The most encouraging aspect of the visit to Israel this weekend of Pope Francis is that such a papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land has become expected, if not routine, in recent years. Francis is the third consecutive pope to make the trip — the first foreign journey of his reign — following John Paul II in 2000 and Benedict XVI in 2009.
In Jewish lore, an act performed three times gives it the status of an accepted tradition, a chazakah. And so it is that this journey takes on a sense of permanence, more ceremonial than substantive, but reflecting warm relations between Jerusalem and the Vatican.
Full-scale diplomacy began two decades ago, and though a resolution of accords between the Holy See and the Jewish state related to property rights and tax exemptions has still not been achieved, interfaith observers say they expect it to be very soon. Further, they note that the compassionate and warm personality of Francis has lent to the excellent atmospherics leading up to this visit.
The one disturbing element, which has dominated headlines in Israel of late, is security concerns voiced by Israeli authorities. They worry that Jewish extremists may attempt to vandalize churches in an effort to disrupt the visit. There has been an increase in so-called “price-tag” attacks — retaliation for government actions against settlements deemed illegal — primarily from Jews who have targeted Christian and Muslim holy places. Ironically, Vatican officials privately have expressed deep concern over the threat presented by extremist Muslims to Christians in the Mideast, noting that only Israel protects this minority effectively.
Pope Francis will be traveling with a Muslim sheik and a rabbi, Abraham Skorka, a clerical colleague from his native Argentina. It will mark the first time leaders of other religions are part of an official papal delegation. The pope will first visit Jordan and Bethlehem, where he will meet with Palestinian officials, before coming to Israel. His Jerusalem itinerary includes Yad Vashem, the Western Wall, Christian sites and the Temple Mount.
Interfaith insiders say Francis is eager to engage in theological discussions with leaders of other faiths, including Judaism, during his papacy. In the meantime it is worth noting how far the Jewish-Catholic relationship has advanced since Vatican II five decades ago, proof that dramatic, positive change can take place when there is a sincere commitment to achieve understanding and brotherhood among God’s children.