Commentary Magazine


Topic: Pope Francis

Francis’s Misleading Middle East Symbolism

On Sunday, Pope Francis made good on his pledge to convene a summit of Israeli and Palestinian leaders for a prayer service in Rome. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was there along with Israel’s President Shimon Peres. Along with Francis, both made speeches calling for peace and listened as clergy from the three major faiths spoke of symbolic acts of reconciliation that were, as a number of commentators noted, supposed to show that at the very least, religion can be a uniting factor rather than the engine that drives separation and hostility. Even though no one is pretending that a few speeches or prayers in Rome will change the facts of a stalemate between the two sides in the peace talks, the gesture will reinforce the pope’s reputation as a man intent on healing the world.

Given the pope’s evident good will, it’s hard to argue with the idea that his summit will do no harm and might cause the two sides to think about working harder for peace. But this piece of conventional wisdom is misleading. Though no one should question the pope’s intentions, the event at the Vatican is more than empty symbolism. This piece of grandstanding on the part of the church not only did nothing to advance the cause of peace that was torpedoed by the Palestinian unity pact that brought the terrorists of Hamas into the PA along with Abbas’s Fatah. By lending the moral authority of a man who is rightly respected around the world for his probity and earnest desire to help others to a stunt that treats the partner of Islamist terrorists as a peacemaker, the event undermines any effort to pressure the PA to make a clear choice between peace with Israel or one with Hamas.

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On Sunday, Pope Francis made good on his pledge to convene a summit of Israeli and Palestinian leaders for a prayer service in Rome. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was there along with Israel’s President Shimon Peres. Along with Francis, both made speeches calling for peace and listened as clergy from the three major faiths spoke of symbolic acts of reconciliation that were, as a number of commentators noted, supposed to show that at the very least, religion can be a uniting factor rather than the engine that drives separation and hostility. Even though no one is pretending that a few speeches or prayers in Rome will change the facts of a stalemate between the two sides in the peace talks, the gesture will reinforce the pope’s reputation as a man intent on healing the world.

Given the pope’s evident good will, it’s hard to argue with the idea that his summit will do no harm and might cause the two sides to think about working harder for peace. But this piece of conventional wisdom is misleading. Though no one should question the pope’s intentions, the event at the Vatican is more than empty symbolism. This piece of grandstanding on the part of the church not only did nothing to advance the cause of peace that was torpedoed by the Palestinian unity pact that brought the terrorists of Hamas into the PA along with Abbas’s Fatah. By lending the moral authority of a man who is rightly respected around the world for his probity and earnest desire to help others to a stunt that treats the partner of Islamist terrorists as a peacemaker, the event undermines any effort to pressure the PA to make a clear choice between peace with Israel or one with Hamas.

In fairness to the pope, his foolish even-handed approach differs little from that of the Obama administration which has decided to continue to send aid to the PA despite the involvement of the Hamas terrorists in its administration following the signing of the unity pact. Together with the European Union, the United States has effectively given its stamp of approval to a PA government that is making peace impossible. Palestinian unity has not brought Hamas into a government bent on creating an agreement based on coexistence and an end to violence. Rather, it signifies the joint position of the two main Palestinian factions that proclaim their refusal to ever recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn.

Seen in that context, the ceremonial symbolism in Rome is not just a distraction from the reality of a PA that refused Israeli offers of independence and peace three times between 2000 and 2008 and also refused to negotiate seriously in the last year of American-sponsored talks that amounts to a fourth such refusal. So long as the world refuses to place the same kind of brutal pressure on the Palestinians to give up their war on Zionism and accept a two-state solution that it puts on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, peace will remain impossible for the foreseeable future.

