The defining image of Pope Francis’ inaugural trip to the Holy Land was simple enough.

 

In transit to an open-air mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, the pontiff made an unscheduled stop at the “Separation Wall.” A graffitied concrete behemoth widely viewed as a symbol of division and conflict, the Wall surrounds Bethlehem on three sides, severing the confines of the historic town from the nation of Israel. Francis moved through the surrounding throngs and placed his head prayerfully against the barrier, creating an instantly memorable image of unprecedented power and one that is open to vastly different interpretations.

 

In truth, it was exactly what the world has come to expect from the wildly popular and unorthodox pontiff.

 

Uniquely for a papal visit, but quite in keeping with his unpredictable style of leadership, Francis’ journey to the Holy Land was packed full of political significance . Arriving at the West Bank via military helicopter from Jordan rather than carting himself through an Israeli border checkpoint, Francis became the first pontiff to refer to the “state of Palestine,implicitly recognizing Palestinian claims for a homeland of their own.

 

The pope made conflict in the region the central talking point during his travels. “Never let the past determine your lives,” he told a group of Palestinian refugee children. “Violence is not overcome by violence. Violence is overcome by peace.” He referred to the simmering tensions between Israel and Palestine as an “increasingly unacceptable situation” and, in a surprise move, invited both presidents to join him in his Vatican apartment for a prayer summit. Within a half-hour, both heads of state accepted the invitation.

 

The lasting impact of Francis’ visit remains to be seen. It is unlikely his exhortations will do much to jumpstart a moribund peace process, since the collapse of U.S.-led talks in recent months has left both sides facing yet another seemingly insurmountable impasse. As Newsweek noted, Israel’s president Shimon Peres has little real political power. Much of Israel’s future resides in the hands of Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, who continues to take an increasingly hard line on the Palestinian issue.

 

It is doubtful the summit will inject any tangible warmth into the frosty relations between Israel and Palestine, especially considering the nominally secular Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas continues to ally himself ever more closely with Hamas, whom Israel has deemed a terrorist organization.

 

At the very least, Pope Francis’ Middle East jaunt could herald greater political engagement from the Vatican and, by association, greater engagement from the global Catholic Church. When it comes to papal involvement in the changing affairs of the wider world, Francis has positioned himself in near-diametric opposition to his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. He has spoken out against economic inequality, voiced concern over the state of religious liberties in the United States, and even given rousing support to the concept of Catholic political engagement in a September homily.

 

However celestially-minded it may be, Francis’ Church is a Church increasingly engaged in the messy, opaque, often infuriating day-to-day business of life in the modern era. Perhaps, one day, it will be remembered that a pontiff’s simple prayer gave life to the cracks that tore down the Wall.

 

Do you think the Pope’s visit will have a significant impact on peace in the Middle East? Is there anything one person can do, however powerful in the eyes of society, to make an impact? Talk here in the comments, or find me on Twitter @aa_murph