Tours by-the-book work for most folks, but not for the rugged individualist. Pope Francis is not a pontiff-by-the-numbers leader – he does his own thing. He has endeared himself to the masses as a man of the people, who steals out of the Vatican at night to walk the streets of Rome, seeking out the homeless and poor; who calls a struggling single mom to wish her well; a leader for whom “downtrodden” is not a mere talking point in a sermon. Taking his name from St. Francis of Assisi, modesty and service inform the essence of the current occupant of the throne of St. Peter.
Still, on his inaugural trip to the Holy Land as the supreme guide to the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, Francis is not a free man. His short visit will be taken up by de rigueur photo-ops at major religious sites, and meetings with political leaders who will assure the Holy Father that they aspire to nothing but peace. Religious leaders will pause from internecine battles to intone that we are all children of the same God.
Should he wish to see a Holy Land closer to his vocation of service, however, we offer some alternatives.
First, the Jaffa Institute. In the best traditions of Assisi and Judaism’s Ethics of the Fathers, Jaffa’s down-and-out Jews, Arabs, East Europeans and African asylum-seekers find a helping hand here. He could roll up his sleeves and help put together food packages for volunteers to deliver with their own vehicles.
Close by, he might drop in on Our Lady of Valor, a new pastoral center catering to Hebrew-speaking families of migrant workers. That should make him smile. It is one of several new church buildings opened recently in Israel, something unthinkable, even illegal in most of the Middle East.
Possessed of a famously soft heart, he will be moved by familiar scenes of human joy – with a distinct Middle Eastern twist. He might eavesdrop outside the delivery room at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, where Muslim, Christian and Jewish fathers-to-be converse and bond as they nervously await the arrival of new members of humanity. (Hadassah was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for its equality in dispensing care, and for the teamwork between Arab and Jewish staff, which takes the humanity of St Francis to the next level.) Crosstown at Shaare Tzedek Hospital, he could meet Dr. Ofer Merin, whom you could describe as a kind of St. Francis with attitude. Merin led the celebrated Israeli field hospital relief efforts after Haiti’s earthquake, Japan’s tsunami, the Philippines’ typhoon, and the treating – no questions asked – of any wounded Syrian who reaches the Golan Heights, saving the lives of thousands who would otherwise have perished.
St. Francis preached even to the birds, and is associated with respect for animal life and the environment.
So his namesake should even enjoy drinking tap water. Israel, for decades a world leader in the management of limited water resources, now gets 50 percent of its water from the desalination of seawater.
It exports that know-how, helping poor populations to sustain themselves responsibly from their lands.
Pope Francis may want to see some of this commitment in action at the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, where Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy are working together to clean up the hallowed waters of the River Jordan. Perhaps solving the Jordan’s sewage problems might just lead to cooperation in the more corrosive domains of intolerance and distrust.
The pope has pushed hard for the corporate world to contribute more to the economic well-being of their societies. While that could help boost the poor, the Church might lose the faithful. History shows that as populations become better off, they generally become less religious, and have fewer children. Not so in the Jewish homeland.
Israel has enjoyed beyond a ten-fold growth in population since 1948. Demographers Sergio Della Pergola and John F. May call Israel a “demographic outlier.”
The country famous for being the start-up and venture capital mecca also has become more religious – and has more children per capita than other First World countries, showing that education, modernity, and economic well-being can go handin- hand with religious commitment and the optimism to bring more children into the world.
Finally, the pope may want a word with Yoram Sagi Zaks, chairman of Israel’s National Volunteering Council, who estimates that 46 percent of Israeli youth volunteer in some capacity. By way of comparison, the Corporation for National and Community Service reports that one in four US adults (26.5%) volunteered for an organization in 2012.
All these venues confirm that something divine is alive and well in the Holy Land. We only pray Pope Francis will somehow have the time to experience some its anonymous sparks of holiness.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein are respectively the associate dean of and director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.