Though prospects for a political gospel were low from its onset, there still was a quest for a political caveat in the fourth papal visit to the Jewish state, which ended last night.
Pope Francis did what little he could on that front, creating one photo opportunity Israelis didn’t like and another that the Palestinians didn’t like, and also initiating a binational prayer that no one can dislike.
Of course, with the relentless President Shimon Peres being part of that prayer, it might not be wise to dismiss as merely symbolic his and PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s invitation to jointly pray at the Vatican.
Should something substantive transpire when the two simultaneously address God, it will immediately be crowned as this visit’s claim to fame.
Short of this improbable outcome, the visit was much more important religiously than it was politically.
The pope’s unscheduled photo-op at the anti-terror wall in Bethlehem, and his unplanned visit at the terror- victims’ memorial in Jerusalem, were photogenic and also easier to evaluate, especially for pundits who rightly care for war and peace more than for other issues. Still, the papal visit’s significance lies in the realms of theology and history.
Back when the Jewish state was still a dream, Pope Pius X dismissed Theodor Herzl’s plea that the Holy See support the Jews’ claim for a national home in their ancestral land.
“We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem,” said that pontiff sanctimoniously, “but we could never sanction it,” while adding what would be Catholic policy for nearly the entire twentieth century: “We are unable to favor this movement” – meaning Zionism.
In line with its historic obsession with all things Jewish – from the accusation of “the Jews” of deicide to the insistence that the Jews had ceased to be who they are, because the Christians were the real Jews, or verus Israel – the Vatican could not bring itself to back the Zionist idea.
It took 16 years for the thaw to begin, first with Pope Paul VI’s visit in 1964, and then with the retreat from the charge of deicide.
Still, full recognition of the Jewish state came only during the papacy of John Paul, who established full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state and paved the way for his two successors’ visits here, thus making papal visits in the Jewish state a matter of tradition.
Herzl’s audience took place in the winter of 1904, just before the summer in which he died at age 44.
Yesterday, a pope laid a wreath on Herzl’s tomb, thus lending yet more symbolism to Christianity’s dramatic reconciliation with the Jewish faith, the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
To appreciate the pictures that by now seem routine, of pope after pope standing attention to the sound of “Hatikva,” in the presence of Israeli armed guards under flapping flags of blue and white, one must juxtapose them with this relationship’s traumatic origins.
For instance, a short car ride downhill from where Francis yesterday met the Jewish state’s chief rabbis, cross-bearing warriors in 1099 torched one set of Jews in Jerusalem’s main synagogue, before selling another set of Jews to slavery at a rate of 30 for a single golden coin – a whimsical allusion to the story about Judas’s betrayal of Jesus for 30 silver coins.
Such memories are useful not only for a better view of the revolution in Catholicism’s attitude toward the Jews.
Bearing in mind the libels the Jews now face, like those to which Francis was treated yesterday by Jerusalem’s mufti, it is good to recall that even the most implacable hatred in the history of religion was ultimately turned on its face.