Rabbi David Rosen on the Pope's Visit to the Holy Land
The Point of the Pope's Visit
What Was the Most Successful Part for Israel
By David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee Director of International Interreligious Relations.
Published May 29, 2014.
Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority have all hailed Pope Francis's whirlwind pilgrimage as a success -- and indeed, the very fact that it went as smoothly as it did was no small achievement for all involved. Pope Francis's global superstar status guaranteed media focus on local voices and images wherever he went.
For the State of Israel, the happy paradox is that a Papal visit is no longer a historic breakthrough. For most of the 20th century, the Vatican
bitterly opposed the Zionist idea of Jewish sovereignty in its ancestral homeland. Now, not only has it enjoyed full diplomatic relations with
Israel for 20 years, but three Popes have paid their respect and esteem to Israel's highest elected political and religious officials. That this is
now almost taken as a given is itself a stunning historical triumph.
The primary declared purpose of Pope Francis's visit was to meet in Jerusalem with the head of the Christian Orthodox world, celebrating the
fiftieth anniversary of the first meeting of reconciliation between the two separate (and for most of history, mutually hostile) strands of
Christianity. He also sought to convey a message of peace and empathy for the peoples of this region. However, in addition, Francis intentionally
used his visit to Israel to reiterate the Church's special bonds with Judaism and the Jewish People. Not only did he state this explicitly at the
meeting with Jewish religious leaders at Hechal Shlomo, but it was also powerfully reflected at the impressive event hosted by President Shimon
As with past Papal pilgrimages to the Holy Land, there was the inevitable political exploitation of the visit. It is worth noting, however, that the
Pope's unscheduled visit to the separation barrier in Bethlehem actually provided an opportunity for Israeli spokespersons to explain precisely why
it exists and what it has achieved in reducing terror and violence. We should all pray, together with Pope Francis, that one day it will be
possible to dismantle this protective shield against acts of terror in a new era of peaceful coexistence.
Israel might well complain about the reference to "the State of Palestine" which does not yet exist as such. Catholics and other Christians in
Bethlehem, other areas under the PA and in East Jerusalem see themselves as part of a Palestinian state in the making, and thus seek acceptance as an
integral part of Palestinian national aspirations. There were certainly pressures on Pope Francis to respond to these "needs" of his local flock.
At the same time, the heads of these communities were present at the official Israeli events paying respect to Israel's highest representatives
and state institutions.
Indeed, not only are the vast majority of Catholics between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Israeli citizens, but it should be noted that here in
Israel Christianity is vibrant and growing as opposed to the vast majority of the Middle East where it is rapidly declining. The fact that Catholic
leadership follows the lead of the Pope, respecting Israeli sovereignty and educating its members in Israel to be loyal citizens of the country, is
surely an historic achievement that far outweighs any other "symbolic achievements."