It must also be pointed out that in the inclusion of Peres in the conclave rather than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the papal event engaged in the sort of cheap shot that is unworthy of a leader of the pope’s stature. While Abbas and Peres are technically both the heads of state of their respective government, the former is the leader of the PA while Peres’s role is purely ceremonial. Peres’s willingness to pretend that there is nothing wrong with a PA that partners with Hamas is in consistent with his past record of taking risks for peace. His Oslo led to the empowerment of a terrorist like Yasir Arafat but his international standing as a wise man has survived decisions that cost lives and did nothing to advance the goal he championed. But whatever we might think of Peres’s qualifications as a diplomat, going around Netanyahu’s back undermines Israeli democracy and allows those who seek to whitewash Abbas and the Fatah-Hamas government to say that they are merely agreeing with him. Peres’s presence at the summit was a rebuke to Israel’s government, which has rightly complained about the way the international community has given Abbas a free pass to make common cause with terrorists while still posing as a peacemaker. It bears repeating that it is only Netanyahu and his ministers who have the right to negotiate on behalf of the Israeli electorate that put them in office.

Nothing that happened in Rome today will help bring peace because the premise of the event is a foolish belief that what is needed is more dialogue. The two sides already know where they stand. Peace requires a Palestinian leader to have the guts to reject Hamas and those Fatah elements that are still supportive of terror and unwilling to bring the conflict to an end. Any prayer service or act of advocacy on behalf of Middle East peace that ignores this key question is part of the problem, not the solution. While we respect Pope Francis, like his misguided recent trip to the Middle East that bogged him down in dangerous acts of moral equivalency between terrorists and the victims of terror at Israel’s security barrier, this event was a mistake.

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Even Popes Can’t Transcend Conflicts

Pope Francis may have intended his visit to the Middle East to promote the causes of ecumenism and peace. But he has learned that it is not possible to step into the political maelstrom of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians without getting sucked into it. The picture of him praying at the security barrier in Bethlehem at a point where it was defaced by Palestinian graffiti that spoke of it as an “apartheid wall” will—as the Guardian gleefully characterized it—probably be the best remembered moment of the trip and the photo of him praying in front of it may become an iconic image of grievances against Israel. This unscheduled stop is believed to have been the work of his Palestinian hosts rather than a deliberate Vatican insult directed at Israel. But though he attempted to make up for it the next day with a stop at a memorial to the Israeli victims of Arab terror—a reminder that the barrier was built to prevent more such deaths at the hands of Palestinian suicide bombers—the damage was already done especially since the pontiff’s silent prayers at the first unscheduled stop were not balanced by any statement that made it clear that he understood why the fence had to be built.

Though he is trying to be even-handed and must be credited with the best of intentions, given the highly symbolic nature of every one of his gestures, it is difficult to regard the controversies into which he has allowed himself to be drawn without thinking that he might have done everyone a favor and just stayed home.

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Pope Francis may have intended his visit to the Middle East to promote the causes of ecumenism and peace. But he has learned that it is not possible to step into the political maelstrom of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians without getting sucked into it. The picture of him praying at the security barrier in Bethlehem at a point where it was defaced by Palestinian graffiti that spoke of it as an “apartheid wall” will—as the Guardian gleefully characterized it—probably be the best remembered moment of the trip and the photo of him praying in front of it may become an iconic image of grievances against Israel. This unscheduled stop is believed to have been the work of his Palestinian hosts rather than a deliberate Vatican insult directed at Israel. But though he attempted to make up for it the next day with a stop at a memorial to the Israeli victims of Arab terror—a reminder that the barrier was built to prevent more such deaths at the hands of Palestinian suicide bombers—the damage was already done especially since the pontiff’s silent prayers at the first unscheduled stop were not balanced by any statement that made it clear that he understood why the fence had to be built.

Though he is trying to be even-handed and must be credited with the best of intentions, given the highly symbolic nature of every one of his gestures, it is difficult to regard the controversies into which he has allowed himself to be drawn without thinking that he might have done everyone a favor and just stayed home.

Even before he arrived in the region, some on both sides of the divide criticized the pope for his itinerary. Jews voiced concern about the Vatican’s efforts to emphasize their formal recognition of a “State of Palestine” without first requiring it to make peace with Israel. Palestinians were angry about the pope’s stop on Mount Herzl, Israel’s Arlington, where Francis laid a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, a sign that they still refuse to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state he envisaged.

