Around the Middle East in three days? The head of the Catholic Church prayed at the separation barrier between Israel and Palestine, called for an end to the civil war in Syria, visited as many Biblical sites as possible, and celebrated mass from Bethlehem to Jordan, greeting muftis, rabbis, refugees, and presidents along the way. The Pope, as has become typical for him, broke with expectations, choosing to travel in an open-top vehicle in order to easily greet crowds, instead of the bulletproof Popemobile of his ancestors. No one can accuse Francis, subject of merchandise emblazoned “I Heart Papa Francesco” in Vatican City, of shying away from the people.
This Pope is certainly a gift to the Church’s PR, a fountain of positive sound bites, recently stating his belief that “God is in every person’s life. Not just Catholics. Everyone!” Asked, “Father, the atheists?” he responded, “Even the atheists. Everyone!” Since assuming the office, Francis has promoted a vision of an inclusive Church, one that is more tolerant. On many issues, including celibacy for priests, the Church’s view of homosexuality, and corruption in the Vatican, the Pope has broken the Vatican’s silence. He is the first Pope to at least encourage dialogue on issues the Church has quieted for far too long, and he took his talent for talk to the Middle East.
In Bethlehem, on the most politically charged day of his trip, he invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli President Shimon Peres to the Vatican in June, to discuss peace in the region. Both accepted within the hour. Whether or not concrete results come of this, the Pope has impelled these leaders to make a public commitment to dialogue, unexpected after the failed peace talks last month.
Last September, the Pope asked, meditating on Syria, “Can we learn once again to walk in the ways of peace?”
He’s certainly trying to ride that way.