Pope Francis plants an olive tree as a symbol of peace during his pilgrimage last month to the Holy Land. (Vatican Radio/CTV)
After he said Mass in Bethlehem on May 25, Pope Francis announced that Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had accepted his invitation to come to the Vatican to meet together with him. The date set for the meeting is June 8 — Pentecost.
The purpose of the meeting is strictly prayer, not mediation, and that has been made clear by both Pope Francis upon announcing his invitation and by the Vatican Press Office in subsequent statements.
Since the news of the meeting broke, I’ve read reports and commentaries that label it “just” a prayer meeting, and that concerns me. It’s much more than a prayer meeting — it’s a concrete step in the right direction.
“All of us — especially those placed at the service of their respective peoples — have the duty to become instruments and artisans of peace, especially by our prayers. Building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment. The men and women of these lands, and of the entire world, all of them, ask us to bring before God their fervent hopes for peace,” Pope Francis said during his announcement in Manger Square. Before my trip to the Holy Land with the Catholic Press Association May 19-29, I might have thought this was “just” a prayer meeting, and I certainly had the impression that what happened in the Middle East was of interest, but had no direct impact on me.
Not only does it impact me, but also it impacts you, your family and individuals and families worldwide. I didn’t fully realize that until I traveled to the Middle East and saw the reason firsthand.
Although the political implications of peace in the Middle East are substantial, I’m going to skirt the political issues for now and address the spiritual ones instead.
On the second day of my trip, we visited Mt. Bental, known for its panoramic view of the Golan and Syria but also the scene of a courageous battle during the Yam Kippur War in 1973. In spite of the site’s military history, it held significant spiritual value for me. It was a stark reminder that this region of the world — where our Lord walked, taught, ministered, died, and rose — has been at war on in one way or another since early Biblical times.
Here in the United States, we speak of peace in the Middle East as an abstract term, but standing in the homeland of our Savior brought to life the reality that peace or unrest in the Middle East also means peace or unrest in the Holy Land. The Holy Land isn’t a far removed place that’s somebody else’s concern; it’s the foundation of our faith, the last ground Jesus touched (humanly speaking) and where our salvation was won for us by a gentle Nazarene who was falsely accused, convicted, sentenced, and crucified for our sakes. It is also where he rose, proving that death cannot hold the Messiah.
By his life, death, and Resurrection, Jesus showed us that self-sacrifice and prayer is far more important than signed pacts and diplomacy. Pope Francis knows that, and that’s why he is taking the same route via his invitation to the heads of Israel and Palestine. I think we should take our cue from the Holy Father and join in that prayer.
On Thursday, June 5, Zenit reported that the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, also will attend the meeting in the Vatican, which is presumed to take place in Casa Santa Marta, and the purpose of which is to pray for peace in the Holy Land. The Patriarch will arrive on Saturday, June 7, and will leave for Phanar on Monday, June 9.
The fact that Patriarch Bartholomew will travel to the Vatican and participate in the prayer for peace along with Pope Francis, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas makes the meeting even more significant for two reasons.
First, it is a touching and concrete sign of the fraternity between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew, demonstrated by their meeting in Jerusalem on May 25 during which they both expressed their desire for unity between the Eastern and Western Catholic Churches. Once again, they demonstrate their unity by meeting together with the two presidents to pray for Middle Eastern peace.
Second, it is significant in that it marks the momentousness of the Pope’s invitation and the imperative need for peace in the Holy Land. None of the reports I read mentioned that Pope Francis formally invited Patriarch Bartholomew to the June 8 meeting. That Bartholomew felt confident enough in their relationship, and urgent enough in its cause to arrange to be present, highlights their shared appreciation of the meeting's importance.
Pope Francis has invited the faithful throughout the world to join the meeting through their prayers. I’ll be right there, in spirit, and eagerly watching for unfolding of more developments in the relationship between Peter and Andrew.