But by stepping into the controversy over the security barrier, the pope left the realms of both religion and state protocol to lend his enormous international credibility and popularity to the Palestinian narrative about the fence. That he was led to a particular spot on it that was filled with English as well as Arabic graffiti was the perfect photo op for those who attempt to argue that its placement is a symbol of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. Israel’s foes have attempted to claim that the fence is a new version of a Nazi ghetto wall in which Palestinian victims are hemmed in and deprived of their rights. The truth is that it was built reluctantly by an Israeli government that did not wish to divide the land in this manner but had to do something to make it harder for Palestinian suicide bombers and other terrorists to cross into Israel to slaughter innocents. Rather than a tangible manifestation of Israeli colonialism, it is a monument to the bloodthirsty decision of Palestinian leaders to wage a terrorist war against the Jewish state when they could have instead had independence and peace.

While some are wrongly assuming that every action of the pope is evidence that old enmities between Jews and Catholics are being resurrected, the pope’s good intentions are not really in doubt. Francis appears to be a strong supporter of the work of his predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II in putting an end to Catholic support for anti-Semitism and inaugurating a new era of respect between the two faiths and in recognizing the legitimacy of Israel.

But even if we concede his desire to do good, the Vatican needed to understand that injecting the pope into the details of the Middle East conflict is far more likely to heighten tensions than to relax them. Nor is the meeting in Rome to which the pope has invited Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres a particularly helpful gesture. By inviting Peres, who holds a largely symbolic office rather than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is Abbas’s actual counterpart in terms of power, the pontiff can be accused of seeking to bypass the Israeli government and undermining Israel’s actual leader, who is not liked in Europe because of his tough-minded willingness to stand up for his country.

The point here is that neither the pope nor any other foreign leader can solve the puzzle of Middle East peace. If the conflict is to be resolved it must be by done by the Israelis and the Palestinians. Unfortunately, the Palestinians are still stuck in their “Nakba” narrative in which they have come to link their identity as a people with their struggle to deny Jewish rights over any part of the land and in which they have come to glorify violence against Israel and its people. The Vatican is also in no position to play Middle East politics when it seems quick to engage in disputes with Israel while at the same time demonstrating its reluctance to criticize the Arab and Muslim world for its mistreatment of Christian minorities.

The pope should be welcomed wherever he goes and even those who are rightly upset about some aspects of his trip should avoid any hint of enmity toward this good man. But this whirlwind visit shows that even the most well-intentioned visitors can blunder if they believe they can transcend the conflict even while plunging into it.

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Welcoming the Pope with Lies About Israel’s Christians

I’m a longtime fan of the Wall Street Journal. But I confess to mystification over why a paper with a staunchly pro-Israel editorial line consistently allows its news pages to be used for anti-Israel smear campaigns–and I do mean smear campaigns, not just “critical reporting.” A classic example was its assertion in an April 7 news report that Israel had agreed “to release political prisoners” as part of the U.S.-brokered deal that restarted Israeli-Palestinian talks last summer. The Journal was sufficiently embarrassed by this description of convicted mass murderers that it issued a correction in print, yet the online version still unrepentantly dubs these vicious terrorists “political prisoners.”

A more subtle example was last week’s report titled “On Middle East Visit, Pope Will Find a Diminished Christian Population.” While Israel is the glaring exception to this Mideast trend, reporter Nicholas Casey elegantly implies the opposite in a single sentence that’s dishonest on at least three different levels: “Syria has seen an exodus of nearly half a million Christians, and in Jerusalem, a population of 27,000 Christians in 1948 has dwindled to 5,000.”

First, while Casey never says explicitly that Jerusalem’s shrinking Christian population reflects the situation in Israel as a whole, it’s the obvious conclusion for the average reader–especially given the juxtaposition with Syria, which implies that both countries are treating their Christians similarly and thereby causing them to flee. This impression is reinforced by the only other statistic he gives about Israel: that Christians have declined as a percentage of the total population.

