JERUSALEM -- In the most direct statement yet by a senior church official about the significance of Francis’ surprise moment of prayer on Sunday at the barrier between Israel and the West Bank, Cardinal Edwin O’Brien told the Globe on Monday that it amounted to an endorsement of the Palestinian cause.
“The pope acknowledged the state of Palestine on this trip, and issued a strong call for a two-state solution,” he said. “The wall symbolizes everything that stands in contradiction to that.”
O’Brien called the barrier, justified by Israel on security grounds, a “scandal” that’s damaged the lives of “persons and families.”
The 75-year-old O’Brien, who served as the Archbishop of Baltimore from 2007 to 2011, is now the “Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem,” an order which was originally born during the Crusades, which today functions as an honorary society to support the sacred sites and local Christian communities of the region.
He was appointed to the position of Grand Master by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, and became a cardinal in 2012.
Although O’Brien is not part of the pope’s official delegation for his Middle East trip, he’s on hand in Jerusalem to follow the visit. Among other things, he took part in the joint prayer service held Sunday night by Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, considered “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
O’Brien spoke to the Globe Monday morning about the visit.
Globe: Overall, what do you think Francis has accomplished?
O’Brien: I think not just the Christians but everyone here is relieved that his voice is being heard and respected by all sides. That’s not happened in a very long time, and it’s a real breakthrough. Three or four days ago, it wasn’t clear what would happen.
What do you think has struck people most?
His meeting with the Grand Mufti this morning was an important sign of reaching out to the Muslim community, and a way of encouraging the moderates. There was the totally unexpected stop at the wall in Bethlehem yesterday, which was truly inspired. There was also the highlight meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch last night, which was full of tremendous symbolism. For instance, when the patriarch sat down [after his speech] last night, the pope reached over and kissed his hand. It was extremely moving, and very telling.
I think what people are responding to is that all this comes straight from his heart, without any political measurement or any sense of personal or ecclesiastical benefit. He’s just trying to bring people together, and that comes across.
How did you read the significance of what he did at the barrier between Israel and the West Bank?
You can hear about the dimensions of the wall, that it’s 400 miles long and 30 feet high, and you may be able to imagine what it’s like. Once you actually see it, however, it’s hard not to be shocked. I imagine the pope was shocked, and simply couldn’t pass by without acknowledging it.
When [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas greeted Francis at the end of the Mass on Saturday, he thanked him for that stop at the wall and said the Palestinians are planning to make a postage stamp out of it. The Israelis made a stamp when Pope John Paul II visited the Western Wall in 2000, so now the Palestinians want to make the most out of this image.
I think what the pope wanted to do was to bring attention to the scandal of the Wall, what it’s done to people and families. He could not resist the chance to bring attention to this symbol of division, which was an initiative the Israeli government took with little regard to the human sensitivities involved.
Was it an endorsement of the Palestinian cause?
Yes, I think so. The pope acknowledged the state of Palestine on this trip, and issued a strong call for a two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It’s the conviction of the pope that this is the direction that things have to go. The wall symbolizes everything that stands in contradiction to that.
What was the significance of the prayer with Patriarch Bartholomew at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?
My impression is that Catholic Christians are already pretty much on board in desiring reconciliation with the Orthodox, and the hope is that the meeting here will boost the good efforts of the Patriarch of Constantinople to bring the two churches closer together.
In terms of relations with Orthodoxy, the real problem is that Moscow [meaning the Russian Orthodox Church] is opposed to doing much of anything. There’s also emotional resistance on the part of other Orthodox communities. Hopefully, the symbolism of the meeting in Jerusalem will break down some of that resistance and help the Orthodox realize the goodness on the part of their own leader, Bartholomew, and ours in Francis, so they should yield a little bit and open their hearts.
Realistically, is that likely to happen?
I don’t expect to see anything spectacular in our lifetimes. Both the pope and the patriarch’s talks emphasized the unexpected role of God’s hand in these things, so maybe something completely unforeseen will happen. Politically speaking, however, it’s going to be a long haul.
What do you make of the invitation to Presidents Abbas and Peres to come to the Vatican to pray for peace?
It was obviously a shocker, and I don’t know how anybody could resist it. Obviously these two couldn’t, because it didn’t take them very long to accept.
Why do you think he invited Peres and not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who holds the real political power?
He’s threading the needle, because I’m not sure what would have happened had he invited Netanyahu. In terms of diplomatic protocol, this makes sense because it’s two heads of state. If he had asked Netanyahu, I’m not sure who’d he have had to invite from the Palestinian side.
This may be a small opening, but who knows what the next steps will be? It was a stroke of grace and instinct that only Pope Francis seems to possess.
Conventionally it’s said that John Paul II is the pope who brought down the Berlin Wall. Will Francis be the pope who brings down the Bethlehem Wall?
Who would have predicted that John Paul II’s slow but steady wearing down of the forces in Eastern Europe would have led to the revolutions of 1989 and 1990? I’m not sure that even the pope saw it coming. There’s a good analogy between what John Paul set in motion and what Francis is trying to do now, and we can only hope they turn out similarly.
Does the Christian population of the Holy Land come out of this trip strengthened?
I think so, absolutely. The attention of the Israeli government has to be focused on what the pope is saying, and they may now offer some reciprocal gestures to demonstrate their openness, not just to Christians but also to the Palestinian community here.
John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.