The Holy Land pilgrimage by Pope Francis contained plenty of symbolic gestures, photo ops and sound bites crafted to slip into broadcasts, ink and Twitter.
There was his direct flight into the West Bank, the first papal “State of Palestine” reference and the silent prayer with his forehead against the concrete security wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, near graffiti pleading, “Pope, we need some 1 to speak about justice.” He also prayed at a memorial for suicide-bombing victims and put a wreath on the tomb of Zionism pioneer Theodor Herzi.
The backdrop for the Manger Square Mass included an image of the infant Christ swaddled in a black-and-white keffiyeh, the headdress made famous by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. And, of course, the world press stressed the pope’s invitation to presidents Shimon Peres of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority to visit the Vatican for prayers, and surely private talks, about peace.
After days of statecraft, Francis arrived — drawing little attention from major American media — at the event that the Vatican insisted was the key to the trip. This was when Pope Francis met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I for an historic evening prayer rite in the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a setting long symbolic of bitter divisions in world Christianity.
The symbolic leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians, the successor to the Apostle Andrew, had earlier invited Francis, the successor to the Apostle Peter, to join him in Jerusalem to mark the 50th anniversary of the breakthrough meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras. Their embrace ended 900-plus years of mutual excommunication in the wake of the Great Schism of 1054.
“Clearly we cannot deny the divisions which continue to exist among us, the disciples of Jesus: this sacred place makes us even more painfully aware of how tragic they are,” said the pope, at the site of the tomb the ancient churches believe held the body of Jesus. “We know that much distance still needs to be traveled before we attain that fullness of communion which can also be expressed by sharing the same Eucharistic table, something we ardently desire. …“We need to believe that, just as the stone before the tomb was cast aside, so too every obstacle to our full communion will also be removed.”
Patriarch Bartholomew stressed that, even as barriers fall between Christians in east and west, it’s crucial to remember that violent conflicts — including threats to religious freedom — shape the lives of millions of believers.
This means shedding another modern fear, he said, the “fear of the other, fear of the different, fear of the adherent of another faith, another religion, or another confession. … Religious fanaticism already threatens peace in many regions of the globe, where the very gift of life is sacrificed on the altar of religious hatred. In the face of such conditions, the message of the life-giving Tomb is urgent and clear: love the other, the different other, the followers of other faiths and other confessions.”
The rite surrounding these sermons was full of symbolic touches, beginning with Bartholomew entering the basilica — shared by six different Christian bodies — from the east and Francis from the west. The Gospel was chanted in both Latin and Greek. Bartholomew entered the tomb ahead of the pope, but Francis led the way to the site where church tradition indicates Jesus was crucified.
When Bartholomew finished his remarks, Francis took his hand and kissed it — an act that in these ancient churches shows respect for a man’s priesthood, since he holds the consecrated bread and wine during the Holy Eucharist. This was a striking gesture, since in 1437 Patriarch Joseph II had been forced, as a sign of subservience, to kiss the feet of Pope Eugene IV.
“Every time we put behind us our longstanding prejudices and find the courage to build new fraternal relationships, we confess that Christ is truly risen,” said Francis.
“Here I reiterate the hope already expressed by my predecessors for a continued dialogue … aimed at finding a means of exercising the specific ministry of the Bishop of Rome which, in fidelity to his mission, can be open to a new situation and can be, in the present context, a service of love and of communion acknowledged by all.”