What? You thought Francis, Peres and Abbas really prayed?

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Let’s state this in journalistic terms.

What? You thought that the mainstream journalists covering the remarkable Vatican rite offering prayers for Middle East peace rite would actually produce coverage that included any content from the prayers?

Friends and neighbors, this event was all about politics and statecraft. Clearly, if the men wanted to produce real change in the real world then the only words that they spoke that mattered were addressed to one another and, thus, to the press. Get real.

The story that most American news consumers saw this past weekend was from the Associated Press, so let’s consider that text (in the version used by The Washington Post). Here’s some of the key material about this encounter between Pope Francis, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas:

The event had the air of an outdoor summer wedding, complete with receiving line and guests mingling on the lawn as a string ensemble played. …

Vatican officials have insisted that Francis had no political agenda in inviting the two leaders to pray at his home other than to rekindle a desire for peace. But the meeting could have greater symbolic significance, given that Francis was able to bring them together at all so soon after peace talks failed and at a time that the Israeli government is trying to isolate Abbas.

“In the Middle East, symbolic gestures and incremental steps are important,” noted the Rev. Thomas Reese, a veteran Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. “And who knows what conversations can occur behind closed doors in the Vatican.”

So was the omnipresent Father Reese actually, literally at this event or was he merely acting in his unofficial role as the press spokesman for all mainstream journalists and alleged Catholic insiders who would join him in calling a Vatican prayer service a “symbolic gesture”?

No one was hiding the fact that other talks took place behind closed doors. Also, no one was hiding the fact that, with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I joining in some parts of the ceremonies (but not leading prayers), there were actually two participants present who represented elements of the Palestinian people. Well, the pope would make three, since there are Eastern Rite Catholics in the region, as well. The AP report noted:

At the conclusion, Francis, Peres and Abbas shook hands and planted an olive tree together in a sign of peace. Also on hand was the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, to give a united Christian front.

Actually, since (a) he is the first among equals of the Orthodox patriarchs and (b) for the Orthodox “spiritual” things are real, it would be better to call Bartholomew the symbolic leader of the Eastern Orthodox world. It would also be appropriate to give him a name and to accurately note that he also took part in that olive-tree planting and other elements of the rites. People might want to know why there were four white-haired men in most of the photos.

In this particular news report, I rather appreciated — in an ironic sort of way — the amount of text that was dedicated to the prep work and the settings surrounding the prayers, while the story contained absolutely zero content from the prayers themselves.

For example:

(The rite) took place in the lush Vatican gardens in the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica, the most religiously neutral place in the tiny city-state. It incorporated Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers, delivered in Hebrew, English, Arabic and Italian and with musical interludes from the three faith traditions.

The prayers focused on three themes common to each of the religions: thanking God for creation, seeking forgiveness for past wrongdoing and praying to God to bring peace to the region. … (E)ven Francis’ secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has said the power of prayer shouldn’t be discounted for its ability to change reality.

“Prayer has a political strength that we maybe don’t even realize and should be exploited to the full,” he said at the end of Francis’ recent Mideast trip. “Prayer has the ability to transform hearts and thus to transform history.”

That said, no concrete results are expected. …

Don’t you love the part with the Vatican official stepping in — note the “even” reference in this sentence — to state that prayer might matter.

So perhaps you want to know what the three men said in their prayers? Luckily, those texts are available. The prayers of Francis and Abbas were particularly powerful. Click here for the pope’s text and then here for the texts of Abbas and Peres.

A sample from the pope that, if I had travel funds, I certainly would have worked into my event coverage:

Lord God of peace, hear our prayer! We have tried so many times and over so many years to resolve our conflicts by our own powers and by the force of our arms. How many moments of hostility and darkness have we experienced; how much blood has been shed; how many lives have been shattered; how many hopes have been buried… But our efforts have been in vain. … Lord, God of Abraham, God of the Prophets, God of Love, you created us and you call us to live as brothers and sisters.

Why Abraham? Why the God of the prophets?

Yes, in religious events of this kind the fine details matter.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia B

    Yes, that “(E)ven” was hysterical. A Catholic Cardinal wouldn’t think praying was worth doing?
    I watched the whole thing on the news feed linked in your post and was amazed to see the folks with yamalkas (sp?), Fedoras, caftans, Catholic garb, Eastern Christian liturgical clothing, lay people in every day dress, etc. mingling and respectfully listening to each other. It was interesting to see the last Christian prayer spoken in Arabic right before the Muslim section which was all in Arabic. Also interesting to hear a sung Jewish prayer that sure sounded similar to the Arabic call to prayer. The musical intervals were simple, gorgeous and perfect for meditation and reflection – loved the chamber music and the Celtic-sounding harp and the violinist in blue-framed glasses were stand-outs. Great stuff. The Pope was the host and sat with the 2 guests, but the Patriarch was given an honored raised place to sit close at hand and take part in the event. Lots and lots that could have been written about this event.
    BTW It was nice to watch and not have a narrator ruin the mood.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com/ Joel

    “Actually, since (a) he is the first among equals of the Orthodox patriarchs and (b) for the Orthodox “spiritual” things are real, it would be better to call Bartholomew the symbolic leader of the Eastern Orthodox world.”

    I have to disagree with you there. However unwittingly, I think they used the right term. “Symbolic” would (from their perspective, at least) mean “not real.” The patriarch is not a political leader in the secular sense (he has no temporal power) but he is still a spiritual leader. Granted, the reporter might still consider spiritual leadership unreal. But symbolic leadership would be the opposite of real leadership.

  • Kevin Spencer

    What amazes me is also the story’s complete fail on the historical connections of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. The Patriarch and Pontiff have been EXTREMELY chummy given their church’s’ centuries-long split. Was the theologically mind blowing comments of the Patriarch suggesting a Catholic/Orthodox ecumenical council last week mentioned? The fact that two leaders of a very difficult war of land and rights just dropped what they were doing to pray together? If the story would not have framed things only in geopolitics, the story would have Pulitzer level substance for many.

    • Julia B

      Agreed. It was mind-blowing to watch. The tectonic plates are shifting.
      Even if nothing concrete develops politically concerning Palestinians and Israelis, the atmosphere seemed super-charged.
      And YIKES is nobody paying attention to what is happening in Iraq? Kurdistan is where Christians fled and were thought to be safe – if they wanted to stay in Iraq. There’s lots of reasons for people of good will to help each other out in that region. It was really important for the Patriarch to be at the event on Sunday.


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