The truth, however, is that Israel’s Christian population has grown dramatically–from a mere 34,000 in 1949 to 158,000 in 2012, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. That’s an increase of almost fivefold. And while Christians have fallen as a share of the total population, that’s mainly because they have significantly lower birthrates than either Israeli Jews or Israeli Muslims.

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I’m a longtime fan of the Wall Street Journal. But I confess to mystification over why a paper with a staunchly pro-Israel editorial line consistently allows its news pages to be used for anti-Israel smear campaigns–and I do mean smear campaigns, not just “critical reporting.” A classic example was its assertion in an April 7 news report that Israel had agreed “to release political prisoners” as part of the U.S.-brokered deal that restarted Israeli-Palestinian talks last summer. The Journal was sufficiently embarrassed by this description of convicted mass murderers that it issued a correction in print, yet the online version still unrepentantly dubs these vicious terrorists “political prisoners.”

A more subtle example was last week’s report titled “On Middle East Visit, Pope Will Find a Diminished Christian Population.” While Israel is the glaring exception to this Mideast trend, reporter Nicholas Casey elegantly implies the opposite in a single sentence that’s dishonest on at least three different levels: “Syria has seen an exodus of nearly half a million Christians, and in Jerusalem, a population of 27,000 Christians in 1948 has dwindled to 5,000.”

First, while Casey never says explicitly that Jerusalem’s shrinking Christian population reflects the situation in Israel as a whole, it’s the obvious conclusion for the average reader–especially given the juxtaposition with Syria, which implies that both countries are treating their Christians similarly and thereby causing them to flee. This impression is reinforced by the only other statistic he gives about Israel: that Christians have declined as a percentage of the total population.

The truth, however, is that Israel’s Christian population has grown dramatically–from a mere 34,000 in 1949 to 158,000 in 2012, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. That’s an increase of almost fivefold. And while Christians have fallen as a share of the total population, that’s mainly because they have significantly lower birthrates than either Israeli Jews or Israeli Muslims.

Second, even his statistics on Jerusalem are dubious. Since he doesn’t source them, it’s not clear how Casey arrived at his figure of only 5,000 Christians nowadays. But the most recent figure published by Israel’s internationally respected statistics bureau, in 2013, put the city’s Christian population at 14,700 as of the end of 2011. It is, to say the least, highly unlikely that after remaining stable at about that level for 44 years (more on that in a moment)–decades punctuated by repeated wars, vicious terrorism and deep recessions–the Christian population would suddenly plunge by two thirds in a mere two years at a time of strong economic growth and very little terror.

Third, while Jerusalem’s Christian population has undeniably plummeted since 1948 even according to Israel’s statistics, Casey neglects to mention one very salient point: The entirety of that decline took place during the 19 years when East Jerusalem–where most of the city’s Christians live–was controlled by Jordan rather than Israel. By 1967, when Israel reunited the city, Jerusalem’s Christian population had fallen by more than half, to just 12,646, from Casey’s 1948 figure (which does roughly match other available sources). Since then, it has actually edged upward, to 14,700.

Throw in the de rigueur innuendos that the Palestinian Authority’s declining Christian population is mainly Israel’s fault, and Casey’s verbal Photoshop job is complete: The one country in the Middle East whose Christian population is growing and thriving–a fact increasingly acknowledged by Israeli Christians themselves–has been successfully repackaged to the average reader as a vicious persecutor that is driving its Christians out.

