[ by Charles Cameron — noting the fluency in symbolism that marks the current Pontificate ]
It’s no mistake that Pope Francis made the same gesture at two walls during his visit to Bethlehem and Jerusalem yesterday.
As a priest, he’s trained in the symbolic, sacramental tradition of Catholicism — in which the ritual gestures of the priest bring together the past (at the Last Supper), the present (in each particular celebration of Mass) and the future / eternity (to the Marriage Feast of the Lamb) in the name of the one who said, bringing time and eternity together, “Before Abraham was, I am”.
From Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis:
every eucharistic celebration sacramentally accomplishes the eschatological gathering of the People of God. For us, the eucharistic banquet is a real foretaste of the final banquet foretold by the prophets (cf. Is 25:6-9) and described in the New Testament as “the marriage-feast of the Lamb” (Rev 19:7-9), to be celebrated in the joy of the communion of saints.
In addition to this priestly gestural pulling together of different times into a heightened “synchronic” whole, however, Pope Francis is also a Jesuit, a man of canny wit and skilfull means, and he wishes us to see in his two parallel gestures a comparison and contrast, which we are to ponder.
It would be all too easy to close out our ponderings with a quick analysis — by touching and praying at the “Separation Wall” he means to indicate he’s on the Palestinian side — and indeed his use of the words “Palestinian State” suggest that he is certainly not viewing the Israeli Palestinian issue from, let’s say, the exclusive viewpoint of a Netanyahu. Seen thus, and from a partisan perspective, this would make it easy for us to approve or disapprove his motives. But I believe that this would be to misjudge the man.
He has also offered his hospitality — a virtue to which Christians are commanded, see I Peter 4.9 — to the two Presidents — again, a symbolic doubling:
In this place where the Prince of Peace was born, I desire to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, and President Shimon Peres, to raise together with me an intense prayer to God for the gift of peace. And I offer my house in the Vatican to host you in this encounter of prayer.
The purpose of his hopitality, then — in his house within the Vatican, known for its simplicity compared with the Apostolic Palace his predecessors inhabited — is prayer: an opening up, not a closure. For peace to come, there must be a shift — inspiration, imagination, goodwill, concessions, hard lines erased and new, more equitable and agreeable arrangements found.
It is war that tends to draw hard lines: peace softens them. Pope Francis speaks both symbolism and realism like a native.