JERUSALEM — History’s first pope named Francis, named for the legendary peace-loving St. Francis of the Middle Ages, is obviously going to see himself as a peace-maker. He played that card today, inviting the leaders of both Palestine and Israel to come to the Vatican for a common prayer for peace.
“All of us … are obliged to make ourselves instruments and artisans of peace, especially by our prayers,” the pope said in comments at the end of a public Mass in Bethlehem.
A Vatican spokesman today called it an “open invitation” of which both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres are aware, and said the Vatican hopes it will happen “in a rather short time.”
“It is a sign of the creativity and courage of Pope Francis,” said Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
Later on Sunday, the offices of the Israeli and Palestinian presidents announced they had accepted the pope’s invitation.
Last September Francis invited all the Catholics of the world to a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria, but this is the first time the pontiff has invited leaders of states locked in conflict to come to the Vatican to pray together.
It was the most breath-taking gesture of an outing to the Middle East in which Pope Francis and the Vatican is trying its best to carry out a balancing act, acknowledging the concerns of both sides to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Meeting Sunday morning with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom the pope described as “a man of peace and a peacemaker,” Francis urged resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable,” the pope said, adding that he was “expressing my closeness to those who suffer most from this conflict” — a reference that, in context, could be read to mean that the burden carried by the Palestinians is the greater one.
The pope also referred to the Catholic community “of the country,” a seemingly clear acknowledgement of Palestinian sovereignty.
Francis also expressed “profound hope that all will refrain from initiatives and actions which contradict the stated desire to reach a true agreement,” a reference that came off as a criticism of Israeli settlement policy.
Francis paused briefly for an impromptu look at the barrier between Israel and the West Bank that Palestinians often style as a symbol of their oppression. The pope placed his hands between two bits of graffiti pleading for justice and touched his head to the wall, pausing for a moment of prayer.
After celebrating an open-air Mass in Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born, the pope was then scheduled to visit the Dheisheh camp for Palestinian refugees, established in 1949 and currently home to between 9,000 and 13,000 people.
Later Sunday, Francis will make a short trip across the border to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, to be welcomed there by both Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He arrives 50 years after the first pontiff to visit the Holy Land, Paul VI, carefully avoided even using the word “Israel,” whereas today the two states enjoy full diplomatic relations and popes are not at all shy about invoking the country by name.
It’s reasonable to expect that Francis will say all the right things in his address, which amounts to his introduction to the Israeli public and has been carefully reviewed his Vatican advisors.
On Monday, Francis will visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, and among other things will presumably recommit the Catholic Church to the fight against anti-Semitism.
Also Monday, Francis will become the first pope to lay a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism and considered the father of the modern state of Israel. It’s a clear nod to Israeli sensitivities, more so since a Vatican spokesman defined it as a “recognition of the sacrifices of Israelis in building their nation.”
On the whole, the pope’s message on these two delicate days has a little something for everyone. Where does this drive for balance come from?
On the one hand, there’s a genuine humanitarian calculation in Rome that both sides in this long-running conflict deserve sympathy. Rising from the ashes of the Holocaust, Jews built a thriving nation that stands as the lone real democracy in the Middle East, however flawed, while Palestinians suffered what they call the Nakba, the “catastrophe” of wholesale expulsion from their homes, and many are still forced to live in demeaning conditions of occupation.
Yet there’s also a Realpolitik to the Vatican’s balancing act, competing forces pulling it in different directions that produce a sort of rough equilibrium.
On the Israeli side, the Vatican is well aware that the Catholic Church carries a measure of guilt for theological and cultural anti-Semitism in Europe that helped pave the way for the Holocaust. In some ways, the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1993 was as much a boost to the Vatican’s moral credibility as Israel’s.
More recently, the rise of a cohort of more conservative bishops in the John Paul II and Benedict XVI years, especially in the United States and Europe, gave the church leaders more inclined to value the Scriptural roots of Christianity in Judaism and also politically more sympathetic to Israel.
That tendency was augmented by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the rise of radical Islam as a preeminent global threat, and more recently by increasing attention to violent anti-Christian persecution in some Muslim nations.
On the Palestinian side, the basic fact is that the overwhelming majority of the Catholic population in the Holy Land is Arab and Palestinian, which means that the Vatican’s managers and its rank and file in the region skews heavily to the Palestinian cause. The previous Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michele Sabbah, was a Palestinian, and the incumbent, Fouad Twal, is a Jordanian with deep affinity for the Palestinian experience.
In addition, the Vatican, remains heavily European in terms of its culture and psychology, and its diplomatic corps tends to reflect the same mindset as secular European diplomats. The much less pro-Israeli position of the European Union, in comparison with the strong support of Israel by the United States, has long been an unspoken default setting.
More recently, a number of Catholic prelates from Latin America, Asia, and Africa have risen to prominence in and around the Vatican, and they can bring with them the views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that tend to be widespread in the developing world, where sympathy for the Palestinians and skepticism of Israel is often conventional wisdom.
The election of the first pope from the developing world, albeit one with a genuine sympathy for Judaism, may reinforce that tendency.
Add all those elements up, and you’re some way down the path to explaining why the Vatican always tries to position itself near the middle of what a Vatican diplomat once called the “mother of all crises.”
John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr, and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.