Today was another busy day for Pope Francis.
Pope Francis departed Jordan for Bethlehem this morning. On his way into Bethlehem, Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop at the Israeli West Bank barrier, i.e. the wall. I know that barrier quite well, having crossed it several times last summer.
In some ways, Pope Francis’ prayer at the wall was his Reagan-Gorbachev moment.
The first official item on his schedule in Bethlehem was to visit the “President of the State of Palestine.” This was a highly symbolic move that reinforces the Vatican’s calls for a two-state solution. In his address at the Presidential Palace in Bethlehem, Pope Francis made this explicit:
The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good, the courage to forge a peace which rests on the acknowledgment by all of the right of two States to exist and to live in peace and security within internationally recognized borders.
Later in his speech he referred explicitly to the “State of Palestine,” a move sure to infuriate many Israelis.
In his homily during Mass in Manger Square, Pope Francis spoke of the sufferings of children:
The Child of Bethlehem is frail, like all newborn children. He cannot speak and yet he is the Word made flesh who came to transform the hearts and lives of all men and women. This Child, like every other child, is vulnerable; he needs to be accepted and protected. Today too, children need to be welcomed and defended, from the moment of their conception.
In Manger Square Pope Francis also made a direct appeal to President Abbas of Palestine and President Peres of Israel to meet at the Vatican to engage in peace talks:
In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace. I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer.
According to CNN, the Palestinians have accepted the pope’s invitation. The Israeli President’s office, on the other hand, issued a statement saying: “President Peres has always supported, and will continue to support, any attempts to progress the cause of peace.” Whether President Peres’ statement is an official acceptance of the Pope’s invitation remains to be seen.
After greeting children from several refugee camps, the Pope departed for Tel Aviv. After landing in Tel Aviv, Pope Francis gave an address in which he reached out to the people of Israel:
In union with all men and women of good will, I implore those in positions of responsibility to leave no stone unturned in the search for equitable solutions to complex problems, so that Israelis and Palestinians may live in peace. The path of dialogue, reconciliation and peace must constantly be taken up anew, courageously and tirelessly. There is simply no other way. And so I renew the appeal made in this place by Pope Benedict XVI: the right of the State of Israel to exist and to flourish in peace and security within internationally recognized borders must be universally recognized. At the same time, there must also be a recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign homeland and their right to live with dignity and with freedom of movement. The “Two State Solution” must become reality and not remain merely a dream.
At the end of his address, the Pope again invited President Peres and President Abbas to the Vatican.
Pope Francis then departed for Jerusalem. After landing in Jerusalem, the Pope met with Patriarch Bartholomew. Following their private meeting, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew signed a joint declaration. The “Common Declaration of Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I” consists of ten points:
- Remembrance of the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem fifty years ago
- Reflection on the work done since that historic meeting and an acknowledgement of the work which lies ahead
- Hope for the day when Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians may share in the Eucharist
- Praise of the work done by the Joint International Commission
- Acknowledgement of the common mission between the churches
- Call for greater stewardship of Creation
- Commitment to religious freedom
- Concern for Christians in the Middle East
- Desire to reconcile the human family
- Commendation of their journey to the Virgin Mary
Following the signing of the joint declaration was the Ecumenical Meeting at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew both gave addresses. The Pope’s speech during this ecumenical celebration was full of Pope Francis’ characteristic humility and grace:
In this Basilica, which all Christians regard with the deepest veneration, my pilgrimage in the company of my beloved brother in Christ, His Holiness Bartholomaios, now reaches its culmination. We are making this pilgrimage in the footsteps of our venerable predecessors, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, who, with courage and docility to the Holy Spirit, made possible, fifty years ago, in this holy city of Jerusalem, an historic meeting between the Bishop of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople…
Here I reiterate the hope already expressed by my predecessors for a continued dialogue with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, aimed at finding a means of exercising the specific ministry of the Bishop of Rome which, in fidelity to his mission, can be open to a new situation and can be, in the present context, a service of love and of communion acknowledged by all (cf. JOHN PAUL II, Ut Unum Sint, 95-96).
Patriarch Bartholomew also reached out to the Pope in his address:
Your Holiness and dearly beloved brother in Christ, Your Beatitude Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem, much loved brother and concelebrant in the Lord, Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, and very reverend representatives of the Christian churches and confessions, Esteemed brothers and sisters, It is with awe, emotion and respect that we stand before “the place where the Lord lay,” the life-giving tomb from which life emerged…
Fifty years ago, two great church leaders, the late Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, cast out fear; they cast away from themselves the fear which had prevailed for a millennium, a fear which had kept the two ancient Churches, of the West and East, at a distance from one another, sometimes even setting them up against each other. Instead, as they stood before this sacred space, they exchanged fear with love. And so here we are with His Holiness Pope Francis, as their successors, following in their footsteps and honoring their heroic initiative. We have exchanged an embrace of love, even as we continue along the path toward full communion with one another in love and truth (Eph. 4.15) in order “that the world may believe” (John 17.21) that no other way leads to life except the way of love, reconciliation, genuine peace and fidelity to the Truth.
Tomorrow will be another full day for Pope Francis. More to come!