The visit of Pope Francis to Israel coincides with the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting between the leaders of the Western and Eastern churches on the Mount of Olives in 1964.
While that groundbreaking meeting set the groundwork for rapprochement between the Catholics and the Christian Orthodox after some 900 years of schism, a no less revolutionary a transformation has taken place in the past five decades in relations between Israel and the Catholic Church.
In 1964, Paul VI, the first pope to visit Israel, failed to officially recognize the State of Israel and avoided meeting with Israeli statesmen. His whirlwind visit lasted just a few hours.
Today, a visit to Israel has become de rigueur for any self-respecting pope. John Paul II set the formula in 2000: visits to the Western Wall and Yad Vashem, meetings with the president, the prime minister and the chief rabbis and back to Rome. In 2009, Benedict XVI followed the same framework. So will Francis. This sea change marks a normalization in relations that would be remarkable considering the Church’s long history of anti-Semitism if it were not so, well, normal.
Much has been made of the fact that the pontiff’s first state visit made of his own initiative is to the Holy Land.
Some have speculated that in addition to the 50th anniversary date, the visit is the result of pressure brought to bear by President Shimon Peres, who wanted it to take place before he left office in July. Another factor might be a desire by Francis to mark 20 years of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Church.
Then there is Francis’s philo-Semitism. Already in 1964, the Church repudiated a millennia-long tradition of “No salvation outside the Church,” a formulation dating back to the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The Church repudiated the “Christ-killer” slander against Jews and affirmed that the covenant God made with Israel is full and permanent – a reversal of the replacement theology that had defined Catholic self-understanding from the time of the Church fathers.
Francis seemed to go further when he praised the Jews for remaining faithful to God “despite the awful trials of these last centuries.” If Jews were once condemned for being present when Jesus appeared but choosing to reject him, Francis was now thanking them for holding stubbornly to their faith.
As James Carroll, a scholar of the Church, noted recently in The New Yorker, “None of the potential changes to doctrine facing the contemporary Church compare with the depth of this revision.” And of course there is the fact that he is making the trip together with his long-time friend Argentinean Rabbi Abraham Skorka.
During his visit to Israel, Francis will surely succeed in conveying more warmth and emotion than did his predecessor. While Benedict intentions were good, he is cerebral and ponderously philosophical and comes off as cold and distant.
Francis, in contrast, is a veritable papal pop star. He has done and said things that have made the entire world – Catholic and not – pay attention.
He visits prisons and hospitals and comforts Catholics and non-Catholics, famously washing and kissing their feet. Responding to his comment that non-believers with a conscience might join Catholics on “the beautiful path toward peace,” American television host and comedian Bill Maher joked that “Pope Frank” might be an atheist. His remarkable “Who am I to judge” statement about the spiritual fate of homosexuals has become almost a motto of his papacy – and a testament to his character.
While visiting Yad Vashem, Francis will undoubtedly articulate his unconventional – and surprisingly Jewish – theological approach to the Holocaust. In correspondence with an atheist Italian journalist, Francis admitted that he “questioned God, especially when my mind went to the memory of the terrible experience of the Shoah.”
An especially warm, expressive and sensitive pope is on the way to the Holy Land to embrace Israel. A process begun 50 years ago of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people continues.