The visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land would only ever make sense in retrospect. When he, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the Palestinian leader, President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s President Shimon Peres prayed together in the Vatican Gardens, it was proof positive that “Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims... can express his or her desire for peace for the Holy Land and for all who dwell there.” Praying in Hebrew, English, Italian and Arabic, the representatives of millions of men, women and children expressed “the desire of their respective peoples to invoke to God the common longing for peace”.
On his arrival in Rome, President Peres declared, “I have come to the Vatican from the State of Israel, together with the representatives of the main monotheistic religions in Israel for an extraordinary event for peace.” He expressed the thoughts of countless people across the world when he continued, ““I hope that this event will contribute to advancing peace between the parties and throughout the entire world.”
Pope Francis is realistic. Bringing together the two Presidents is unlikely to bring about instantaneous peace between Israeli and Palestinian. Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the head of the Franciscan Order in the Middle East, organized the historic joint prayer event in the Vatican Gardens. He commented, “The Pope wants to look beyond, upwards. Not everything is decided by politics.”
The prayer session took place in the quiet and neutral space of the Vatican Gardens. Amongst the representatives of Judaism and Islam, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim Professor Omar Abboud were also present. These two friends of Francis’ from Buenos Aires also accompanied him on his trip to the Middle East, Divided into sections for each faith, Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders read texts relating to peace from the Bible, the New Testament and the Koran.
Addressing people of all faiths and none, the Pope declared, “Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare. It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict...” In his own message, Peres departed from his prepared text to say, “I was young. Now I am old. I experienced war. I tasted peace. Never will I forget the bereaved families — parents and children — who paid the cost of war. And all my life I shall never stop to act for peace, for generations to come.” For his part, Abbas prayed, "O Lord, bring comprehensive and just peace to our country and region so that our people and the peoples of the Middle East and the whole world would enjoy the fruit of peace, stability and coexistence."
The three leaders then jointly planted an olive tree as a sign of their commitment to peace.
When Pope Francis recently travelled to the Holy Land, he knew that he walked a spiritual and political tightrope between conflicting sensibilities. His was no pleasure trip. Every word was weighed in advance. Every syllable and gesture could have consequences which could further or disrupt any movement towards peace and reconciliation. Commentators across the world debated the effect of his three-day visit to the part of the world so sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and yet so torn by differences of outlook and understanding. Inevitably, his words and actions pleased some and irritated others.
High security surrounded his time in Israel. There were no walkabouts as in Jordan. The Pope’s journeys between venues were not surrounded by large and enthusiastic crowds as in Bethlehem. It is, perhaps, a backhanded compliment that one Israeli official wryly commented as the papal entourage left Israel, "I suppose we must count his visit as a success because he managed to irritate and to please both the Palestinians and the Israelis." By this, he referred to Francis’ unscheduled stop at the controversial security wall which divides the West Bank from Israel. Then, hours later, he visited the memorial for those Israelis who had been killed by Palestinian attacks. His words at the Holocaust Memorial of Yad Vashem must rank as some of the most sensitive and personal ever to have been uttered by a Pope. Nobody could have remained unmoved by the depth and urgency of his plea, "Never again, Lord, never again!"
On landing in Israel, Francis knew that he would meet, not only President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but also Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Their encounters would hold momentous significance for the future of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
The meeting between Francis and Bartholomew in Jerusalem recalled the fiftieth anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenogorus. After the subsequent half-century of discussion and rapprochement, this get-together between Rome and Constantinople in the persons of Francis and Bartholomew was always to be highly significant. It turned out to have been more important than anybody could have realised. At a press conference a few hours later, Father Federico Lombardi SJ declared that, “It was a wonderful meeting that nobody wanted to end”. In fact, it over-ran by an hour.
In the days following that engagement, hopes have been expressed by the Pope and the Patriarch that 2025 will see another unique event: a joint and truly Ecumenical Council between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. The proposed Third Council of Nicaea will mark 1700 years since the First Council in 325. One outcome of the First Council was the Nicene Creed, described as "the earliest dogmatic statement of Christian orthodoxy”. The Second Council of Nicaea differentiated between the worship and the veneration of holy images, condemning the first and supporting the second. Perhaps a Third Council might lead to the reunification of Catholic and Orthodox?
The Pope’s suggestion for such a high-level prayer meeting between a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim was groundbreaking. Francis made it even more historic by subsequently proposing to Patriarch Bartholomew that he also join them in the Vatican. The announcement that it would take place on the feast of Pentecost could scarcely have been more favourable. Whereas Christians celebrate the feast this year on 8 June, Judaism celebrated the same feast (Shavuot) on 4 and 5 June. For Christians, Pentecost marks the birth of the Church with the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. The Jewish feast recalls the day that God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, in other words, the formal foundation of Judaism.
It speaks volumes about the credibility of Pope Francis that, in bringing together Peres and Abbas, he prayed with two men who long for peace but whose people are so often embroiled in violent conflict. There is no easy solution to the troubles of the Middle East. It is perhaps telling that John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, remarked, “This Pope knows he probably won’t be able to make peace. But preventing war – that he can do.”
“An epidemic of peace” is unlikely to break out in the Middle East. Yet the joint time for prayer in the Vatican Gardens showed that it is entirely possible to come together and to talk about peace. The presence of Patriarch Bartholomew also demonstrated that the rift of many centuries between East and West can be healed. Mutually-inflicted wounds do not need to be picked at until they fester. The world CAN unite itself with the prayer of Pope Francis: "Keep alive within us the flame of hope, so that with patience and perseverance we may opt for dialogue and reconciliation. In this way may peace triumph at last, and may the words 'division', 'hatred' and 'war' be banished from the heart of every man and woman."
Willpower and the determination to work for peace will see that prayer granted.