Vatican observers and religious officials declared themselves extremely satisfied with Pope Francis’s whistle-stop tour of the Middle East, saying that he had managed to navigate the choppy political currents while fulfilling the religious purpose of his visit.
Rabbi David Rosen, the honorary adviser to the Chief Rabbinate on interfaith matters, said that the visit had been significant in that papal visits were now becoming the norm in Israel, which has hosted three different popes since 2000.
The rabbi, who served on the Bilateral Commission of the State of Israel and the Holy See, which led to the establishment of full bilateral relations in 1994, also downplayed the political nature of the pope’s unscheduled stops.
On Sunday, the pontiff made an impromptu visit to the West Bank security barrier, while on Monday he prayed for an end to terrorism at a memorial for Israeli victims of terrorism at Mount Herzl.
“There’s a battle here for sympathy, and each side seeks to emphasize the messages and images that are important for them,” Rosen told The Jerusalem Post. “It’s difficult for the different sides to accept that the other has suffered, but in general there is relatively minimal political instrumentalization.”
Father David Neuhaus, the patriarchal vicar of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel and the media coordinator for the pope’s visit, said that politicization was inevitable, but that Francis’s genuine attitude helped overcome the pitfalls of both sides’ attempts to draw him in.
“Pope Francis came with a sincere desire to touch reality, and part of this reality is that both sides think they are right. The pope said he thinks that a different level of interaction between the sides is possible; but both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership were willing to mobilize him to something much more narrow,” Neuhaus told the Post.
“This was almost inevitable when everyone is trying to drive the pope, and even God, to their side.”
Neuhaus highlighted the pontiff’s invitation to President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to pray for peace together in the Vatican as an expression of Francis’s desire to create a different form of communication between the two sides.
Besides the political issues, Neuhaus said that the meeting between the pope and Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, who heads the world’s Orthodox Christian churches, was an “incredibly moving event for Christians across the globe.
“These two men coming to pray together at the empty tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was a powerful and iconic expression of these two leaders of the ability to get over that which divides us,” he said.
Father Gianni Caputa, vice-rector of the Ratisbonne Salesian Monastery in Jerusalem and a former member of the Vatican- Israel diplomatic negotiation team, said that for him the climax of the pope’s trip was the embrace he shared with Rabbi Avraham Skorka and Omar Aboud, a Muslim leader from Pope Francis’s hometown of Buenos Aires.
“[The] most powerful image of this trip was the embrace between the pope, Rabbi Skorka and Sheikh Aboud at the Western Wall. This was a symbolic gesture that there can be peace in Jerusalem between the religions.”
Caputa said, however, that the pope also emphasized the importance of engaging with political realities.
“Pope Francis’s message here was also that we cannot be religious men without involving ourselves in the problems of the region, and our first goal is a peace with justice, respect and security for all.”