There are probably few experiences quite like being less than 10 meters away from Pope Francis, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, as he visits the Western Wall, the Jewish world’s holiest site.
While the pope’s visit has practically become a commercialized event, that trend obscures the fact that he is only the fourth pope to visit the Holy Land; the other visits occurring in 1964, 2000, and 2009.
It is not a regular occurrence.
The security also was far from regular, with massive amounts of police. The entire Western Wall plaza was cleared of ordinary visitors and worshipers. Only media representatives (which seemed to be mostly Spanish-speaking, reflecting the pope’s Latin American origins) had tickets to the event.
As a police helicopter passed by back and forth repeatedly and snipers covered nearby rooftops, Pope Francis arrived in a motorcade of a dozen or more sedans, accompanied by a procession of cardinals decked-out in crimson robes.
Yet seeing the 77-year-old Pope Francis slowly make his way across the plaza, surrounded by cardinals and tons of pomp and circumstance, images of darker times in Jewish-Christian relations flew before me.
The treatment of the pope as practically a king or an emperor could be reminiscent of those times when the pope and the Catholic Church were directly part of or were quiet accomplices to some of the same anti-Semitic attacks on Jews that this pope so eloquently condemned during his visit.
But those images are more connected to the history of the papacy than to the current pope wearing his signature white robe and head covering.
Watching the pope patiently listen to a state representative explain to him the Jewish history of the Temple Mount, including the First and Second Temples, the sensitivity he displayed was striking.
Also, during Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz’s speech on the essentiality of Jews in world history, the many persecutions of Jews over the centuries, and the inalienable Jewish right to Jerusalem, he listened intently. He showed no offense, despite remarks which were partly universal and partly trumpeting Jewish chosenness.
The pope declined to make any remarks, saving his main Israel-focused comments on the Holocaust for his later Yad Vashem visit.
But he prayed, with head bent, reaching out to touch the Wall with eyes intensely focused for some 90 seconds and, as is customary, placed a note in the Wall.
Sources indicated that the note the pope placed in the Wall included both the Lord’s Prayer from the New Testament and Psalm 122 from the Bible.
He also signed the guestbook, paying homage to the Jewish people as Christianity’s “older brothers” in the religious service of god.
The positive feeling of most of those present appeared to be of a pope who has not merely left behind the darker days of Church history but, as one from a non-traditional, non-European background, is also able to take brave action and for peace.
One might, for a moment, dare to hope he can inspire peace not only within his flock of some 1.2 billion Catholics, but also, possibly, among Muslims, Jews and others.