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The Palestinians, the Pope and Peace

Pope Francis’s upcoming trip to the Middle East is fraught with political and religious symbolism and events on his itinerary are raising the temperatures on both sides of the Middle East divide. In Israel, some are upset about the way the Vatican is treating his stops in the West Bank as if it is a state visit to a sovereign “State of Palestine” that, in fact, does not exist. Others are upset about the Israeli government’s decision to allow Francis to celebrate a mass on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, a site that Jews believe is the Tomb of King David and Christians think is the place where the Last Supper took place.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are up in arms over the fact that the Pope will visit Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery outside the capital, and lay a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. And therein hangs the tale not only of a pope caught in the middle of a bitter clash in which any seemingly innocuous gesture of good will can become a source of tension but the issue that lies at the very core of a century-long conflict.

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Pope Francis’s upcoming trip to the Middle East is fraught with political and religious symbolism and events on his itinerary are raising the temperatures on both sides of the Middle East divide. In Israel, some are upset about the way the Vatican is treating his stops in the West Bank as if it is a state visit to a sovereign “State of Palestine” that, in fact, does not exist. Others are upset about the Israeli government’s decision to allow Francis to celebrate a mass on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, a site that Jews believe is the Tomb of King David and Christians think is the place where the Last Supper took place.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are up in arms over the fact that the Pope will visit Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery outside the capital, and lay a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. And therein hangs the tale not only of a pope caught in the middle of a bitter clash in which any seemingly innocuous gesture of good will can become a source of tension but the issue that lies at the very core of a century-long conflict.

The context of the papal visit is the desire of Francis, a man already renowned for his caring persona and a desire to create outreach with all peoples, to plant a flag of ecumenism in the midst of a steadily worsening environment for Christians in the Middle East. The rise of Islamism has made the situation of all non-Muslim minorities in the region difficult and none are in a more precarious situation than that of Palestinian Christians, who have left the administered territories in large numbers since the Oslo Accords that handed over effective control of these areas to the Palestinian Authority. But, instead, a bogus campaign of incitement has sought to convince the world that Israel, the one nation in the region where freedom of religion prevails, is the problem for the Christians.

Nevertheless, tensions between Palestinian Arabs and Jews have at times bubbled over into religious tension. Far right extremist Jews appear to have been guilty of vandalism at some churches, a deplorable development that has generated international outrage that is notably missing when Jewish institutions are routinely given the same treatment by Arabs.

The dispute at Mount Zion is typical of the kind of disputes that develop at the holy places. The shrine there has been under Jewish control for decades. Indeed, prior to the unification of Jerusalem and the liberation of the Western Wall, it was considered by many to be the most sacred spot inside pre-1967 Israel. While the Israeli protests about the mass seem intolerant, they are generated by fears that the site will be handed over to the church, which would compromise Jewish sovereignty over the capital as well as possibly infringe on Jewish worship there. The Israeli government is clearly opposed to such a transfer and if they allow Christians more access to the site for their worship, it is to be hoped that both sides will live and let live.

Israelis would have preferred that the Vatican not jump the gun and recognize “Palestine” without the Arabs first being required to make peace. Such recognition lessens the pressure on the Palestinians to negotiate in good faith, but there is little rancor over the pope’s desire to visit what is, for all intents and purposes, a separate country in the West Bank. But the Herzl dispute is more serious than just another tit-for-tat argument.

In venting their anger about a wreath for Herzl, the Palestinians are once again demonstrating that their real problem with Israel isn’t West Bank settlements or where the border should be after a peace treaty. It is, instead, an argument about the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders wind up being drawn. Herzl, who died in 1904, isn’t connected in any way to the grievances Palestinians and their foreign cheerleaders vent their spleen about. But he is, in no small measure, responsible for the birth of the movement responsible for the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty over the historic homeland of his people. If Palestinians have a problem with Herzl, it’s because they still can’t bring themselves to change a political culture that regards rejection of Zionism as integral to their identity as a people.

Jews rightly see the pope’s presence at Mount Herzl as a much needed act of historical justice. During his campaign to gain international recognition for the right of the Jewish people to return to their homeland and create their own state, Herzl visited Francis’s predecessor Pope Pius X 110 years ago. That pope contemptuously rejected Herzl’s plea, a response that was very much in keeping with Catholic doctrine at the time that regarded perpetual exile as an appropriate punishment for the Jewish people for their refusal to accept Christianity. Fortunately, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II have already changed the church’s attitude toward Judaism and Zionism. While most Jews may disagree with some of the Vatican’s policies with regard to the Palestinians, there is no question that the two faiths are now closer than they have ever been. By paying his respects to Herzl, Francis is solidifying that bond.

Until the Palestinians give up their war on Zionism and find a way to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, the papal visit may not change much about interfaith relations but, rather, that one stop on his itinerary demonstrates just how unlikely peace remains.

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The Remarkable Pope Francis

In his 12,000 word interview with Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, Pope Francis revealed the heart of an extraordinary man.

The former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, did not change Catholic Church doctrine. But six months into his papacy, through his words and his actions, he has changed its emphasis and tone.

Richard B. Hays, a widely respected scholar on New Testament ethics, has written that any ethic that intends to be biblical must seek “to get the accents in the right place.” And that is, I think, what Francis is attempting to do. It isn’t that he believes the church’s position on homosexuality and abortion are wrong. “The teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church,” he said. But in his words, “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

“We have to find a new balance,” Francis went on to say, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

Francis is on to something quite important. A friend of mine once told me he doesn’t want to equivocate about truth. But he does believe it’s far too easy for us to think that we “know” the mind of God, even though we all see through a glass darkly. He also worries, as do I, that in the name of “truth” we sometimes create an exclusionist religious culture where moral rules are elevated above grace.

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In his 12,000 word interview with Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, Pope Francis revealed the heart of an extraordinary man.

The former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, did not change Catholic Church doctrine. But six months into his papacy, through his words and his actions, he has changed its emphasis and tone.

Richard B. Hays, a widely respected scholar on New Testament ethics, has written that any ethic that intends to be biblical must seek “to get the accents in the right place.” And that is, I think, what Francis is attempting to do. It isn’t that he believes the church’s position on homosexuality and abortion are wrong. “The teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church,” he said. But in his words, “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

“We have to find a new balance,” Francis went on to say, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

Francis is on to something quite important. A friend of mine once told me he doesn’t want to equivocate about truth. But he does believe it’s far too easy for us to think that we “know” the mind of God, even though we all see through a glass darkly. He also worries, as do I, that in the name of “truth” we sometimes create an exclusionist religious culture where moral rules are elevated above grace.

In describing his vision of the church, Francis speaks about it as “a field hospital after battle.”

“It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”

“This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people,” according to Pope Francis. “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” he added. And he spoke about the church as “the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows.”

The thing the church needs most today, Jorge Bergoglio said, “is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity.” The minsters of the Gospel must be people “who walk through the dark night with [others], who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.” And then he added this: “The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”

As a Christian (but non-Catholic), this strikes me as quite right. The church was created in large part to be a refuge, a source of support and fellowship; a place characterized by love and gentleness, encouragement and accountability. And a place that helps restore integrity and wholeness to our lives. Those who share my faith believe there is liberation to be had and peace to be found in knowing that we are God’s beloved and by living in alignment with His purposes for our lives. But all of us come to Him with brokenness in our lives, and that ought to command from us some degree of humility and empathy–and some aversion to judgmentalism and censoriousness. In a world in which people hold profoundly different views and hold them with some passion–and where moral truths need to be affirmed–it isn’t easy for people of faith to be known more for mercy than condemnation, for words that encourage and uplift rather than wound. But that is what we’re called to be. 

For those who believe that framing things this way is a clever but mistaken way of pitting moral rectitude against love–who believe it is equivocating when people of faith should be standing strong and tall in a world of rising licentiousness and immorality–there’s no way to prove who is definitively right or wrong. The devil can quote Scripture for his purposes, Shakespeare wrote. Our life experiences, dispositions, and temperaments draw us to different interpretations and understandings of the true nature of things. 

