Pope Francis in Israel
The visit of Pope Francis to Israel on May 25 – 26 will mark an important milestone in the deepening relationship between the Catholic Church, Israel , and the Jewish people. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council adopted Nostra Aetate (“In our time”), a statement of doctrine which rejected the charge of deicide, condemned all forms of anti-Semitism, and reaffirmed the permanence of spiritual relationship between God and historic Israel. But it would take another twenty-eight years until the Vatican recognized the modern state of Israel and established diplomatic relations in 1993. This was a development of huge political import for us, deepening our relationship with one billion Church faithful, many in the developing world. For the Vatican it had major theological significance, because it meant that the Church now understood the return of the Jews to their land and to history, not as a problem for Catholic teaching, but as a reaffirmation of it.
I remember the incredible excitement which marked the pilgrimage visit of John Paul II to Israel in 2000, and the prayer note which he placed at the Western Wall, and which now resides at Yad Vashem. It read: “We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”
The visit of Pope Francis will be the third Papal pilgrimage to Jerusalem in fifteen years. It includes prayer at the Kotel, meeting with the Chief Rabbis, a visit to Yad Vashem, a festive interfaith event with President Shimon Peres at Beit Hanassi, and a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In addition, Pope Francis will lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. Indeed this is part of the official protocol, but consider the progress made since Herzl’s failed meeting with Pope Pius X in 1904. At that time, the Vatican rejected the national aspirations of the Jewish people and called for their conversion, if perchance they managed to settle in the Holy Land. A century and ten years later, our relationship has transformed from deep rejection to equal footing, spiritual respect, and political legitimation.
The Pope has a unique personal style, a common touch, warmth and modesty, love of the poor, and, during his Cardinalship, he promoted a strong relationship with the Jewish community of Argentina. Speaking to La Republica in September last year, Pope Francis made the following remarkable statement: “Through the awful trial of these last centuries, the Jews have preserved their faith in God. And for this, we, the Church, and the whole human family, can never be sufficiently grateful to them.”
The Papal entourage to Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority includes a Rabbi and an Imam, two friends of the Pope from Buenos Aires, but also important symbols of his spiritual message to our region. I believe that his message and personal example will resonate deeply with Israelis, in this difficult time for peace in particular, and we look forward to sharing with him his smile, vision, hope and prayer.
Akiva Tor, a Wexner Israel Fellowship alum (Class 13), is Bureau Head for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions at the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Some past positions have included Israel’s Consul General in San Francisco; Advisor on World Jewish Affairs to the President of Israel; Deputy Director of the Palestinian Affairs Department; Director of the Israel Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei; and Press Secretary at the Israeli Embassy in the Netherlands. Akiva can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.