BALTIMORE — More than two weeks have passed since Pope Francis’ historic prayer for peace at the Vatican Gardens, where Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas came together at his invitation to pray for peace in their land. But what will the effects of Pope Francis’ efforts be in the months and years to come?

Sean Callahan, chief operating officer of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), believes the power of the symbolic event should not be underestimated. Callahan is no stranger to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as CRS is actively engaged in providing humanitarian assistance in the Gaza Strip and is busy with capacity-building efforts in the West Bank to help the Palestinian people prepare to be a nation-state.

He tells the Register in this interview that the unified presence for peace of Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Pope’s Argentinian friends — Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud, a leader of Argentina’s Islamic community — as well as Peres and Abbas, has given the world an example that peace and reconciliation is a possible dream for the Middle East.


Let’s talk about the Holy Father’s prayer meeting in the Vatican. Did it accomplish anything concretely for peace?

First of all, I think that it is something that the Holy Father himself really felt that he had to do, because he has been calling for peace and reconciliation, a cessation of violence, to unite people and for them to come together. I think he really thought he has to be the example for them, and I think in so many ways he has been the example of what we all should be doing.

 

How important was the symbolism here?

Shimon Peres said, “The Holy Father is a peace-builder; he’s a unifier, bringing people together.” I think the symbolism of having Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres, the patriarch and the Holy Father all coming in together was significant.

People had differing opinions on what would be the result of this prayer meeting, when we had an event and panel discussion on Capitol Hill. … I think everyone, 100% of the people, said it was a wonderful thing that [the Pope] did this and that his power in bringing out that love, joy and reconciliation with people can’t be underestimated. None of us know how much impact that will have.

So, it may not have the results right now, but I think it once again puts the Church in a position of moral authority trying to work with all parties in a unified way for peace and reconciliation.

 

Why did the Pope invite Peres, whose time as Israel’s president is nearly up? Why not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who wields the political power?

Shimon Peres has been a man who has been involved in working for peace and reconciliation. He is someone who people feel still has great influence and will continue to contribute in Israeli society on moving [forward] a process towards a peaceful resolution of this situation, and I think he will continue to do that.

I think, frankly, that the Pope not only is someone who just has a wonderful presence and outreach to the poor and to all people, but he’s also shrewd. Having the prime minister come at that time might have been difficult before [Israel’s presidential] election. … He didn’t want to be part of the politics. I think he wanted to really show that this was a uniting of people and was not a political event.

At the same time, I don’t think that Shimon Peres is going to keep the conversations and the activities that occurred during and around that prayer meeting to himself. He will share it with others.

 

How important is it for people to see that the Pope is not on one side or the other, but is on the side of peace?

Absolutely crucial. Again, when you mention the issue of symbolism: When he is meeting with the refugees, he is meeting with the people most affected by [the conflict]. I think that is key when you’re seeing the Holy Father [reaching out]. He’s meeting with the political leaders, he’s praying with them, [and] he’s not doing a lot of politics with them. But he’s praying with them, and then he’s caressing, touching and being with those most affected by the violence in this region, which, unfortunately, has suffered too much violence — again, [the symbolism] can’t be underestimated.

 

The peace missions of the Holy Father significantly raise the profile of these issues. How key is raising awareness to actually moving peace forward?

I think one of the unfortunate aspects of this whole conflict has been that it has become a political process — a political process that many people don’t see how they can come out to a positive resolution at the end. For the Holy Father, I think his steps were really designed to show that there is a human face to this ordeal; that these are human beings; that this isn’t just politics; that lives are at stake here; and that we all are responsible for it. By him going out there, being there personally, being with the people most affected and by showing that human face, I think he is saying that we all must be engaged. That can possibly start turning some heads.

 

Is it a onetime effort?

I don’t think this is a onetime effort for the Holy Father. We’ve been engaged in Syria and the Holy Land — with a lot of these troubles in the Middle East. The Holy Father has been very vocal on the situation in Syria and what should happen. He has been very vocal on the situation in the Middle East. As we go around to these other places, I don’t think this is a onetime event that he’s having: He will be keeping on top of this and moving it forward.

I think that puts a human face on it, values it and may get these leaders to start thinking about what is their personal responsibility: Let’s forget about politics, and let’s reflect [and] contemplate about how we can make this situation better for those most affected.

 

What can we as the Church do to support the Holy Father in his quest for peace in Israel, Palestine and the whole of the Middle East?

We really have to become more engaged. This is an opportunity for many of us to re-engage. As I mentioned earlier, I think many people have checked out. They think this is a hopeless cause, and we don’t need to be attentive to it. But the Holy Father is saying this is not a hopeless cause, and when any of our children are suffering, we all need to pitch in and figure out how we can resolve this situation.

When I was there, in Gaza and the West Bank, in Israel, and even in Jordan, everyone was saying that the U.S. has got to maintain involvement. Now, we might not need to necessarily be the ones hosting every event and all, but at least behind the scenes, we all need to be part of a solution that is calling for peace and reconciliation — and that is remembering the human face to this tragedy.

 

What do we need to do to help the Christians in Israel and Palestine?

We’ve seen an unfortunate decline in the number of Christians in the area, because they have seen the opportunities for their children dwindle. I think if there is a re-engagement of all of us [to help there], many of the people there would see opportunities for their families in the region, as opposed to emigrating. I think it is a key time that we all relook at this and say, “Do we want to help these people stay where they are?” Or we are going to face situations where we’re going to have more and more immigrants from the region?

 

Any final thoughts?

Let me just say one last thing: I think it’s important that we not tie our humanitarian assistance to a political process, so that we are seen as unbiased in this conflict, and we continue to assist those who are most in need. And I think that we have probably gone a little more of the route of tying humanitarian assistance to a political process, and I think that doesn’t do us any favors with any of the communities.

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.