This week Pope Francis concluded a successful visit to the State of Israel, the fourth pontiff to make such a pilgrimage. In doing so, he follows in the footsteps of his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, as well as Pope Paul VI and the recently canonized Pope John Paul II.
The relationship between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church is at least 2,000 years old. As such one ought not to expect revolutions in how the two groups interact but at best occasional evolutionary adjustments. Yet despite those expectations, a significant revolution has occurred, and it is in that context that Pope Francis’ just-concluded visit to Israel should be viewed. A confluence of political and theological events which has taken place over the past 50 years has transformed a relationship previously underscored by animosity, rejection and denial into one based on recognition, dialogue and friendship.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates this revolution than the pope’s laying a wreath on the tomb of Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, this past Monday. A century earlier, in 1904, Herzl had met with Pope Pius X seeking his support for the establishment of a Jewish State in the Holy Land. He was turned down flat.
Fast forward a hundred years and Pope Francis arrived in the sovereign state of Israel as a representative not only of the Catholic faithful but as the head of state of the Vatican. The visit was able to encompass all official elements of a state visit because 20 years earlier, on Dec. 30 1993, full diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and the Holy See were established.
This milestone in the history of the Jewish people and the Catholic Church could only have come about in turn because of another seminal event from the recent past. The promulgation of Nostra Aetate, the papal document produced 50 years ago during the papacies of John XXIII and Paul VI, transformed the way in which Catholics viewed and interacted with Jews and as such, helped bring about this most recent pilgrimage.
Pope Francis’ visit sent a much needed message of harmony and reconciliation to the region. The papal delegation included a rabbi and imam with whom the pope had developed a strong connection in his native Argentina and their presence should be seen as a lesson in tolerance and mutual respect, bidding all three monotheistic religions to pull together in one direction for greater peace.
The Catholic Church and the State of Israel face challenges as we move further into the 21st century. The plight of minorities in the greater Middle East, including and especially Christians, has perhaps never been so urgent, except in the birthplace of the Christian faith; Israel is the only state in the Middle East that has seen an increase in its Christian population. This is an area in which the Holy See and Jerusalem can hopefully cooperate more extensively.
In addition, there still remains the scourge of anti-Semitism. Sadly, we received a terrible reminder of this plague’s persistence during the pope’s visit, when a terrorist attack took place on Saturday at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, claiming the lives of four innocents. We must not allow the oldest form of hatred to rear its ugly head again. Pope Francis himself has been clear and forthcoming on this; “Because of our common roots,” he declared in June 2013, “a true Christian cannot be anti-Semitic.” Such an unequivocal message deserves to be spread far and wide, and not just among Christians.
In preparation for this visit, the State of Israel devised a logo of bearing the words: “Peace, Faith and Tolerance.” Those values were reflected in Pope Francis’ clearly palpable friendship with the Jewish People as well as by his concern for Syrian refugees in Jordan and for the Palestinian people. It is our fervent wish that those words take root in the all too often stony soil of the Middle East. We are heartened to see in this pope a true standard bearer of this message.