Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is among the Catholic Church’s ultimate road warriors, travelling across the globe despite his advanced age to serve as an informal diplomatic troubleshooter. Few religious leaders, therefore, may be in a better position to evaluate just what Pope Francis has gotten himself into by taking on the seemingly intractable Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
The 83-year-old McCarrick, a former archbishop of Washington, D.C., was in the Gaza Strip last week to monitor the situation facing the small but symbolically important Catholic population, and then joined the papal trip in Jordan and in Jerusalem.
According to McCarrick, Francis isn’t concerned in the least by a risk to his political credibility should his surprise peace initiative announced on Sunday, inviting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to pray together in the Vatican, fail to yield concrete results.
“He’s not putting himself out on a limb, he’s putting himself up on the Cross,” McCarrick told the Globe in a Monday interview.
“After the failure of the Kerry initiative,” he said, referring to the efforts by the American Secretary of State to jump-start peace talks between Israelis and Palestinian, “a lot of people were asking if we’re at the end of the road. Now the pope has given them a shot in the arm.”
McCarrick spoke to the Globe in Jerusalem about the papal visit to the Middle East.
Globe: Overall, what do you make of the trip?
McCarrick: I think it’s been very successful. The Holy Father did a lot of the things he wanted to do, with some major steps along the way. There was the image of him praying at the wall [between Israel and the West Bank], and his extraordinary offer to bring the leaders of Israel and Palestine together ‘in his house’ in the Vatican to pray for peace. Presumably, part of praying for peace will be trying to figure some realistic steps to bring it about.
Last night, the joint prayer with Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew should encourage both Catholic and Orthodox to work harder to seek the unity of all Christians.
Do you believe the prayer with Abbas and Peres can accomplish anything?
We have to hope it can. It comes in the wake of the failure of the Kerry initiative, despite his hard work, and left many people feeling they’ve lost again. A lot of people were asking if we’re at the end of the road. Now, the pope has given them a shot in the arm. Of course, it was an accident that the Holy Father happened to be here just after what happened with the Kerry initiative, but there’s probably no better place for him to be right now. It’s given people a reason not to give up hope.
The pope is putting the emphasis on prayer, and seeing what we might be able to do. Secretary Kerry isn’t a religious leader, he’s a statesman. The Holy Father can bring prayer into it, which may be exactly the right touch for a conflict in which religion plays a key role.
Is the pope risking his political credibility if nothing comes of it?
I wouldn’t put it that way. I think he’s counting on the Lord, and you can’t tell the pope that’s not the right thing to do. I realize political credibility is important in this world, but it’s more important to be faithful to God.
He’s not putting himself out on a limb, he’s putting himself up on the Cross, and that’s what he’s called to do.
What’s the situation in the Gaza Strip?
The people are very unhappy, and it’s getting worse. There are maybe 1.7, 1.8 million people in total, and 70 percent of them are on the dole. That’s a huge share. They’re hungry, they’re tried, and some are without hope.
I have to say that I met a number of young people in Gaza who impressed me very much. They’re smart, and they look to the future. They’re the hope of Gaza Strip, if they get a chance.
In terms of the Catholic community, they certainly have concerns about the future. The priests there are terrific, and they’re very positive. There are only about 500 Catholics in the whole place, and they share in the overall realities facing everybody else.
How are their relations with the Muslims?
It varies. Ordinarily, the relationship is very good. The Catholic Church probably has the best school on the Gaza Strip, and the majority of the students are Muslims whose parents put them there because they want a good education with strong values.
There are some [Muslims] on the fringe, some fundamentalists, in Gaza, and they give the Christians a hard time. Not long ago a bomb went off near the church, which obviously scared everybody. In general, they’re good, holy people.
More broadly, where do you see Catholic/Muslim relations going?
I was very struck in Jordan by the hospitality shown to the pope by Prince Ghazi, who has the real intention of finding a way in the Muslim world to build a new relationship with the Catholic Church. It builds hope that a lot of good things can happen.
Ghazi is a dear friend of mine, and I’m very grateful for his kindnesses to me and his interest in the church. He was a key figure in the 2005 Amman Message [a statement calling for tolerance and unity in the Muslim world], and even though it’s lost a bit of credibility because of the Arab Spring, it is a very important document.
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.