Pope Francis reviews the honor guard with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during an arrival ceremony at the presidential palace in Bethlehem, West Bank on May 25, 2014. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

Pope Francis reviews the honor guard with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during an arrival ceremony at the presidential palace in Bethlehem, West Bank, on May 25, 2014. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) When Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meet at the Vatican next Sunday (June 8), it will be another sign of how Pope Francis has returned the Vatican to the global stage to a degree not seen since the 1980s, when John Paul II’s shuttle pilgrimages helped end the Cold War.

The upcoming Israeli-Palestinian prayer summit is drawing particular attention because it comes as traditional diplomatic efforts in the region have once again stalled. It also follows on the heels of Francis’ three-day pilgrimage through the Holy Land, where he spoke forcefully on behalf of peace, and often matched his words with bold actions.

That approach raised both hopes and the Vatican’s profile, and it’s the formula Francis has used since he was elected in March last year: repeatedly calling for reconciliation in global hot zones like South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Ukraine and Latin America, and dispatching emissaries or launching initiatives when he can.

Francis has been especially engaged in the intractable Syria conflict, organizing a fast and a public prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square last year and insisting that the Holy See be present at peace talks in Switzerland this year.

‘A new age of political audacity’

“Francis is not resigned to a passive vision of world affairs,” Marco Impagliazzo, president of the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic organization active in conflict resolution and peace brokering, said last summer. “We must prepare for a new age of political audacity for the Holy See.”

Yet this Argentine pope — who intentionally took the name of Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of peace — is also wading into a geopolitical arena that is in many respects much more complicated than the binary, East-West rivalry that confronted John Paul.

Moreover, while the end of the Cold War greatly reduced the existential threat of nuclear annihilation, today’s world is marked by regular spasms of bloodshed that are less likely to find a dramatic resolution akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Back then, the stakes were clear, as were the major players — and the way forward.

Now, however, the world is dominated by “the simultaneous increasing integration and increasing fragmentation,” the Rev. Bryan Hehir, a professor of religion and public life at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, said in a talk marking Francis’ first year as pope.

“Increasing integration is what globalization is about,” Hehir told representatives of FADICA, a network of Catholic philanthropies. “Increasing fragmentation is what Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda and Syria are about, and so you’ve got to deal with both.”

Dealing with two such complex and contradictory dynamics is a daunting prospect — and one for Francis that is complicated by the legacy of John Paul’s success in the Cold War.

 John Paul II places a prayer expressing remorse for past treatment of Jews in the Western Wall in Jerusalem during a trip to Israel in 2000. Religion News Service file photo

Pope John Paul II places a prayer expressing remorse for past treatment of Jews in the Western Wall in Jerusalem during a trip to Israel in 2000. Religion News Service file photo

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The end of Soviet communism was almost miraculous in its suddenness, and it left the impression that a charismatic pope could change (or at least shape) the course of human events. In addition, those events capped a decade of the Catholic Church playing a crucial role in ousting longtime dictators in the Philippines and Haiti, and serving as a powerful voice for ending apartheid in South Africa and promoting human rights across Latin America.

Yet the “new world order” heralded by the end of the Cold War instead became a new world disorder, and marked the start of a new era of ethnic hatred, national rivalries, and growing societal strife between the haves and have nots.

The Berlin Wall crumbled, yes. But now other barriers have gone up.

A case in point was a memorable scene during Francis’ visit to Bethlehem, when he stopped the papal motorcade and stepped out to bow his head before the 26-foot high security wall separating Palestinians from Israel. It was a telling moment that recalled the Mass on behalf of immigrants that U.S. bishops celebrated in April at the 30-foot wall in Arizona along the U.S.-Mexico border.

That liturgy was itself inspired by a Mass that Francis celebrated early in his pontificate on an altar made from a refugee boat on the island of Lampedusa off the Italian coast, where untold numbers of Africans have drowned in desperate efforts to flee poverty and danger.

It’s a world of heart-wrenching suffering, and also frustratingly difficult to navigate. Leaders from President Obama to Russia’s Vladimir Putin often seem like helpless actors controlled by events rather than directing them.

Francis may also risk that fate, and his faith-first approach to diplomacy has already prompted some sharp criticism.

