Pope Francis just returned from a visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, praying at the Wailing Wall, commiserating with the Palestinians over the barrier separating them from the Jews in Bethlehem, commenting on the Holocaust and meeting with leaders in this labyrinthine region where missteps are verbal, symbolic and frequent.
I wonder how the Pope felt as his jet departed Israel. Did he heave a sigh of relief, now able to speak freely without worrying who would be offended? Did he relax, unencumbered from those who would twist his words or actions to serve their own purposes? What an oasis that jet must have become after having tiptoed through the diplomatic nightmare of the Middle East.
I admire Pope Francis for making the effort. One of his last gestures was to invite Palestinian and Jewish leaders to the Vatican to pray with him for peace, an offer they readily accepted. This will not be the first time Christian, Jew and Muslim have prayed together for peace. But if there were far more such interfaith prayer groups, large and small, throughout this troubled, suspicious world, things would improve.
What Pope Francis did last week sounded eerily familiar in a way that every pastor of a local church understands: what this pontiff is doing on a world stage while scrutinized by the whole world is essentially the identical ministry of your own pastor. The etymology of the word pontiff traces back to “bridge builder” or “path-maker”. As is the pope so is your pastor. The only difference is in scale.
Your pastor spends time weekly, sometimes daily, navigating the pitfalls, minefields and potential rewards of reconciliation. Pastors relate to families or warring groups who live in the same community, share the same ancestors, sit in the same congregation. Your pastor — no less than Pope Francis — must choose words carefully, empathize with aggrieved sides, recognize that there are no easy fixes and be careful not to claim the role of savior power-broker in a long-running and delicately balanced family or community situation.
Some pastors, vainly and naively believing they have the solution to family and community strife, offer glib bromides, prattle about trite solutions and worry not a jot or tittle over the word “diplomacy.” Others, with the humility of a Pope Francis make a path forward recognizing the humanity of all wounded parties and the need for growth and confession on all sides of an issue.
Your pastor is the chief diplomat in your church and maybe your larger community, though his or her work will not be covered by The New York Times or even rarely by The Albany Herald. The next time you read a story about Pope Francis dealing with conflict and reconciliation, substitute the name of your pastor. The next time you read about the warring groups the Pope is meeting with, substitute the names of your own family or the fractious groups in your own community. Then you’ll have a good grasp about what your pastor does.
Creede Hinshaw is a retired minister in Macon.