By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture of an individual with as high a profile as Pope Francis is probably worth more than a thousand. In that sense, a Texas-based photo exhibit of the pope’s visit to Israel last year should generate abundant discussion.
More than nine months after Pope Francis visited Israel, the disputed Palestinian territories, and Jordan from May 24-26, 2014, a collection of 35 photos from the Israel portion of his Mideast trip is on display through March 16 at the Ragsdale Center of St. Edward’s University (SEU), a Roman Catholic university in Austin, Texas. The exhibit—which was opened by Daniel Agranov, Consul at the Houston-based Consulate General of Israel to the Southwest United States, on behalf Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs—highlights the pope’s meetings with Israeli political leaders as well as Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious leaders in the Holy Land. Besides the pontiff’s visits to major holy sites such as the Western Wall and the Cenacle, the photos chronicle his appearances at landmarks like the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, a memorial to victims of terrorism on Mount Herzl, and Ben-Gurion International Airport.
“I think the most important [part of the exhibit] was when you see [the pope] meet heads of different faiths in Israel,” Agranov tells JNS.org. “You see him with the different Christian denominations and with the Muslims, and this shows that Israel is an open society in which everyone can worship what they want openly. This is the major thing that we want to show.”
Father Lou Brusatti, director of the Center for Religion and Culture at SEU, says Pope Francis’s visit to Israel last year deepened the relationship between Jews and Catholics. He says it was important for the pontiff to “show some solidarity with the people of Israel, just in terms of the commonness of our origin as part of the Abrahamic traditions, and to visit the holy places, and to really act as a pilgrim in addition to being the head of state of Vatican City. … It certainly affirms the dialogue that’s going on at various levels.”
Brusatti also notes the follow-up to the pope’s visit, which included an invitation to Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to pray for peace at the Vatican, as an example of the Catholic leader’s interest in continuing dialogue on the Middle East.
“A lot of what [the pope has] had to say in some addresses and homilies really has focused on the question of peace and how to bring peace in the Middle East,” Brusatti tells JNS.org.
SEU makes it a priority “to expose the students to world events” such as the pope’s visit to Israel, says Brusatti. In fact, Elia Norton—an officer for the Hillel Toppers, a Jewish student organization at SEU—says she “had no clue” about Pope Francis’s Israel trip before the exhibit. Since the display has been on campus, Norton says she feels “so much more welcomed as a Jewish student at a Catholic university.”
Norton explains that she “never felt alienated beforehand” at SEU, which she says “does a really great job of bringing all the students together no matter their background or faith background.” Yet she feels that as a Jewish student, given current national and global threats against Israel on campus such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, the exhibit on the pope’s Israel trip was a “strong move toward welcoming all students.”
Prior to the exhibit, Norton tells JNS.org that she never knew that Pope Francis “had such an interest in strengthening the relationship between Jews and Catholics.”
“I never thought the relationship between Jews and Catholics was bad or a negative, but it’s nice to see such a world leader, especially the head of the Catholic church, really realize that Jews and Catholics need to have a great relationship,” she says.
As the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Francis may seem like a larger-than-life figure. But SEU’s Brusatti singles out pictures in the exhibit such as ones that show Pope Francis smiling, planting a tree, or listening to a children’s choir—images that he says communicate a “down-to-earthness” about the pope.
“I think many of the pictures show a very human side of him, which is important to see, because when you get to be pope, it can kind of isolating at times,” says Brusatti.
Norton says her favorite photos from the exhibit are of Pope Francis at Yad Vashem and the Western Wall (Kotel), in particular a bird’s-eye view of the pope praying at the wall.
“I went on [a trip to Israel with] Birthright this past December, and when I saw these pictures at the exhibit it just brought back so many memories of being at the Kotel, and praying, and having that really intimate moment,” she says. “When you get up in that position and have your head up to the wall, and you’re praying, it’s just like no one else is around you, it’s such a spiritual connection. … I think [seeing the pope at the Kotel] is just such a reflection that he truly cares. Even after hearing that he had made the visit, I never would have guessed that he would have gone to the Kotel and prayed at the wall.”
The Israeli Consulate’s Agranov says the consulate and St. Edward’s will pitch the photo display to other cities in the Southwest U.S., including San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas. The exhibit, he says, sends an important message to Catholics about the need to visit Israel.
“I think when you speak with Catholics, for them, the pope is very important for everything that is involved [in their lives],” says Agranov. “[Catholics believe] you should also do as Pope Francis did, so [the pope’s trip] is also good for [Israeli] tourism. If the pope came, so should everyone else.”
The Pope Francis exhibit’s full album of 35 photos can be viewed by clicking here.
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