Pope's Holy Land Trip Raises Hopes, Questions

Pope Francis speaks as he leads a meeting with priests, men and women religious and seminarians in the Church of All Nations at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem on May 26

Given the Holy Land's long and complex history of military, religious and cultural conflict, the run-up to Pope Francis' May 24-26 pilgrimage was inevitably marked by fears it would be marred by controversy—or worse.

Now that the pope's second international trip is over, so are those fears. The suspense is not, however. With a number of surprising gestures and remarks over three busy days, the pope left Catholics and others around the world wondering what comes next on a range of important questions.


Pope Francis made headlines on the second day of his trip by inviting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to join him at the Vatican to pray together for peace.

Most observers have set low expectations for that still-unscheduled event, in part because Peres' position is largely ceremonial and, in any case, his term is set to expire in July.

Pope Francis would no doubt say pessimists underrate the power of prayer. He could point to his efforts last fall against U.S. President Barack Obama's plans to use military force in Syria, which culminated in an unprecedented prayer vigil for peace that drew some 100,000 to St. Peter's Square. The U.S., of course, did not strike Syria after all.

Practical results aside, Pope Francis' bold initiatives have earned him the role of pre-eminent voice for peace in the Middle East. That distinction could have more than symbolic importance for local attitudes toward the region's fast-diminishing Christian minorities.

During his trip, the pope told Abbas and Peres that Christians contribute to the "common good" in their countries and deserve to be treated as "full citizens."

No speech could make that point more eloquently than news photos of Jewish and Muslim political leaders praying for peace, side by side in the Vatican.

The original reason for Pope Francis' Holy Land trip was a meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic encounter between their predecessors. The earlier meeting led the Catholic and Orthodox churches to lift mutual excommunications imposed in 1054 and opened the modern period of ecumenical dialogue.

Not surprisingly, this year's event did not yield any comparable breakthroughs, but there were hints of progress to come.

The pope told reporters on the flight back to Rome that he and Patriarch Bartholomew discussed possible collaborative efforts to protect the environment. They also talked about prospects for resolving differences in how the churches set the date of Easter every year.

Pope Francis, with his characteristic frankness, called the latter a "ridiculous" problem. Yet reconciling the timing of Christianity's most sacred feast could have a big impact on ordinary Catholics and Orthodox, leading many to view full communion between the churches as a more realistic goal. (Catholic and Orthodox leaders in the Holy Land already have already begun that process by agreeing that, beginning next year, they will celebrate Easter on the same date.)

During an inflight news conference on the way back to Rome, the pope was asked about reports that Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a former Vatican secretary of state, mishandled 15 million euros in funds held by the Institute for the Works of Religion, commonly known as the Vatican bank.

Without naming the cardinal, the pope said the matter was "being studied, it's not clear. Maybe it could be true, but at this moment it's not definitive."

The results of the investigation, if it finds the cardinal at fault, would have implications beyond the case itself. Few actions by the pope could do as much to show his seriousness about reforming the Vatican bureaucracy as publicly disciplining or rebuking the man who, until just last October, served as the Vatican's highest official.

The pope told reporters the door is open to allowing more married priests in the Catholic Church, in the Latin rite as well as the Eastern Catholic churches, where the practice is already established.

"Celibacy is not a dogma of faith," he said, which should not have surprised anyone familiar with the church's discipline. But he added pointedly: "Not being a dogma of faith, the door is always open."

Given how controversial this issue already is in parts of the Catholic world, the pope's comment is likely to prompt only more discussion.

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Christopher Rushlau
4 years 7 months ago
Someone has to remind this writer of the pastoral role in politics, which is not to avoid "controversy", but rather to point out the moral principles by which politics gives voice to the "common good" which must be specified so as to be made a concrete principle of government for there to be law and a civil regime, in accordance with the definition of law as "a mandate of reason promulgated by authority for the common good". In the case of racism, that is, the state-administered division of the people into two groups, one of which "lords it over" the other, I don't know if this Church has ever taken a stand on the question. But racism as I define it seems to strike at the heart of politics and thus of civil law. There is no controversy as to the facts in the Middle East as to racism. In Israel a person registered with the government as Jewish has a hundred times better chance of gaining a building permit as one "known to the authorities" as not Jewish. This is why the issue of Israeli government bulldozers destroying "illegally built" homes is a live issue. In Lebanon the situation might be said to be even worse, where those identified officially as Christian are alloted half the seats in Parliament and those as Muslim get the other half, despite Christians numbering perhaps thirty percent of the national population on the one hand and Shiite Muslims by themselves constituting more than half of the national population, on the other, which puts the US-condemned Shiite group Hezbullah in the position of being the legitimate government of Lebanon. I came across a bit of the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas once at college. Under the general heading of law, he said that if a Prince, that is, civil authority, no longer pursues the common good, he is no longer the Prince.


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