Monday, 2 June 2014

Pope Francis continues to surprise with actions

It was a simple gesture. Nothing, really. But in the gesture, Pope Francis changed the dynamic of the Middle East.

Pope Francis has continued the pattern of his predecessors in travelling to visit the church and the faithful around the world. But Francis is different.

He declines the bulletproof glass of an isolated security bubble, preferring an open vehicle where he can stand and wave and greet the crowds which gather.

It also allows Francis to quickly direct his driver to stop to allow him to go onto the crowds to bless children or to greet the faithful.

On this visit that happened on several occasions, but most remarkably at the concrete wall which Israel has erected to divide it’s territory from that of the Palestinian State and built, it was said, to protect Israel from terrorist attacks.

The Pope stopped his motorcade, dismounted from his vehicle, walked over to the high, concrete barrier and under the gaze of machine gun armed Israeli border guards in their high towers, placed his hand on the wall, bent over and put his forehead to the concrete and for several minutes, prayed.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement of a point of difference between Israel and the Palestinian State.

Apparently the gesture caused distress among the Pope’s Israeli government hosts, who asked him to pray at the memorial for victims of terrorism. Francis obliged.

But perhaps the most poignant moment came at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial.

In that place, where some remains of those who died in the Holocaust are interred as a reminder of that human horror, Pope Francis was introduced to six survivors of that time and experience.

In that moment, Pope Francis did a most remarkable thing. You can watch the video on YouTube. There is no audio of what was said between the Pope and the survivors, but afer being introduced to each one, Pope Francis leaned over and in a remarkable gesture of respect and humility, kissed the survivor’s hand.

Rocco Palmo, a long time observer and reporter covering the Vatican, calls the Pope’s action, "...an unprecedented act of homage...from the Bishop of Rome."

I continue to be absolutely astonished and amazed by the actions of the current pope. He has a genius for the gesture which opens doors and breaks down barriers, often in very risky places.

Such gestures offer hope. They remind us of basic principles of respect for each other, even those who have hurt us.

The future will be worth watching. Pope Francis invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres to Rome for prayer together. That is scheduled to happen in early June.

In another important gesture, Pope Francis embraced two of his closest friends, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Argentine Muslim friend Omar Abboud at the Wailing Wall, just below the Dome of the Rock. That three friends from three of the world’s faiths could embrace in a place which is holy to all is a sign of genuine hope.

Pope Francis has shown that he is the master of the simple gesture of service. He has challenges ahead, to be sure. He will meets with survivors of priestly sexual abuse in the very near future. One wonders how he will show respect and humility in that situation.

Whatever Pope Francis says or does, I expect to be surprised. And I look forward to seeing his next gesture of service and respect for others. It’s something we all need to think about and do likewise.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County