Pope Francis stops in front of the Israeli security wall in Bethlehem, West Bank, May 25. CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, pool

Give prayer a chance

  • May 28, 2014

In the powerful image shown around the world, Pope Francis is standing at the imposing wall that partitions Bethlehem from the outside world. His right palm presses the concrete, his head is bowed in silent prayer. Graffiti above him proclaims, “Pope we need some1 to speak about justice.”

That appeal and others were spray-painted onto the wall days before the Pope was scheduled to pass that spot May 25 on the second day of a three-day Holy Land pilgrimage. He wasn’t expected to stop. The graffiti writers merely hoped the Pope would see their pleas. But, once again, Francis did the unexpected and had the Popemobile pull over so he could stand with Palestinians for a moment in prayer at this towering symbol of Middle East division.

The Vatican called it a “spiritual moment” and not a political statement. But the wall, which Israel says is necessary for its security, is never far from political discussions in Bethlehem. In Jerusalem, Israeli authorities certainly tweaked to the political overtones. Despite a crammed itinerary, the Pope agreed the next day to an Israeli request for an unscheduled stop at a Jewish memorial to pray for victims of terrorism.

From the outset, the Pope maintained his pilgrimage was about religion, not politics, even though the two are often inseparable in the Holy Land. The trip’s primary purpose was to advance Catholic-Orthodox unity on the 50th anniversary of ecumenical dialogue between the two churches. The second reason was to pray for peace in what Francis calls “a land that suffers so much.” On both counts, the trip was fruitful.

That is particularly true of the Pope’s objective to infuse the peace process with spiritual diplomacy. It is a type of diplomacy he championed last September with his day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria that brought international focus to the civil war and, many believe, helped prevent a U.S.-led escalation of the bloodshed. Now the Pope has proposed something similar by inviting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to the Vatican in June so the Muslim and Jewish statesmen can join him in a day of prayer for peace.

It will not be a day to negotiate borders, land claims or walls, regardless of the importance of those issues. The Israeli president fills a non- political largely ceremonial role. Instead, it will be a day to look beyond divisive secular matters and acknowledge a unifying spiritual reality, a shared belief in one God. It will be a day, the Pope said, to come to his home “to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace.”

To Francis’ credit, both presidents quickly accepted the invitation. Traditional diplomacy has failed, so they will give prayer a chance.

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