Pope Paul VI, Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had visited the Holy Land. Each of them had stopped in prayer before the Kotel. The Kotel, sometimes called the Western Wall, is part of the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount.
It is a sacred shrine today because of its proximity to where the Holy of Holies stood in the Jerusalem Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Since this is the last remaining part of the ancient temple complex, it is a most significant site for the Jewish people and Christians as well. Images of previous popes in prayerful silence before that Wall still speak strongly to the world.
It was expected that Pope Francis, like his predecessors, would stop and pray at the Kotel. And, he did. But, it was totally unexpected that, before he went to Jerusalem, he would dismount his popemobile and stand in prayer before another Wall. Midway through his three-day trip, while he was en route to celebrate Sunday Mass in Bethlehem, the Holy Father surprised everyone, including his Vatican’s spokesperson, by stopping at the Wall of Separation.
In 2002, at the height of the second intifada (uprising), demonstrations and protests drenched the soil with innocent blood. In response, Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that, in order to curtail terrorism from spilling over into Israel, a separation fence would be built between Israel and the West Bank. That fence, now called the Wall of Separation, is a 470-mile long network of high walls, electronic fences, gates and trenches. It is actually more than twice the length of the Green Line, Israel’s recognized border with the West Bank since 1967. Only 10 percent of the fence is actually a concrete wall rising to an imposing height of 26 feet.
People on both sides of the wall view it very differently. For Palestinians, the wall is a barrier. It intrudes on their land, divides their properties, inhibits their travel and cripples their economy. At times, the wall cuts them off from their fields and even divides their communities in half. For the Israelis, the wall is a needed security measure. Before the wall was built, between 2000 and July 2003, 73 Palestinians from the West Bank launched suicide bombings that killed 293 Israelis and injured over 1,900. From the beginning of the building of the wall to the end of 2006, however, there have been only 12 attacks, killing 64 Israelis and wounding 445 others.
The Wall of Separation is modern, ugly, and graffiti-covered. For the Palestinians, it is sign of oppression. For the Israelis, it is a means of security. For Pope Francis, the wall has an even deeper meaning. It symbolizes the division of peoples greater than acts of violence, barbed wire and concrete. It is the division that divides one brother from another, one sister from another. The wall of division rises up from hearts closed to love, to understanding and to forgiveness. Such division cannot be overcome by human effort alone.
In 1944, at a time when the Soviet Union was struggling against Nazi Germany, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave a speech at which Stalin was present. Churchill was speaking passionately about the moral influence of the pope in the world. Suddenly Stalin interrupted him. He sarcastically remarked, “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?” When this was reported to Pope Pius XII, he responded, “You can tell my son Joseph that he will meet my divisions in heaven.” Like the saintly Pope Pius XII, in the throes of the Second World War, Pope Francis, facing the bitter hostilities of our day, realizes that no human endeavor alone will suffice to end conflicts or stop wars. The only real power to heal the wounds of division and unite people in peace comes from above.
God has made us for himself. He is the God of peace. This means that we need to go beyond the issues, conflicts and divisions that separate us. We need to see in ourselves the longing for peace that is ultimately our longing for God. We need to raise our hearts above our hurts in prayers and supplications to God who loves us and pray for him to give us a “new heart” and a “new spirit” (cf. Ez 36:26). Peace is not an idle dream. Ultimately, it is the restless desire in the heart of God for each of us. And, “with God, all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).
Pope Francis’ unscheduled stop on his pilgrimage to a territory where every act of a world leader has political repercussions lasted less than four minutes. But its memory will not fade with time. The image of the Pope of the Poor, in his white cassock and pressing his palm in prayer against the graffiti-covered concrete Wall of Separation, is a new and much needed icon of the necessity of prayer for peace in the world. Only when our hearts are right with the God of love, can we love one another enough to forgive and embrace in peace.