VATICAN CITY — “Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare,” Pope Francis told the heads of Israel and Palestine, who he brought together in the Vatican Gardens for an unprecedented “Invocation for Peace” on Pentecost Sunday.
“It calls for the courage to say Yes to encounter and No to conflict,” the Pope continued. “Yes to dialogue and No to violence; Yes to negotiations and No to hostilities; Yes to respect for agreements and No to acts of provocation; Yes to sincerity and No to duplicity.”
The Holy Father delivered his address at the end of an evening filled with Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers, chants and orchestral music.
As planned, Israeli President Shimon Peres was the first to arrive, reaching the Pope’s St. Martha residence soon after 6pm. He was welcomed by the custos of the Holy Land, Franciscan Father Pier Battista Pizzaballa. After a few minutes of private talks, Peres made way for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who punctually arrived with his delegation at 6:30pm.
‘Stroke of Publicity Genius’
Following the separate talks, the two leaders publicly embraced before joining the Pope, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Father Pizzaballa in a minibus that took them the short distance to the venue for the prayer meeting. The imagery of the party traveling together, filmed smiling and chatting from inside the vehicle, was described by some observers as a “stroke of publicity genius” by the Holy Father.
The group arrived at a small triangular patch of grass surrounded by tall hedgerows at the back of the Vatican Museums. To the stirring music of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, performed by Christian, Jewish and Muslim musicians, Pope Francis, flanked by Peres and Abbas, took his seat.
Evening 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.
Selections included several Psalms, a prayer from the Jewish Day of Atonement service, a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi and several Islamic prayers.
In comments to the Register, Cardinal Peter Turkson, who read one of the prayers, singled out the significance of this “very meaningful” event from several points of view. Not only was it called together by a religious leader — the Pope — but it also affirmed “the role of religion in the public space,” he said.
Healing and Renewal
The cardinal-president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace also noted that it took place on the day when “Christians celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit,” a celebration “rooted in the Jewish Old Testament celebration of Pentecost, when water poured on the altar flowed out of the Temple to bring God’s healing and renewal to everything it touched.”
“The event retains this healing sense of the original Jewish celebration,” he said, but added that when celebrated by 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.”
“This may be seen as explaining, in the first place,” Cardinal Turkson added, “why the Pope invited to prayer [his fellow leaders] to seek peace.”
“As an event, it was amazing,” wrote Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant’Egidio lay community, in the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. He noted that never before had Muslim prayers been heard within the Vatican walls — walls ironically erected over a millennium ago, after Rome and the old St. Peter’s Basilica were raided by Arab Muslims.
Some observers voiced skepticism about the event and feared it reflected syncretism, even scandal. But the Vatican stressed it wasn't an interreligious prayer meeting. Riccardi said he believed the event showed the “great progress” made by the “spirit of Assisi” (the famous prayer meeting first held in 1986), and it underlined that the emphasis is now on religions “praying next to each other, no more against each other.”
‘We Need the Help of God’
In his address, the Pope noted how the evening prayer was accompanied by the prayers of “countless people” across the world and responded to the “fervent desire” of all who long for peace.
“History teaches that our strength alone does not suffice,” the Pope said. “More than once we have been on the verge of peace, but the evil one, employing a variety of means, has succeeded in blocking it. That is why we are here, because we know and we believe that we need the help of God.”
“Lord, come to our aid,” the Pope implored. “Grant us peace; teach us peace; guide our steps in the way of peace. … Renew our hearts and minds, so that the word which always brings together will be ‘brother’ and our way of life will always be that of: Shalom, Peace, Salaam! Amen.”
During his trip last month to the Holy Land, the Pope invited Peres and Abbas to pray at the Vatican after U.S.-brokered peace talks collapsed at the end of April.
In their comments at the event, Peres and Abbas both issued strong pleas for peace. Peres recalled that, in his life, he had seen both peace and warfare and would never forget the devastation caused by war. “We owe it to our children” to seek peace, he said.
Abbas said the people of Palestine are “craving for a just peace, dignified living and liberty,” and he pointedly invoked freedom for “our sovereign and independent state.”
Spiritual, Not Political
Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, Zion Evrony, stressed the event was not political, but spiritual. “A prayer for peace and interreligious dialogue can sometimes help increase trust between two sides of a conflict,” he told the Register. “It can also have a positive effect on the atmosphere and help in building bridges for peace.”
He added that the event was an “occasion to emphasize Israel’s desire for peace,” but also “an opportunity to call upon leaders of all faiths to ensure that religion will not be used to justify terror.”
Pope Francis is a “man of peace, great spirituality and strong belief,” he said. “His call to pray for peace has touched many hearts in Israel and around the world.”
Rabbi David Rosen, who sang one of the Hebrew prayers at the prayer service, told the Register, “It was a very moving event.”
“The word ‘historic’ is overused, but this was indeed historic,” said Rabbi Rosen, who is the international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee. “It was a concrete embodiment of Nostra Aetate; a witness to the world of a new era of possible Jewish/Christian/Muslim respect and friendship, of which we could only fantasize in the past … and a remarkable tribute to Pope Francis' own vision.”
Cardinal Turkson stressed that, despite the significance of the event, it was never meant to “replace other” peace-building efforts, but “to lend support to such initiatives.”
Cardinal Turkson pointed out that from the addresses and comments, “one still needs to deal with the expectations related with the call for peace on the different sides.”
He said, “These expectations may also be seen as subtle demands or conditions for the attainment and fulfillment of peace.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.