‘The culture of encounter’

“A sort of slacktivism writ large,” as the Washington Post’s Max Fisher wrote in a tough critique of Francis’ foreign policy. Fisher’s rip came in January after seagulls attacked two white doves the pope released to symbolize a desire for peace in Ukraine — “the perfect metaphor for Pope Francis’s first year,” Fisher said of the doves’ fate.

Writing in Time magazine in March, Robert Christian, a doctoral candidate in politics at Catholic University of America, called Francis’ idealistic peace initiative in Syria “an abject failure” that worsened the violence. After the pope’s Holy Land trip in May, Daniel Petri, a colleague of Christian’s, also blasted the pope’s Syria plans and he cast doubts on the upcoming Peres-Abbas meeting.

Still, much as John Paul’s love of great ideas and grand gestures worked in an era of global ideological combat, Francis’ focus on personal diplomacy may be the best approach for an era of personalized conflict.

Newly elected Pope Francis appears on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on Wednesday (March 13) in Vatican City. Now, he faces first-year scrutiny. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

Newly elected Pope Francis appears on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on March 13, 2013 in Vatican City. Now, he faces first-year scrutiny. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

As Hehir noted, while John Paul grew up in Poland under the foreign oppression of Soviet rule, Francis lived through the military repression of Argentina’s “dirty war” during the 1970s, when Catholics turned on each other and the church itself was complicit in human rights violations — not the liberating force it was in other regions.

Francis’ experience of poverty and structural inequality in his homeland also influenced his view that economic injustice is at the heart of the world’s conflicts. It’s the lens he used to explain his ideas on peacemaking in his major document from last year, “The Joy of the Gospel.” To promote peace in this context, Francis said last December, diplomacy should “promote the culture of encounter.”

That personal style was front and center during the Middle East trip, as Francis issued his invitation to Abbas and Peres on the spur of the moment, a spontaneous gesture like the stop at the security wall. While some questioned the usefulness of the impromptu gestures, they were also hailed as welcome novelties by outlets like the BBC and The New York Times, and by Catholic media as well.

Reviewing the Holy Land trip on his return, the pope himself may have done the best job of formulating a “Francis Doctrine” for the 21st century, telling an audience in St. Peter’s Square that peace is not mass-produced but is instead “handcrafted” every day by individuals.

The question, of course, is whether such tactical, “artisanal” peacemaking can replace the high-stakes chess match approach of superpower strategizing that governed the world for so many years — or, more important, whether it can succeed where those old ways are failing.



  1. The Pope has several problems. One of which is truly impossible to deal with.
    There very likely is no God, no Afterlife, no Heaven and no Hell and no ‘divine’ realm of any kind.

    Some wish for it, very strongly. They wish for a God; that He exists.
    But you cannot make it happen. Just like you cannot wish for 30 Million dollars and find it in your bank account tomorrow (though at least in theory that can actually happen – unlike God’s existence)

    Which means everything about the Church is fundamentally flawed. The whole idea is a blunder.

    God – very likely – isn’t there. And that destoys the workability of everything the Pope does. Because it means that the entire religion is a flawed philosophy – a manmade, human induced ERROR.

    • Then why are you even talking about God which for you “very likely isn’t there”? Most likely He is there in your mind, at least which may be why you can’t resist talking about Him in denial mode.

      • @laarni,

        You ask, ‘Why talk about it?’

        Because the Pope is immoral.
        And immorality is wrong.

        The ancient scribblings of a cult in Mesopotamia does not validate the immorality at the heart of the Pope’s teaching.

        • One antichrist to another yet the truth is not in you.

          Proverbs 23
          10 Remove not the old landmark; and enter not into the fields of the fatherless:
          12 Apply thine heart unto instruction, and thine ears to the words of knowledge.
          17 Let not thine heart envy sinners: but be thou in the fear of יהוה all the day long.
          19 Hear thou, my son, and be wise, and guide thine heart in the way.
          23 Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding.
          26 My son, give me thine heart, and let thine eyes observe my ways.
          27 For a whore is a deep ditch; and a strange woman is a narrow pit.
          29 Who hath woe? who hath sorrow? who hath contentions? who hath babbling? who hath wounds without cause? who hath redness of eyes?
          30 They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed wine.
          33 Thine eyes shall behold strange women, and thine heart shall utter perverse things.
          34 Yea, thou shalt be as he that lieth down in the midst of the sea, or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast.
          35 They have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not: when shall I awake? I will seek it yet again.