My own perspective is that life is filled with joy and wonder to be sure; but there is also the pain and hardship of living in a fallen world. That people whose lives seem so well put together on the surface are struggling with fears and failures below it. And that often we find ourselves living somewhere else than we thought we’d be. Many of us, then, find ourselves in need of grace and redemption. Which is why the words of this remarkable pope have such resonance with us.

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The Legacy of Faith

One didn’t have to be a Catholic to be impressed by the demeanor and grace shown by Pope Francis after his election yesterday at the Vatican. The media is full of pundits and so-called experts giving the pope advice as to how to deal with his church’s problems or even on how best to adjust its doctrines to suit their beliefs. That seems to me to be not only absurd but also a waste of time. As the first South American and the first Jesuit pope, Francis is a symbol of change. But if there is anything that observers should take away from the drama that has unfolded in Rome this last week it is that the Catholic Church remains firmly in the hands of those who love its teachings and are determined to both preserve them and to help ensure that they continue to serve the needs of the faithful and the world in general.

That is good news indeed, since in the last century the church has reasserted itself as a force for good. Especially under the leadership of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, the church has become a beacon of conviction against anti-Semitism. As a disciple of John Paul II and someone who had warm relations with Argentine Jewry, Pope Francis appears to be very much part of that movement. While that might appear to be a parochial concern for Jews, it is actually very significant.

The point about the transformation of the church over the last century from an institution that fomented prejudice against Jews to one that is in the forefront of those fighting against anti-Semitism cannot be emphasized enough. The church has not only cleaned its own house with respect to a legacy of hate; it has become a stalwart partner in the struggle to eradicate it everywhere.

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One didn’t have to be a Catholic to be impressed by the demeanor and grace shown by Pope Francis after his election yesterday at the Vatican. The media is full of pundits and so-called experts giving the pope advice as to how to deal with his church’s problems or even on how best to adjust its doctrines to suit their beliefs. That seems to me to be not only absurd but also a waste of time. As the first South American and the first Jesuit pope, Francis is a symbol of change. But if there is anything that observers should take away from the drama that has unfolded in Rome this last week it is that the Catholic Church remains firmly in the hands of those who love its teachings and are determined to both preserve them and to help ensure that they continue to serve the needs of the faithful and the world in general.

That is good news indeed, since in the last century the church has reasserted itself as a force for good. Especially under the leadership of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, the church has become a beacon of conviction against anti-Semitism. As a disciple of John Paul II and someone who had warm relations with Argentine Jewry, Pope Francis appears to be very much part of that movement. While that might appear to be a parochial concern for Jews, it is actually very significant.

The point about the transformation of the church over the last century from an institution that fomented prejudice against Jews to one that is in the forefront of those fighting against anti-Semitism cannot be emphasized enough. The church has not only cleaned its own house with respect to a legacy of hate; it has become a stalwart partner in the struggle to eradicate it everywhere.

The church’s turn against anti-Semitism and the Vatican’s recognition of the legitimacy of the State of Israel cannot be isolated from the role it played in standing for freedom against Communist tyranny during the Cold War. As that struggle recedes into memory, the church remains a bulwark for the cause of religious freedom throughout the globe. That’s why it is so disappointing that so many who are quite vocal about advocacy for religious freedom elsewhere were silent when it came to standing with the church as it sought to defend its own liberty of conscience against the federal government’s health care mandates.

Ironically, for much of the last century as the church did evolve to its current position on these issues, it has suffered from the abuse heaped upon it and other organized religions from intellectuals and the world of popular culture. Some writers have told us that ours is an age in which atheism has gone mainstream and a time when traditional faiths must abandon their beliefs in order to become more “relevant” to the young. But the outpouring of good will for the new pope shows that those who have predicted the decline of religion are almost certainly wrong.

Though it is beset with many problems as well as scandals that still hang over some of its leaders, the church’s legacy of faith is one that continues to nurture and inspire its believers as well as sympathetic observers from other faiths. All persons of faith should join with Catholics to pray for Francis’s success and to hope that the church will remain steadfast in its mission as a force for good.

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