More than a month has passed since Pope Francis’ 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.

Did the Holy Father’s prayer meeting in the Vatican 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?
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 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.
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 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. ... 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 ...

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