Those of us who grew up in the days of Saint John Paul need reminding that travelling Popes are a fairly new phenomenon. We’ve had two papal visits to the UK since 1982, for instance, but before that not a single one. Ever. John Paul covered more miles as Pope than the 264 before him put together. Admittedly, Popes of the late twentieth century had huge advantages in this regard, but nevertheless most Popes of the past were quite content to stay in Rome, and almost never venture beyond modern day Italy. Even as late as 1800, it was considered quite a big deal when the Pope of the day ‘crossed the Alps’ for the crowning of Napoleon.
Into this relatively new phenomenon comes the latest journey of Pope Francis to the Holy Land. Francis – like Benedict before him – isn’t as keen on racking up the airmiles as John Paul was. He tends to pick his moments carefully and like most of what he does, they tend to hit home. Just ask any of the three million young people who were with him on Copacabana beach in Rio last summer!
The significance of the Holy Land to Christians doesn’t need much explanation, but the problem is that it also features quite prominently in the history of two other major faiths, and that fact, as all the world knows, has caused more than a few issues.
Whenever Pope’s travel, the same set of questions is usually posed, at least by the media: What line will the Pope take on the major issues in the area? And – for the more discerning observer – what will the visit contribute to the big issues and questions of the day inside the Church?
By far the most interesting issue whenever the Middle East comes up is the Palestine question. Right on schedule, it’s coming up this time too, thanks in no small part to the current negotiations between the Vatican and the Palestinian Authority over the Church’s rights and position within the territories. The Israelis are a little irate over the Church’s continued use of the phrase ‘State of Palestine’ both in those negotiations and in their official documents ahead of the trip.
The Catholic communities in Palestine are well known in the Church, and there is a lot of sympathy for them. Sympathy, which can quite often turn into anger at the Israelis. Francis will almost certainly navigate these tensions well, but it’s likely that the Palestinians will enjoy the visit far more than their neighbours.
Also contentious are a few of the stops Francis is making during the three-day tour. He will be visiting the Cenecle in Jerusalem, the room traditionally held as the site of the Last Supper (for ‘traditionally held’ read: ‘we don’t really know for sure!’). As with so much in Jerusalem, the site is also sacred to Muslims and Jews too, so it’s no surprise that the more extreme factions within both groups aren’t that happy about the stop.
In terms of Catholic-specific issues, the trip will also be looked at by some for any clues as to what might happen in the upcoming synod this October discussing issues around pastoral care and divorce. It almost certainly won’t give away much in that regard, but that won’t stop the more lazy commentators looking! At least under Francis those lazy commentators have stopped trying to link every last damn thing to the ‘abuse scandals.’
I could take up a lot of words analysing and counter-analysing the various flash points but the reality is that with Francis what seems like a minefield at the start of something has usually turned in to a bed of roses by the time it’s all done. Pope Francis doesn’t like to be scripted or handled, and unlike his immediate predecessor, his appearances have a touch of spontaneity about them that usually win over crowds and journalists alike, not to mention rank-and-file Catholics. Once a few soothing soundbites and pictures of touching personal moments are released, I doubt anybody will be talking controversy that much!