Remembering Israel, the Pope, and the words that matter now more than ever…
Last May, I traveled to Israel with the Catholic Press Association as a guest of the Israel Ministry of Tourism to cover Pope Francis’ meeting with the Patriarch of Constantinople. On May 26, the day after Pope Francis met with Patriarch Bartholomew in Jerusalem, the Holy Father attended a reception at President Shimon Peres’ home. I was also invited to that reception and had the privilege of hearing the Holy Father address President Peres and the people of Israel.
I met four young men that day. They were from a school near Mount Carmel. I loved the true brotherhood I saw in the boys who sat in front of me. As far as I could tell, they loved three things: their country, their Pope, and soccer. These are the things you learn when you make small talk and wait for the Pope to arrive.
During the Holy Father’s speech, I snapped a picture of Pope Francis who was seated a short distance in front of us. My line of vision to the Holy Father passed directly between the heads of these young Carmelite students. As I snapped the picture, the Holy Father was saying:
“Mr President, you know that I pray for you and I know that you pray for me, and I assure you of my prayers for the institutions and the citizens of the State of Israel. I likewise assure you of my constant prayer for the attainment of peace and all the inestimable goods which accompany it: security, tranquillity, prosperity – and that which is most beautiful – fraternity.”
I had to smile, because the young soccer players had thrown their arms around one another’s shoulders and were enthralled by the Holy Father’s words. The young men embodied the spirit of fraternity.
Our last day in Jerusalem, we visited the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane. The area is full of gnarled olive trees, some centuries old. In one corner of the Mount of Olives, there is a young olive tree – just fifty years old. This tree was planted by Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in 1964 on the day they met in Jerusalem to pursue unity and brotherhood between the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches. The Common Declaration between the Holy Father and Patriarch Bartholomew on May 25th affirmed: “Our fraternal encounter today is a new and necessary step on the journey towards the unity to which only the Holy Spirit can lead us, that of communion in legitimate diversity. We call to mind with profound gratitude the steps that the Lord has already enabled us to undertake” (2).
On Pentecost Sunday, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew met again, this time at the Vatican, and renewed their commitment to pursue unity. There were two other important guests that day at the Vatican. Israel President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had responded to the invitation by Pope Francis to participate in an “Invocation for Peace”.
I thought back to my time in Israel. Our dreams. Our hopes. The living testament to building and rebuilding the bonds that connect us – Orthodox and Catholic, Palestinian and Israeli.
On our last night in Israel, I stayed in Tel Aviv. My hotel room safe was stuck in lock mode and the desk clerk came up to unlock it. He fixed the safe, and I pulled my laptop out and set it on the desk. We chatted a few minutes. About the Pope. About the final weeks of President Shimon Peres’ presidency. About who might take his place.
We also talked about peace and the things that threaten it. Terrorism. Injustice. Political machinations that selfishly seek to destroy others.
The young man was a political science student, and he greatly respected the Holy Father’s approach to the common man. He remarked that the Pope received others, not as a superior might, but as one brother-to-another.
Pope Francis believes in fraternity. He calls to us to embrace the common brotherhood that affirms the bond of our humanity. We are blessed to belong to a Church that does not accept division – because unity and fraternity are beautiful. Lovely. Worth pursuing.
In their Common Declaration Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew blazed the trail ahead of us, saying, “we call upon all Christians, together with believers of every religious tradition and all people of good will, to recognize the urgency of the hour that compels us to seek the reconciliation and unity of the human family, while fully respecting legitimate differences, for the good of all humanity and of future generations. In undertaking this shared pilgrimage to the site where our one same Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, buried and rose again, we humbly commend to the intercession of the Most Holy and Ever Virgin Mary our future steps on the path towards the fullness of unity, entrusting to God’s infinite love the entire human family” (9-10).
The Holy Father’s visit to the Holy Land – those were precious moments – so full of hope. At times, those days and those words seem so far away. At times, the doubts creep in and all seems lost. But it isn’t lost. It isn’t wishful thinking. It is real. As real as those boys seated in front of me – arms wrapped around one another – listening to their Pope, their President, and thinking about soccer.
Some things don’t change. I’m guessing those boys are still thinking about these important things.
And I am still thinking about fraternity, and the words I heard Pope Francis say in Israel:
“I likewise assure you of my constant prayer for the attainment of peace and all the inestimable goods which accompany it: security, tranquillity, prosperity – and that which is most beautiful – fraternity.”