Pope Francis Brings HOPE to Jerusalem

May, 2014

Pope Francis was joined on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land by a retinue of interfaith leaders from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths. Joining them, were leaders from the Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh religions. This Pope brought a message of hope, born out of mutual respect and love between all people of faith.

Never before has there been a Pope who has had such a deep relationship with those from other faiths. In particular, he admires and understands Judaism as a living faith. This Pope has much more than childhood friends who were Jewish or theological appreciation for Judaism. He has deep friendships with the Jewish community of his homeland and a track record of sustained encounter, hospitality and spiritual sharing. Never in history has a Pope ascended to the throne of the Papacy with such deep respect, appreciation and even love for the Jewish religion, as practiced by his neighbouring Jews.

And the good news continues. Never before has there been a Pope who has come to visit the Holy Land with his Jewish friend (Rabbi Avraham Skorka) and his Mulsim friend, the Imam, as part of his entourage. What seems to be a purely Christian visit is in fact an interreligious pilgrimage. This says a lot about the man, his vision and the message he seeks to bring.

Several months prior to the Papal visit, at an event at the YMCA hosted by the Elijah Interfaith Institute, leading Jewish and Christian figures, including Rabbi David Rosen, spoke with great hope for the impact this visit will have. The Bishops and Rabbis on the platform spoke with one voice about the unique qualities, abilities and charisma of Pope Francis and their faith in his ability to heal wounds.

Elijah Joins Pope Francis on his Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Members and representatives of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders were in Israel to join Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew on their recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land. A number had the honour of participating in a reception at the home of President Shimon Peres and on the evening after his departure held an Interreligious Forum to discuss the significance of the visit.

Bhai Sahib Bhai Mohinder Singh (Sikh) of Elijah’s Board of World Religious Leaders, flew in from Birmingham in order to be present at this historic moment. He was joined by Suhkbir Singh (Sikh) and Maria Reis Habito, representing Dharma Master Hsin Tao (Buddhist leader), along with Sadhvi Bhagavati Saraswati, (Hindu), who joined us from India. They wanted to emphasise that Jerusalem is not just sacred for Jews, Christians and Muslims but that it holds great significance for them, too. At a time when the Pope was extending the message of positive relationships between the three Abrahamic faiths, their presence underscored Elijah’s vision of Jerusalem as a beacon of hope for ALL religions to meet in harmony.

Alon Goshen-Gottstein and Bhai Sahib Bhai were able to meet Archbishop Bartholomew at a luncheon in his honour at the invitation of fellow member of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders, Rabbi David Rosen.

Elijah had fifteen representatives at the home of President Peres when the Pope made his official visit. Although the event was more ceremonial than substantial, Elijah’s presence there as an invited organisation was important. It was Peres who quoted from the brochure of the Center of HOPE – the words of the Prophet Isaiah that Jerusalem should be a House of Prayer for all people. He also used the memorable line, paraphrasing the Biblical verse, “I was young and now I have grown old and I have learnt that dreams do not age.” This is most applicable to the dream of the Centre of HOPE – and to Elijah’s vision in general.

Reflecting on the Significance of the Papal Visit

Elijah held an event of the evening of the Pope’s departure to reflect on the significance of the pilgrimage here and to consider what impact it might have had.

The evening event was held at the YMCA.

Alon Goshen-Gottstein moderated the discussion and began by asking Rabbi Daniel Sperber, who is a Rabbi from the Old City of Jerusalem and a friend of Elijah’s work, about the resistance of some Jewish groups to the visit of the Pope. The Rabbi emphasised the importance of educational work to counter negative attitudes based on ignorance. He drew distinctions between the ultra-Orthodox segments who live in the Old City, who have become radicalised on a range of issues, and Jews in other places. Rabbi Sperber also emphasised that this visit was part of a process of reconciliation between Jews and Christians and that processes of this magnitude take time and are achieved through small, sometimes symbolic, steps. We were joined on the phone by Rabbi Avraham Skorka, the Pope’s Rabbi, who had hope to be present in person but was caught up by delays in the Pope’s itinerary. Rabbi Skorka said that it was too early to evaluate the significance of the pilgrimage – which he was still on. He did believe that many important acts of symbolism had been accomplished. He was disappointed that the visit was not free from politics but acknowledged that it was unlikely that a visit to this part of the world could avoid such an encroachment. For him, the moments with the Pope at the Kotel brought with them a flood of emotions, including remembrance of those members of his family who perished in the Holocaust and thus did not have the opportunity to make such a pilgrimage.

He, like others, felt that the Pope’s speech at Yad Vashem (the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem) was a great contribution to all of humanity. The Pope asked, “Adam (Man), where are you?” paraphrasing God’s call to the first man in the first book of the Bible. “Who corrupted you, who disfigured you, who led you to believe you are the master of good and evil? Not only did you torture your brothers and sisters but you sacrificed them to yourself, because you made yourself a God.” “Once again in this place we hear this voice of God. Adam, where are you?”

The next participant to join the forum was Shaykh Abd al-Wahid Pallavicini, who had joined the Pope from Milan. The Shaykh explained a little about the relationship of Islam to other religions and also emphasised the importance of education to overcome prejudice. His son, who is himself a leader of the Muslim community, joined him on stage and said that he believed that the sacred sites of each of the religious traditions should be sacred to all. He urged religious leaders to see how we can share religious sites and make all feel welcome everywhere. For him, the significance of the visit was that it was genuinely an interreligious pilgrimage. This was the new sign of hope.

When Bhai Sahib joined the group on the stage, Alon asked him why he was there. His answer was greatly appreciated by the gathering – Jerusalem is sacred for so many people. Its sanctity is in and from the people who are nurtured by the city. A place sacred for other people is sacred for Sikhs, too. Bhai Sahib also hoped that his presence would expand the circle of sanctity and give additional meaning to the pilgrimage of the Pope. Sadhvi Bhagavati Saraswati was the final speaker. She felt that the Pope’s pilgrimage had been meaningful. Although it may not have immediately yielded all the hoped-for outcomes, it was a step in an important process. Jerusalem needs healing and this was a moment of healing. We too often forget that the unhappiness or destructive attitudes or behaviours of one part humanity affects us all. Focusing only on what our own community’s needs are will not achieve the outcome we want because our destinies are bound together. The Pope provided a common focus and a beacon of hope.