Pope Francis’ recent prayer meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents is a call for peace in the region that may show fruit in improving relations, according to a panel of observers.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., pondered at a June 6 panel discussion whether Pope Francis, through the meeting, is “building up a constituency of reasonable people who maybe will make sacrifices to work together.”
Held on Capitol Hill, the panel was sponsored by the U.S. bishops’ conference and Catholic Relief Services.
“We’ve had a lot of prayers, but never on this level,” said the cardinal, who has traveled extensively in the Holy Land and joined Pope Francis on his May visit to the region.
On Pentecost Sunday, June 8, the Pope and Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I met with Presidents Shimon Peres of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine at the Vatican, praying together, talking about peace and exchanging symbols that represent a move towards peace.
The evening’s prayer was divided into three parts, following the chronological ordering of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religious communities. Prayers were offered in Hebrew, English, Italian, and Arabic, praising God for creation, asking pardon for sin, and requesting the gift of peace.
Pope Francis and the two presidents planted an olive tree and spoke about the need for peace. The presidents, the patriarch, and Pope Francis also exchanged a sign of peace and gathered for a private discussion.
Sean Callahan, chief operating officer of Catholic Relief Services, said that while movement towards peace in the Holy Land has been “disappointing” in recent decades, this call for reconciliation and peace is a “great opportunity to re-look at where the situation is.”
Fr. Drew Christiansen, S.J., a professor of Ethics and Global Human Development at Georgetown University, said that while the United States’ position as a broker of peace in the Middle East is compromised because of its “entangled” political ties, the Holy See – and specifically Pope Francis – potentially has a valuable role in helping the region’s negotiations.
Fr. Christiansen remarked that in dealing with the international media during his trip to the Holy Land, the Pope dealt with “every challenge and every trap, and (has) come out clean.”
Ronit Avni, founder and executive director of Just Vision – a non-profit promoting a peaceful solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – commented that the Pope is excellent and choosing and using powerful symbols to teach a message, such as with “that iconic picture at the wall” during his May visit to the Holy Land.
However, while the meeting was powerful, Avni said that she did not expect its fruits to lead to an immediate end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
“This is a marathon: I don’t see us being close to resolving this issue in the next few years,” she reflected.