VATICAN CITY – In the nearly 15 months since he was anointed as pontiff, Pope Francis has become one of the most influential and recognizable people on the planet by saying and doing things that would have been unimaginable from his predecessors.
Now, on his trip to Israel, he will travel in the footsteps of recent predecessors.
The Argentinean, who became the first non-European pope of the modern era when he was elected last March, broke with tradition from his first appearance, when he did not bless the throngs gathered in St. Peter’s Square but rather asked them to bless him.
Since then, he turned heads with comments on homosexuality – “Who am I to judge?” he famously asked – blasting capitalism and what he called the “idolatry of money,” and brushing aside adulation from admirers, saying, “The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps well and has friends; a normal person.” He has mounted a dramatic reform of the Vatican bureaucracy and said that the church bears responsibility for the sex scandals that have plagued it, all while turning his back on the pomp and circumstance that traditionally come with being the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
“Pope Francis has broken new ground at every turn, but this time around he will do something new: build on progress made by his predecessors,” said Father Alistair Sear, a retired London-based church historian.
Relations between Israel and the Holy See have come a long way since Paul VI became the first pontiff to visit Jerusalem little more than 50 years ago.
Paul’s visit lasted half a day, and it came at a time when the Vatican had yet to recognize Israel as a sovereign state. Since the, every pontiff – with the exception of John Paul I, who was pope for just 33 days – has visited the country, and ties between Israel and the Vatican have grown stronger with each pontificate.
It will be the task of Francis to build on that.
“It’s an unusual role for him to follow a path set by previous popes, but he will obviously do it his own way,” said Paolo Rodari, Vatican correspondent for the Italian daily La Repubblica.
“He hasn’t taken a wrong step so far [in his papacy] and it’s going to be interesting to see what he does on this trip.”
Francis says he is making the trip as a pilgrim, not as a head of state or a religious leader. He will leave the bullet proof “pope mobile” behind and will eschew many security measures other leaders implement when traveling abroad. For the first time ever, the papal entourage will include leaders from other faiths: Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim Sheikh Omar Abboud – both old friends of the pontiff, from his home city of Buenos Aires – something that is being cast as a powerful signal of interfaith outreach and respect.
“A pope, a rabbi and a sheikh… it sounds like the start of a bad joke,” said Sear. “But the funny part to me is that he is isn’t really raising any eyebrows. People have learned to expect the unexpected with this pope.”
Improving interfaith dialogue is the centerpiece of the trip – not only with Jews and Muslims, but most important from the Vatican’s point of view, with Orthodox Christians. According to veteran Vatican reporter and commentator Robert Mickens, the joint prayer with Francis and Orthodox Archbishop Bartholomew I in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday will be the main event.
“The wheels went into motion for this visit when Bartholomew invited Francis to commemorate the 1964 meeting between Paul VI and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras,” Mickens said. “The rest fell into place after that.”
Is there a possibility the image of the pope could be hurt if progress is not made toward healing the nearly 1,000-year-old schism between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, or if the visit fails to build on previous ties between Jews and Catholics? Experts say the risks are minimal.
“There’s always a chance something could be said that would make people look at Francis in a more negative light, but I would have to say it’s unlikely,” Mickens said. “He’s become a beloved figure around the world, and I doubt anything’s going to change that.”