Pope Francis’ unprecedented prayer meeting for peace in the Holy Land on Sunday was generally well received, providing a valuable opportunity for foes to appeal to God for an elusive peace, but some Catholics felt distinctly uneasy about the initiative.
The Pope hosted the "Invocation for Peace" event in the neutral grounds of the Vatican Gardens, bringing Israeli and Palestinian Presidents Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, respectively, together after extending an invitation to them during his trip.
Concerned about the collapse of the latest peace talks, aware that Peres’ tenure was about to end, and a firm belief in the power of prayer, Francis decided it was time to turn to a spiritual rather than a political resolution.
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Cardinal Peter Turkson, who read one of the prayers at the service, pointed out that the timing of the event — on the feast of Pentecost — was no coincidence. In the Jewish Old testament, the feast points to God’s healing and renewal but has added value among Christians.
“It acquires the additional sense that everything about Christ, and in this case, his gift of peace, is not successfully worked at and obtained without the Holy Spirit: God’s help from above,” said Turkson, who heads the Vatican’s justice and peace council. “This may be seen as explaining, in the first place, why the Pope invited to prayer [his fellow leaders] to seek peace.”
Others noted the unprecedented nature of the event. Rabbi David Rosen, international director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, said the meeting was a “concrete embodiment” of Nostra Aetate, the church’s 1965 declaration that opened up a new era of Catholic-Jewish relations. The prayer meeting was a “witness to the world” of respect and friendship between the three Abrahamic faiths, he said, “of which we could only fantasize in the past.” He also said it was “a remarkable tribute to Pope Francis' own vision.”
But some Catholics were uneasy about a number of aspects. They resented having Muslim prayers sung within the Vatican walls for the first time (the original walls were ironically erected over a millennium ago after Muslim soldiers sacked Rome and raided the old basilica of St. Peter’s). Others feared the meeting reflected syncretism, and viewed having followers of false religions in the Vatican as scandalous.
The Vatican played down such concerns, pointing out this wasn’t an inter-religious prayer meeting, but that members of different faiths had come to the Vatican to pray. Furthermore, it argued that the Muslim prayer was not in a place of worship (Jewish prayers had been probably been said before in the Vatican, when Jews sought refuge in the Holy See during the time of Nazi occupation).
It also stressed this had no political element to it, only spiritual, although not inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was viewed by some as a mistake.
Other critics would have liked more strident exhortations from the Pope, stressing that true peace can only really be found in Christ.
Andrea Riccardi, founder of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic justice and peace group, argued the event showed the “great progress” made by the “spirit of Assisi” (the famous prayer meeting first held in 1986) as it underlined that the emphasis is now on religions “praying next to each other, no more against each other.”
But that won’t console a number of critics who saw the Assisi meeting as portraying all religions as roughly the same (Benedict XVI, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was among them).
So will this prayer meeting have any effect in furthering peace? “I have no idea if it will have any impact on our politicians, or even if they have the capacities to take the potential advantage of it,” said Rabbi Rosen. “But as David Ben Gurion said, ‘anyone in Israel who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.’”
The Pope mentioned in his address that many times both sides have appeared on the brink of peace, only to see those hopes “blocked” by “the evil one.”
He recalled how much man has tried by his own powers and force of arms to end the conflict but failed each time, leaving God as the only recourse to bringing about a resolution.
But as a gesture — something this Pope has a distinct flair for — this initiative will have had some practical impact, even if it amounted to just images of Jewish and Muslim leaders warmly embracing each other.
Francis:Pope’s Hidden Life Revealed.
Many will now be looking ahead to Francis’ next visit, to South Korea in August. Although without the advantage of a link between the Abrahamic faiths, long-running tensions have similarly plagued the region that many feel only God can resolve.
Perhaps a new invitation to the Vatican Gardens can therefore be expected in the fall, but this time extended to South and North Korean Presidents Park Geun-hye and Kim Jong Un. If peace does become a real possibility in the Holy Land in the coming weeks, such a meeting would be inevitable.
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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