Pope Francis's trip to Israel beginning on May 25 is clearly an important visit, as any papal appearance is. Its greatest importance may lie in the fact that it reflects the normalization of relations between the Vatican and the State of Israel, not to mention Catholic-Jewish relations more broadly.
Thinking back to John Paul II's historic five day visit in 2000, we realize how far things have come. John Paul's papacy was notable for the transformation of Catholic-Jewish relations, taking the conceptual breakthroughs of Vatican II and making them real on the ground. Most notable were his visit to the Rome Synagogue, his denunciation of anti-Semitism in any form, his description of Judaism as "intrinsic" to Christianity, his establishment of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, and his visit to Israel.
In its own way, however, the week-long visit of Pope Benedict to Israel in 2009 was as important. Exactly because Benedict lacked John Paul's charisma and special relationship to the Jewish community, his going made an important statement: that the Vatican relationship with Israel was institutionalized and was not dependent on the particular good will of an individual pope. I regretted at the time the excessive focus on Benedict's slipups compared to the fact of the normalcy of his visit in the first place.
Now along comes a pope whose visit embodies both the personal and the institutional.
On the one hand, in his short tenure, Francis has established a personal connection with millions of Catholics and others around the world. His simplicity, both in words and deeds, has drawn new positive attention to the Church. And at the same time, he has a long history in Argentina of warm relations with the Jewish community. The embodiment of this was his writing a book with the Chief Rabbi of Buenos Aires, Abraham Skorka, who will accompany the pope on his trip, reflecting on matters of concern to both religions. Since his election, Pope Francis has continued to speak unequivocally about the relationship between Catholics and Jews and to denounce anti-Semitism.
Together with these personal factors is the further institutionalizing of Vatican-Israeli relations. Francis will now be the third consecutive pope to visit Israel (Paul VI visited in 1964 but called it a “visit to the holy land”). In another sign that the papal visit is special but no longer extraordinarily special is that Francis will only be in Israel about 24 hours, unthinkable in the groundbreaking visit of John Paul which lasted five days and that of Benedict which was a week.
The old days, when a combination of theological and political issues stood in the way of normalized relations, seem very far away indeed.
None of which is to suggest that there aren't issues of contentions between the two parties.
Old issues about Holy Places and jurisdictions in Jerusalem are always on the agenda. The ugly phenomenon in Israel of the so-called "price tag" attacks which have included a number of Christian targets as well as spitting and other incidents targeting individual Christians will surely come up. The Vatican delegation undoubtedly will raise the question as to what the Israeli government plans to do about them.
And, of course, the peace process and Israel's relations with the Palestinians will overlay everything.
For the Vatican, aside from papal calls for the hope for peace in the region, there is the usual balancing act between maintaining good relations with the Jewish state and reassuring its Christian constituents among Palestinians and other Arabs. Coming at a time when the peace process is moribund and when the blame game is expanding, the pope most likely will stick to general calls for the parties to get together rather than enter into the contentious issues still unresolved.
Especially because Francis has established an image as someone who can restore the place of the Church in the world, both sides in the conflict will be measuring his every word to see how they can use them to their advantage.
What I think we should be focusing on is the expected warmth of the connection to the Jewish people that I believe will come out in Francis's brief visit and not how supportive he was or wasn't to Israeli positions. I expect that at Mount Herzl, at Yad Vashem, at the Great Synagogue, and at the Western Wall, Francis will show his easy connection to the Jewish people that he had as a bishop in Buenos Aires and that I saw when I was part of a delegation at his investiture in Rome.
It is the deepening of connection, together with the further institutionalization of Vatican-Israel relations and personal diplomacy that I hope will be the impact of this third papal visit in this new era of Catholic-Jewish relations.