On the evening of June 8, an unlikely quartet walked through the Vatican Gardens, making international headlines just by being together.
Pope Francis welcomed Presidents Shimon Peres of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine to what the Vatican termed an Invocation for Peace, held in the Vatican Gardens. The idea of the gathering was first proposed by the pontiff during his recent visit to the Holy Land and was readily accepted by both sides.
The event consisted of public and private gatherings, with Presidents Peres and Abbas first meeting at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican guesthouse, with Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.
After brief conversation, they traveled together by van to the Vatican Gardens, where they were awaited by respective delegations, including Cardinal Pietro Parolin the Vatican Secretary of State, rabbis, imams, ambassadors and officials from the Holy See, Israel and Palestine.
The ceremony began in English, with the statement: “We have gathered here, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims, so that each of us can express his or her desire for peace for the Holy Land and for all who dwell there.”
The Invocation was held in three parts, with representatives speaking according to the chronological order of the three faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Each part was structured around three moments. The first consisted of an expression of praise to God “for His gift of creation and for His having created us as members of the human family.” The second asked pardon from God “for the times that we have failed to act as brothers and sisters and for our sins against Him and against our fellow men and women.” The third implored God to grant “the gift of peace to the Holy Land and to enable us to be peacemakers.” Each of the moments was framed by a brief musical interlude.
The Christian part was recited in English, Italian and Arabic and was notable for a prayer of penance from Pope St. John Paul II.
Following the three parts of prayer, Pope Francis and the two presidents each made an invocation for peace.
“Our children grow weary, worn out by conflicts … our children who plead with us to tear down the walls of enmity and to set out on the path of dialogue and peace,” Pope Francis said.
Peres said, “From Jerusalem I have come to call for Shalom, Salaam, Peace. Peace between nations, peace between Faiths, peace between people, peace for our children.”
Abbas declared, “We ask you O lord for peace in the Holy Land, Palestine and Jerusalem, together with its people. We call on you to make Palestine and Jerusalem in particular a secure land for all believers, a place of prayer and worship for the followers of the three monotheistic religions.”
The pope and the presidents, along with Patriarch Bartholomew, then exchanged a sign of peace, and Pope Francis and the two presidents planted an olive tree together as a symbol of peace.
In the days leading up to the event, there was considerable confusion in the press both to the particulars of the service and its objectives.
The Vatican Press office, as well as Catholic leaders from the region, sought to clarify that the Invocation for Peace was not supposed to be an occasion for negotiations, nor was it to be a high profile prayer service. Rather, it was a time for key figures in the Middle East to come together to pray for peace at the urging of Pope Francis. When he made the initial invitation, the pontiff said it would be a “heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace.” It was deliberately low key, held in the verdant Vatican Gardens — and not in St. Peter’s Basilica.
In a press conference on June 6, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, O.F.M., the Custos of the Holy Land, described the encounter as purely religious and intended to provide space to allow people to stand back from the conflict and “recreate a desire for change.” There was no expectation of immediate solutions to the complex problems of the Middle East, but Pizzaballa said that it might reopen a path of dialogue and allow people to dream of a world where peace is actually possible.
Vatican officials additionally stressed the crucial point that the Invocation for Peace would bring members of three different religions “together for prayer, but not prayer together,” as is prescribed by recently published guidelines from the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, the Holy See office in charge of outreach to other faiths.
The invocation was solemn, quiet and indeed low key. It was a rare occasion to allow the power of prayer to enter into the peace process and demonstrated that in the midst of long and bitter conflict, both sides can find common ground in a plea to God for reconciliation and peace. What comes next remains to be seen.
Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.