ON THE EAST BANK OF THE JORDAN RIVER -- After visiting a site Saturday where Jesus is believed to have been baptized, Pope Francis spoke about Jesus' humility, "the fact that he bends down to wounded humanity in order to heal us."
So when some burly men prepared to carry a doctor in a wheelchair up four steps to the stage for a blessing, perhaps it should have come as no surprise that Pope Francis, whose young papacy has been defined by humble populism, instead rose from his gilded chair and walked down to embrace the doctor where she was.
That warm, intimate moment at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, a national park near the baptismal spot, capped the first day of the pontiff's three-day sojourn through a Holy Land filled with tension and surrounded by turmoil.
Earlier, Pope Francis made an urgent appeal for a "peaceful solution" to the Syrian civil war and a "just solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and said during Mass at a soccer stadium: "Peace is not something which can be bought. It is a gift to be sought patiently and to be crafted through the actions, great and small, of our everyday lives."
Pope Francis repeatedly praised Jordan for hosting 600,000 refugees of the Syrian crisis, and pointedly urged world powers "not to leave Jordan alone in the task of meeting the humanitarian emergency." Detouring from his prepared remarks at the baptismal site, the pope demanded, "Who is selling these weapons that are feeding war?"
"Let's pray for these criminals who are selling weapons, fueling hatred, that they will convert," he said under the large stone dome of a church still under construction at a huge national park Jordan is developing to attract Christian tourists. "May everyone get over this idea that problems can be solved with weapons."
Pope Francis is the fourth pope to visit the Holy Land, for what he has described as a "strictly religious" pilgrimage focused on a meeting in Jerusalem today with the Patriarch of Constantinople to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic reconciliation between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.
But the itinerary is laced with political minefields, particularly given last month's collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, which loomed over even the less-troubled landscape here in Jordan.
"The status quo of justice denied to the Palestinians, fear of the other, fear of change -- these are the way to mutual ruin, not mutual respect," Jordan's King Abdullah II said earlier in a palace ceremony in Amman, the capital, before about 200 diplomats and Christian dignitaries. "Together, we can help leaders on both sides take the courageous steps needed, for peace, justice and coexistence."
The pope, again going off script, responded, "May God protect us from the fear of change."
This morning, Pope Francis is to become the first pontiff to travel directly into the Israeli-occupied West Bank, underscoring the Vatican's support for the 2012 U.N. resolution making Palestine a nonmember observer state. Palestinians have trumpeted the visit to the "State of Palestine," as the Vatican website also describes it, and will use the pope's time in Bethlehem to highlight hardships under Israeli occupation.
He will also be the first pontiff to lay a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, a boon to Israelis more than a century after Pope Pius X harshly rejected Herzl's appeal for support. And he is scheduled to say Mass on Mount Zion, claimed as both the tomb of King David and as the site of the Last Supper, a plan that has ignited anti-Christian graffiti and protests from religious Jews.
In Jordan, where 10,000 officers were deployed to safeguard the streets for the visit, Saturday's schedule was less packed -- as was the 30,000-person-capacity stadium, where half the seats stayed empty through a sedate service. The crowd cheered as a rosary-like ring of pink balloons escaped into the air before Pope Francis arrived, but there was little electricity in the air as the pope presided from a platform festooned with fabric of the Vatican's signature yellow and white.
The trip is both a showcase and a test for Pope Francis, 77, whose low-key manner has thrilled the faithful. His popularity began practically before the white smoke declaring his election had cleared, when he greeted throngs in St. Peter's Square with a simple, "Good evening." He lives in modest quarters, and on this trip refused armored vehicles and brought a trimmed-down entourage.
Refugees have been a prime concern. His first official trip was to the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, a gateway to Europe for thousands of desperate asylum seekers. He later suggested that empty church buildings could house refugees, and decried the "globalization of indifference" regarding Syria.