Israel is physically a very small country, but it looms large in the world as the refuge of those who survived the Holocaust of World War II as well as the unnumbered victims of thousands of other anti-Jewish outrages of the centuries.
The Jewish state also is a progressive giant, both economically and socially, in a Middle East that is riddled with ancient sectarian violence and narrow-mindedness.
Add a dynamic Jesuit pope into the volatile mix, and there was bound to be a bit of furor here and there — and we think that His Holiness managed to handle everything thrown at him with characteristic aplomb.
After all, this is Pope Francis, a man who has made change in the Vatican his mission.
It’s not surprising that he had a mission in a center of the world’s great faiths and one of the world’s great antagonisms. What is lasting about his visit and his observances in Bethlehem, the Temple Mount, Yad Vashem and all the rest is his persistence in his own mission, pushing obdurate packs of mankind toward the merits of peace and reconciliation in a place where it is desperately needed.
Entirely in character was Francis’ moving gesture of greeting to Holocaust survivors, who received from the leader of the world’s Catholics a kiss on the hand, instead of the reverse for an eminence of the Church.
Yes, Francis was more than up to the challenges of his visit.
We see as important his steady mission of promoting peace between Israel and, particularly, the oppressed population of its occupied territories, but we also see his ecumenical gestures as important in today’s wider world.
Francis met with Israel’s two chief rabbis and with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, representing the churches of 300 million Orthodox Christians.
To use a clumsy technocratic word, the interface between those two wings of Christianity is more vital than ever, and not just because after 1,000-odd years there is plenty of reason for reconciliation. The daily headlines are filled with the conflict in the Ukraine, inspired by violent nationalism in Russia’s leadership that is pushed in its Orthodox churches.
We can’t predict how much the two leaders’ conversations will be able to help in the future, but there might well soon be a time when moral authority of the two leaders is useful in a time of stress between largely Catholic Europe and its largely Orthodox eastern neighbors.
Bartholomew is a leader of a communion, not the primate of the Church as Francis is. But their friendly meetings are another instance of how shrewdly those at the head of great faiths can think ahead in ways we cannot now see.