          • @Utility,

            If you are going to throw Fiction at me
            as your argument here’s some for you:

            “God? What does a starship need a god for?” – Captain Kirk

    • Atheist,

      When you say “no God, no..no.. anykind”, you are denying the form of God that you know. As I am very sure of the existance of God, it seems your knowledge on God requires some update. The word God has been abstracted so much that it means different things to each individual to the point that we have so many Gods as the number of population! This is where we need some reference books or guidence from visionaries – like Mahathma Gandi who identified God as The Truth.

      Simply accept God as the the entire collection of all positive things on earth – that will solve your problem with God.

      • @Believer,

        Well, I stand corrected. Perhaps there is a God of some kind.
        But I reject all the claims I have heard so far.

        The only argument I keep hearing is the argument that says
        I must Fear and Obey this God – so why would I look for it?

        What need do I have to fear or obey something? I’m a grown up.

    • Laurence Charles Ringo

      Wow, it’s ‘old”Atheist Max”again, still shooting his mouth off, sounding as unhinged as ever! Off your meds again, huh Max? Poor baby. I have never seen a man sooo in love with his own opinions about something he’s demonstrated he knows nothing about than you, Max; if it wasn’t so pathetic it would be hilarious! And what’s this “very likely”doesn’t exist jargon? Hedging your bets, Maxie? Nah, don’t do that; you just come off as a fraud . The ” very likely”existent Almighty God will have more respect for you if you stand your ground. (He’s not a fan of the whole lukewarm thing, you understand. )–Keep ranting and raving, Atheist Max! You are very entertaining!!

      • @Laurence,

        As the Christian lobby shuts down your form of Christianity
        in preference to another, perhaps my rants against the disintegration of separation of church and state may not seem so unhinged in retrospect.

        Those religious people are against me. But they are against you as well.

        You have freedom to reject them….today.

        But they claim to KNOW what you do not know.
        They claim to KNOW everything about what GOD wants you to do.
        And that should scare the hell out of you.

      • @Jason,

        Where is the wisdom in your claim that god exists?

        Which Jesus-loving Calvinist Preacher would you like for your government theocracy?
        Which version of ‘god’ is the true version?

        “Bring to me those enemies of mine who would not have me as their King and Execute them in front of me.” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

        Or this gentler one?

        “Eat of my body and be baptized or be condemned to Hell” – Jesus

        Who is to say?
        And this is wisdom?

    • As far as I know, or have definite proof of, Athiest Max does not, or very likely does not exist. He/she is very likely a figment of someone’s imagination. I think that it is very likely that there is no certified record of an Athiest Max in existence.

  2. Brothers and sisters encourage each other to put your trust in the Lord.
    John 20
    28Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

    29Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

    Revelation 3:20
    20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

    Matthew 24:13
    13 But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.

    • @Nrec,

      Putting trust and faith in the Lord is exactly how
      we became an irresponsible species and started referring
      our worst problems to an invisible, atmospheric air pocket called ‘god’.

      It is nonsense.

  3. “Mass on behalf of immigrants”

    In his book The Faith of Millions, John O’Brien, a Catholic priest, explains the procedure of the mass.
    “When the priest pronounces the tremendous words of consecration, he reaches up into the heavens, brings Christ down from His throne, and places Him upon our altar to be offered up again as the Victim for the sins of man. It is a power greater than that of monarchs and emperors: it is greater than that of saints and angels, greater than that of Seraphim and Cherubim. Indeed it is greater even than the power of the Virgin Mary. While the Blessed Virgin was the human agency by which Christ became incarnate a single time, the priest brings Christ down from heaven, and renders Him present on our altar as the eternal Victim for the sins of man—not once but a thousand times! The priest speaks and lo! Christ, the eternal and omnipotent God, bows His head in humble obedience to the priest’s command.”

    Yet the Mass is in direct contradiction to the Scriptures. Didn’t Jesus say He laid down His life of His own accord, only to take it up again? Jesus is no one’s victim. And as far as the priest, or the Pope, being able to bring Christ down, the Apostle Paul says in Romans chapter 6, “But the righteousness that is by faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, who will ascend into heaven (that is to bring Christ down).” And concerning Jesus being sacrificed a thousand times, the writer of Hebrews in Hebrews chapter 10 tells us that Jesus was sacrificed once.

