he is seeking to reassert the Vatican’s ancient role as an arbiter of international diplomacy.

The meeting will primarily be symbolic, but this was the big news.

Let’s ask the same question to The Washington Post, which gave major attention to the invitation to Peres and Abbas, but led with:

JERUSALEM – Pope Francis honored Jews killed in the Holocaust and other attacks and kissed the hands of Holocaust survivors as he capped his three-day Mideast trip with poignant stops Monday at some of the holiest and most haunting sites for Jews.

At Israel’s request, Francis deviated from his whirlwind itinerary to pray at Jerusalem’s Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial, giving the Jewish state his full attention a day after voicing strong support for the Palestinian cause.

Finally, let’s ask The Los Angeles Times:

A day after he threw his moral weight behind the establishment of a Palestinian state, Pope Francis paid tribute Monday at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the man whose dream of a Jewish homeland led to the creation of modern-day Israel.

It was a finely balanced gesture on the last day of the pontiff’s visit to the Holy Land, where even the smallest acts are fraught with political symbolism. … The move is likely to annoy many Palestinians, who blame Zionism for the confiscation and occupation of their ancestral lands. But a day earlier, Israelis were themselves dissatisfied with the pope’s decision to travel directly to Bethlehem, in the West Bank, from Jordan rather than arrive in Israel first, and with the Vatican’s pointed reference to the “state of Palestine.”

So what is the unifying thread that runs through these basic stories on the final events of this high-profile papal trip?

Simply stated, these three news giants all agree that the Vatican — in effect — was either lying, naive or just plain wrong when it said that the primary purpose for this trip, right down to the timing on the calendar, was linked to the 50th anniversary of the Jerusalem meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, which closed nearly a millennium of mutual excommunication and estrangement after the Great Schism of 1054.

However, the ancient churches of East and West remain in a state of broken Communion.

So, did anyone cover this event — other than media outlets that actually cover religion? In this case, there was an Associated Press report that got almost all of the major details right.

JERUSALEM (AP) – Pope Francis and the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians prayed together Sunday inside the Jerusalem church that symbolizes their divisions, calling their historic meeting a step toward healing the centuries-old Catholic-Orthodox schism.

Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I embraced one another in the stone courtyard outside the 12th century Church of the Holy Sepulcher and recited the “Our Father” prayer together once inside, an unprecedented moment of solemnity at the spot where Catholic and Orthodox believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

The encounter, punctuated by haunting Greek and Latin chants, was full of symbolic meaning: The two men, both in their mid-70s, helped one another down the stone steps leading into the church, grasping one another’s forearms. And after Bartholomew delivered his remarks, Francis bent down and kissed his hand in remarkable show of papal respect for a patriarch when some 500 years ago a patriarch was forced to kiss the feet of the pope.

The evening prayer service was the spiritual highlight of Francis’ three-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land and capped a momentous day in which the Israeli and Palestinian presidents accepted Francis’ invitation to join him at the Vatican next month to pray for peace.

Ah, there we have it. This was the “spiritual” highlight of the pilgrimage. As opposed to? The political highlight? The real highlight? The news highlight?

I will not linger on that, in the case of the AP report, because it got so many of the crucial details right. This story was on the right track. Here is another large chunk of this report, for those interested in “spiritual” matters.

… the two churches have grown closer in personal friendships and even theological dialogue, but core differences remain, including over the primacy of the pope. Tellingly, Francis referred to Paul not as pope but as “bishop of Rome” — the other main title attributed to popes and the way Francis introduced himself to the world on the night he was elected pope in a clear gesture toward his Orthodox “brothers.”

Bartholomew, for his part, called for their meeting at Christ’s tomb to show how fear, religious fanaticism and hatred of people of other faiths and races can be overcome by love. “The message of the life-giving tomb is clear: love the other, the different other, the followers of other faiths and other confessions.”

The site of their meeting could not have been more significant: Perhaps no other piece of real estate on Earth symbolizes the divisions of Christianity than the Holy Sepulcher, where six Christian denominations practice their faith, yet occasionally come to blows in jealously guarding their turf and times of worship.

Given the centuries of tensions underlying the visit, the seating arrangements and procession order alone were an ecclesiastical and diplomatic feat of protocol. Francis, Bartholomew and the leaders of the three main communities that share the church — Greek-Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic — all sat on the same sized, gilded red velvet chairs facing the shrine encasing Jesus’ tomb.

Bartholomew was the first to enter the tomb, but Francis was the first to climb the steep stairs up to the site where tradition holds Christ was crucified. The Gospel was chanted in both Latin and Greek, to appeal to the linguistic traditions of both Catholic and Orthodox. The two men recited the “Our Father” together in the relatively neutral Italian.

Italian was neutral? How about a liturgical language shared in common? Maybe Arabic? Greek? Dare I say Ukrainian?

BONUS: Full text of the joint declaration by Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew.

Homily by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

Sermon by Pope Francis at the tomb.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    “Here is another large church of this report, for those interested in ‘spiritual’ matters.” I think you mean “‘chunk’ of this report.” You can delete this, if you wish.

    • tmatt

      Thanks. We always appreciate help with typos.

  • Howard

    I can’t really fault the media on this one, for at least two reasons.

    For one thing, there is the issue of the position of the Ecumenical Patriarch. He doesn’t lead the Greek Church. His see is in Turkey, a country in which only 0.13% of the population is Christian. He may be “the first among equals” within the Orthodox Church, but he pretty clearly has less real influence than the Patriarch of Moscow. He does not appear to be in a position to have much influence on any future reconciliation. The press know that he is not an “Orthodox pope”, but they really don’t know exactly what he is.

    Secondly, the Holy See *must have* intended the press to focus on the Israeli/Palestinian dispute. After all, the one thing the press is NOT is unpredictable. If Pope Francis were to announce that the Nicene Creed was being dropped from the Mass, but he did so wearing red shoes, the stories would be about the red shoes.

  • wc4mitt

    What I found to be stunning is that they merely replicated what occurred 50 years ago even in the language (except that noticeably Pope Francis was the only one who didn’t speak English- astounding). It seems to me that no progress whatsoever has been made w/exception that now at least they have been dialoguing for 50 years. What would Christ say I wonder?


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