Pope prays at Holocaust museum on last day of visit

Israeli and Palestinian presidents accept pope’s invitation to pray with him in Vatican

Pope Francis lays a wreath at the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Photograph: AP/L’Osservatore Romano

Pope Francis lays a wreath at the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Photograph: AP/L’Osservatore Romano

Tue, May 27, 2014, 01:00

“Adam, where are you, where are you, oh man. What have you come to?”

Standing in front of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem yesterday on the third and final day of his visit to the Holy Land, Pope Francis gave vent to his sense of profound horror as he recalled the Nazi extermination of six million Jews during the second World War.

On a morning on which he visited the Esplanade of the Mosques and prayed at the Wailing Wall, his presence at the huge Holocaust museum clearly represented another high point of a visit that may yet have an impact on the Middle East peace process. Both Israeli president Shimon Peres and president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas have accepted his invitation, issued yesterday, to “pray” with him in the Vatican.

Lighting the flame As a child’s choir sang a song that recalled those who died in the Holocaust, the pope stepped forward to light the flame that burns at the entrance to the museum before praying over a stone slab commemorating the Holocaust dead. With head bowed, seemingly deep in prayer, the pope listened to the reading of the last letter of a 22-year-old Jewish Romanian woman who, along with her baby boy, froze to death on a Nazi forced march north to Ukraine in 1941. Speaking to an audience that included Mr Peres and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a clearly moved pope delivered a “meditation” in which he said:

“A great evil has befallen us, such as has never happened under the heavens. Now, Lord, hear our prayer . . . Save us from this horror . . . Grant us the grace to be ashamed of what we men have done, to be ashamed of this massive idolatry, of having despised and destroyed our own flesh which you formed from the earth, to which you gave life with your own breath of life.

“Never again, Lord, never again! ‘Adam, where are you?’. Here we are, Lord, shamed by what man, created in your image and likeness, was capable of doing. Remember us in your mercy.”

If the pope’s meeting with Muslim and Jewish leaders earlier in the day in the heart of Old Jerusalem had been marked by smiles and embraces, there was a sombre seriousness about him throughout his Yad Vashem visit. While his prayer at the Yad Vashem will not pass unnoticed, neither will his heartfelt embrace with his old Argentine friends, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim community leader Omar Abboud, in front of the Western Wall just seconds after he had left a traditional prayer note there.

Sunday night had been dedicated to the reason for this visit, when the pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew II prayed together at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. By yesterday morning, however, the emphasis had clearly swung to politics, with many wondering just what would be the impact of the pope’s invitation and de facto intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Balancing act

Yesterday morning, too, politics appeared to resurface when the pope made an unscheduled stop at the monument, close to the Yad Vashem, which recalls Israeli victims of modern terrorism. Inevitably, many commentators saw that brief halt as a “balancing” act following the pope’s very pointed stop in front of the Israeli-built Dividing Wall in Bethlehem.

However one interprets his gestures, there seems little doubt after this remarkable trip that Pope Francis is becoming more and more an important player on the world stage.