By Bishop Richard E. Pates
As Pope Francis goes on pilgrimage to the Holy Land this month, he brings more than what many call his “rock star” presence. He brings hope to a seemingly hopeless situation.
The common wisdom is that Israelis and Palestinians will never achieve peace. After all, many say, they have been fighting for centuries. If polls are accurate, most Israelis and Palestinians want peace, but are highly skeptical that peace talks can succeed. They have seen too many failures.
The recent “collapse” of the U.S.-brokered negotiations championed by Secretary of State John Kerry reinforces this view. It seems to be yet another in a long line of failed efforts. But I have a difference view.
First of all, it is important to correct the record; Israelis and Palestinians have been struggling for decades, not centuries. The open struggle started in 1948. At that time, British Mandate Palestine was to be divided by the United Nations into two states, one Jewish, another Palestinian. At the time, Arabs rejected the partition, and fighting ensued, leading to the establishment of one state, Israel.
In 1967, as Arab nations poised themselves to invade Israel, Israel conquered and occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians now hope to establish a viable and independent state on these occupied lands. Israelis hope for recognition and security in a peace deal. This is the two-state solution that has eluded negotiators. Ironically, it would establish two states as the UN originally envisioned.
Of course, there are complicating factors: Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian lands; rocket attacks on innocent Israeli civilians from Gaza; Israeli security measures that humiliate Palestinians, cripple the Palestinian economy and seize lands; Palestinian efforts to seek UN recognition apart from peace negotiations; significant questions over how to share Jerusalem; and dilemmas over how to deal with Palestinian refugees.
Into this conflicted quagmire steps Pope Francis. He is a humble man who chose the name Francis because Francis of Assisi was a “man of peace.” What does he bring? He brings faith, faith in God and faith in people, a faith that brings hope.
On Easter, Pope Francis prayed, “Jesus, Lord of glory, we ask you … to sustain the hopes raised by the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.” Pope Francis will bring that hope born of faith to the Holy Land.
Hope is not the same as optimism. Hope apprehends possibilities that are often outside of our human field of vision, but they are not outside God’s. Hope can see a future that flows from God’s Spirit at work in the world. Moreover, Pope Francis has stated frequently that our God is a God of surprises.
To those who say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hopeless, I would remind them that the same was said of the troubles in Northern Ireland, apartheid in South Africa, and the Iron Curtain in Europe. Faith sustained hope in these situations and allowed new futures to be born. The same can happen in the Holy Land. And Pope Francis is the right person coming at the right time to the right place, a land that needs hope.
Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairs the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.