With the symbolic gesture of praying for peace with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents, Pope Francis once again brings to mind his namesake saint from Assisi.
St. Francis excelled at creating tableaux of peace and compassion, aimed at changing hearts and minds. Late in his life, he wrote a new verse about peacemaking for his poem “The Canticle of Brother Sun,” and had his friars sing it to the bishop and mayor of Assisi at a time when their conflict seemed ready to precipitate violence. According to an early account of Francis’s life, the two would-be combatants reconciled.
Pope Francis also has a knack for the compelling symbolic gesture. His decision to act on the Middle East stalemate brings to mind another effort on the part of St. Francis. With peace talks on their way to failing during the Fifth Crusade on the banks of the Nile, St. Francis took it on himself to seek out the sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil. Their meeting was peaceful and courteous—remarkably so, given the brutal violence of that war. Francis failed in his aim of converting the sultan, but at the same time he succeeded in providing the Crusade leaders with an important example: it was possible to talk with the enemy, one human being to another.
But St. Francis’s dramatic example didn’t change anything at the time. The Crusade leaders rejected a peace offer from the sultan that would have given them control of Jerusalem. The war continued, ending in defeat for the Christians, who were then amazed at the generosity the sultan showed them.
On Sunday, Pope Francis called for the Israelis and Palestinians to have the courage to make peace. He showed some courage, too, by taking the risk of failing on the international stage. A similar olive-tree planting and prayer-for-peace event that Pope John Paul II held in Jerusalem in 2000 was marred when the Muslim cleric walked out in anger over the Jewish cleric’s statement that Jerusalem was the “eternal capital” of Israel. It didn’t get much attention because other papal events on the same day overshadowed the controversy. But it would have been devastating for the same to have occurred at Sunday’s much-anticipated event.
Will Pope Francis’s prayer meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres induce change in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute? Probably not any time soon. But I can imagine some ways that it might help.
Perhaps this hopeful image from the Vatican gardens will strengthen the hand of the moderates on both sides, at least a little. Perhaps the popular pope’s involvement will lead American Catholics to take up the Holy See’s sense of urgency on the need for a peaceful two-state solution.
Nearly eight centuries later, Francis’s peaceful encounter with the sultan is serving as a model to some, especially the Franciscan order, for better Christian-Muslim relations. It can take a long time for these seeds to sprout.