VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis insists his weekend pilgrimage to the Middle East is a “strictly religious” commemoration of a key turning point in Catholic-Orthodox relations. But the delicate, three-day mission will test his diplomatic skills as he navigates Israeli-Palestinian tensions after the failure of the latest round of peace talks and fallout from Syria’s civil war.
For a pope who embraces spontaneity and shuns papal protocol and security, the potential pitfalls are obvious. Not to mention the fact that Francis’ stated purpose for traveling to Jordan, Israel and the West Bank has little to do with the geopolitical headlines of the day.
Francis has said his pilgrimage is designed to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Athenagoras.
Their iconic 1964 embrace — with the diminutive Paul almost dwarfed by the bearded, 6-foot, 4-inch Patriarch of Constantinople — ended 900 years of mutual excommunications and divisions between Catholic and Orthodox stemming from the Great Schism of 1054, which split Christianity. It was the first meeting of a pope and ecumenical patriarch since 1437, when Patriarch Joseph II was forced to kiss the feet of Pope Eugene IV in a sign of subservience.
“This meeting just opened the way ... for reconciliation,” the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, told The Associated Press in a recent interview in his offices in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The highlight of the trip that begins today will be a prayer service led by Francis and Athengoras’ successor, Bartholomew I, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the faithful believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected. The service itself will be historic, given that the three main Christian communities that share the church — Greek-Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic — will pray together at the same time.
Prayer services at the ancient church are usually separate, with each Catholic and Orthodox community jealously guarding its turf, scheduling individual services and getting into occasional fistfights over infractions — stark evidence of the divisions that remain five decades after Paul VI and Athenagoras made a first step toward Christian unity. And tellingly, no representative of the Russian Orthodox Church is expected to attend. Nevertheless, the Vatican is touting the service as an important step in the tortured millennium of Catholic-Orthodox division that began to heal in 1964.
During his weekly general audience, Francis asked for prayers. “It will be a strictly religious trip,” he said, adding that he also wanted to “pray for peace in the land that has suffered so much.”
In a strong indication that Francis’ priorities aren’t exclusively religious, his secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said the pope would be bringing a very strong message of peace just weeks after the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks ended in failure.
“I truly hope that the fruit would be to help all those responsible and all those of good will to take courageous decisions on the path to peace,” Parolin said.