    The Pope doesn’t represent Christianity. He represents a religious organization that contradicts Scripture and teaches a gospel of works. Though the Scriptures teach in Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is a gift of God, not by works so that no man can boast.”


    • @downtown Dave,

      I was disappointed to read your remarks. I, like more than a billion of my brothers and sisters, am a Catholic. I am also very much a Christian. I do not attempt to deny the authentic Christianity of my Protestant brothers and sisters. While I disagree with much of Protestant theology, I happily concede that Protestants, like Catholics, and indeed like all people of faith, are genuinely seeking truth and to do the will of God.

      Why do you feel the need to denigrate those of us who are Catholics? Why do you seek to divide us and separate us from the community of Christians. How do you think Our Savior would feel about your efforts to deny a billion of his followers the title of Christian?

      We clearly disagree about the Eucharist. In support of your position, you choose to cite a number of passages that have nothing whatsoever to do with the Eucharist. I choose to rely instead on Jesus’ own words at the last supper, most importantly, “Do this in memory of me.”

      As for faith versus works, it’s a tired, primarily semantic debate. Anyone who knows anything about Catholic theology understands that we, like you, believe that grace, and the acceptance of grace through faith, is an indispensable component of one’s salvation. Like you, we believe that no one can earn their way into salvation by virtue of their good works.

      The question that remains is whether one’s conduct plays any role in one’s own salvation. Jesus owns words make clear that it does. There is simply no reasonable way to read the Parable of the Rich Man (Matthew 19) or the Judgment of Nations (Matthew 24) otherwise.

      The interesting thing is that when people actually sit down and discuss the faith versus works debate reasonably (instead of accusing each other of heresy) they find that there is really very little daylight between them. Catholic and Lutheran theologans discovered this very thing a few years ago.

      In short, Dave, you and I believe in many of the same things. We are both searching for truth. We are both trying to know and love God as best we can. Instead of denigrating the faith of a billion other people, search for the common ground between us, which is substantial, and celebrate it.

      Pope Francis is a wonderful ambassador not just for Catholics but for all of Christianity. He is an exemplar for an authentic Christian life, and he inspires even non-Christians. Perhaps some day he will even remove the scales from Atheist Max’s eyes.

  4. @downtown Dave,

    You said, “The Pope doesn’t represent Christianity.”

    You Christians would go back to killing each other as you always have in the past
    Were it not for the Atheists and Deists
    who built the WALL OF SEPARATION between church and state.

    Be glad our current Catholic Supreme Court – which probably smokes a goat to please the Lord every Sunday in chambers (Exodus 29:18) – hasn’t yet outlawed your form of Christianity.

    Thanks to the Christian Right Wing we now have the most religious court in decades and you can be sure they would love to use the levers of government to outlaw YOUR Christianity.

    Religion is a cancer to democracy, a disease of the mind and just another useless philosophy to have wars over.

  5. Dear Max,
    I do not understand why the Holy Spirit pours out graces where he does, but I love our Catholic faith and it is the source of the greatest joy I have ever known. Jesus, through his Spirit acting right now, has taken my breath away with intimacy and comfort and sometimes humor! I pray that you might be able to experience the same thing now and for all eternity! God bless you in mind, body and spirit!

    • @Donna,

      As long as I have the right to call religion a delusion
      we will get along fine. Nobody is going to deny you your beliefs if that is what you want.

      My problem is the separation of church and state needs to be built up – not brought down. When religion blocks my rights – that is where I have problems.

  6. Pope Francis hates cats. He even forced Pope Benedict to give up his 2 pets in order to live in the Papal apartments.

    He could bring world peace tomorrow and I will still fault him for that.

  7. ATHEIST WARS, POGROMS, POLITICAL MURDERS in peace time: The assertion that more people were killed due to religion is absurd. Conquerors and other despots wanting land, gold, power, might use religion of the state to define who one’s enemy is, but it was greed and conquest from Caesar and Alexander to Hannibal and Genghis Kahn, Pol Pot and all others.
    Atheist murderers worthy of note due to numbers of the dead:
    Stalin: 61,000,000
    Chairman Mao: 78,000,000
    Nazis: 12,000,000

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