Skip to main content

Why did Pope Francis pray at the wall?

By Jay Parini
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jay Parini: On Bethlehem trip, Pope makes significant gesture by praying at separation wall
  • He says Bethlehem hugely powerful for Christians, a place of pilgrimage for Palestinians
  • Bethlehem a long disputed site among Palestinians, Israel. Pope's move symbolic, he says
  • Parini: In stopping to pray there, Pope Francis implicitly cries: Tear down this wall!

Editor's note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. He has just published "Jesus: the Human Face of God," a biography of Jesus. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," wrote Robert Frost. This something is someone now: Pope Francis.

In a strong, apparently unscripted move on his recent visit to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, on Sunday the pontiff suddenly waved to the driver of his Popemobile, asking to get out. Surrounded by guards and by children waving Palestinian flags, he got out, walked over to the wall that separates Israel from its Palestinian neighbors, and he did something remarkably simple but with astonishing power: He prayed.

Jay Parini
Jay Parini

This symbolic gesture occurred at a well-known portion of the wall, a segment covered with graffiti. Somebody had spray-painted a message in black: "Pope we need some 1 to speak about justice Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto." In bold red letters the Pope could read: "Free Palestine." While Israeli guards looked anxiously down from a nearby tower, wondering what on Earth was going on, Francis touched the wall with his right hand, bent his head, and prayed for several minutes. Afterward, he kissed the wall, then walked slowly back to his vehicle.

I've myself experienced several times the haunting power of Bethlehem for Christians. My father was a Baptist minister, and once -- in 1989 -- I took him to the Church of the Nativity, the spot where (by tradition) Jesus was thought to have been born.

This is a place of pilgrimage for those devoted to the Christian path, and it's also an important city on the West Bank for Palestinians (among them a mix of Muslims and Christians, with Muslims the vast majority).

Pope Francis prays in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on Monday, May 26. The Pope has been on a three-day historic trip to the Middle East, his first as leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis prays in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on Monday, May 26. The Pope has been on a three-day historic trip to the Middle East, his first as leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope visits Holy Land
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Pope visits Holy Land Photos: Pope visits Holy Land

This holy city, described in the Hebrew scriptures as the City of David, was under Ottoman and Egyptian rule for centuries. The British controlled much of Palestine from 1920-1948 during the period known as the Mandate. The United Nations partitioned Palestine after the war, but Jordan took possession of Bethlehem after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It became a refuge for Palestinians at this time, largely under the control of Jordan until the Six Day War in 1967.

The Israelis kept control until 1995, when an agreement was reached with the Palestinian National Authority, although it has been a place of unease, especially during the 2000-2005 era known as the Second Intifada, when for a period (in 2002) the Church of the Nativity itself became a battle zone for 39 days.

Some 150 people then (mostly Palestinian civilians, with numerous Catholic and Orthodox monks and nuns) took refuge in the Church of the Nativity from an Israeli siege known as Operation Defensive Shield. A tense stalemate occurred, with the Franciscan Order asking the Israeli government to let everyone inside the church go free on the 10th day. There was no response, although an Armenian monk was shot and wounded that day.

Holy Land papal politics
Pope visits Bethlehem, calls for peace
Mideast leaders to meet Pope at Vatican

Ultimately, Israeli snipers shot dead eight people in or around the church; they wounded at least 22, all of them designated as terrorists by the Israeli army.

Against this history, this pope exercised his unerring sense of symbolism. It's not for nothing that he took the name of Francis of Assisi, in memory of a saint who, in the 12th century, was regarded as the person who most embodied the life and teachings of Jesus. Although born into a rich merchant family, he humbled himself, trying his best to conform to the pattern of life established by Jesus, with a dedication to peace, to bringing down barriers, to expressing love in whatever ways he could.

Pope Francis invites Israeli, Palestinian leaders to Vatican peace talks

Francis of Assisi lived without pretense. He understood symbolic gestures like Jesus himself, who washed the feet of those around him, who sought out those -- such as prostitutes, lepers and beggars -- on the margins of society.

Through the Middle Ages, that earlier Francis was commonly known as alter Christus -- "the second Christ." One could say that Pope Francis, in turn, follows him as a man who lives without pretense, who understands symbolic gestures.

In stopping to pray by this wall of separation, he implicitly cries: Tear down this wall! He has pointedly asked Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres -- the Palestinian and Israeli presidents -- to join him for a time of prayer and reconciliation in Rome. He has called the conflict in Israel "increasingly unacceptable," which is a marvel of understatement. (In a gesture of reconciliation, the pope did — on Monday — accede to an Israeli request to pray before a memorial to Israeli victims of the conflict as well. As ever, he understands that it will be necessary to listen carefully to both sides in this tragic dispute.)

As the pope's unexpected pause by the wall near Bethlehem makes terribly clear, this ugly partition that weaves through the West Bank has become a potent symbol of the Israeli occupation, and it's an affront to all reasonable Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Good fences do not, in this case, make good neighbors. It's time to pull down this barrier to freedom.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT