Canadian Bishop Lionel Gendron examines some of the extensive destruction of Gaza. “With the present blockade in place, the Gazans see no possibility for reconstruction,” he said later. Photo Credit: Carl Hétu
When Pope Francis visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in May 2014, many were struck by his overtly expressed sympathy for Palestinian suffering. He prayed at both the “wailing wall” and the ‘apartheid wall” for example. Palestinians were elated.
And one month later he welcomed both Israeli President Simon Perez and Palestinian President Abbas to come to Rome to “pray for peace”.
At the time, there was some speculation on whether the Pope’s trip ‘mattered’. Was it only public relations, or was something more profound afoot? A year later, it now appears that the Holy Father is serious about including Palestinian suffering as part of the Church’s concerns.
- On May 13th, the Vatican announced that it would recognize the “State of Palestine” and signed a treaty which Israel criticized.
- On May 17th, His Holiness canonized 2 Palestinian nuns from the Ottoman Era recognizing them as ‘saints”. (In the West Bank, Palestinians cheered, in part because it will probably boost tourism.)
- The same day, Pope Francis described Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as an “angel of peace”. (He had said the same thing about Perez a year earlier.)
What is going on?
Has the Holy Father gone rogue? Or is there a deeper change afoot in the Catholic Church? And what does it mean for Catholics in Canada?
A quick look at the Catholic press seems to indicate that a broader change has been underway for some time. Vatican diplomats have been encouraged to renew efforts to address the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories. And Catholic clergy, including senior members of the Church, have been visiting and listening to Palestinian voices in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and in refugee camps.
In January 2014, a delegation of Catholic bishops from around the world, including Canadian Archbishop Andre-Paul Durocher, visited Gaza. Their final communique, as reported by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was scathing:
“Gaza is a man-made disaster, a shocking scandal, an injustice that cries out to the human community for a resolution. We call upon political leaders to improve the humanitarian situation of the people in Gaza, assuring access to the basic necessities for a dignified human life, the possibilities for economic development, and freedom of movement.”
This was before operation Cast Lead last summer which left another 2000 dead Palestinians in Gaza and the destruction of over 10,000 homes.
A few months ago another delegation of Catholic Bishops, including Canadian Bishop Lionel Gendron, visited Gaza. The 16 bishops from around the world were accompanied by Ottawa-based Carl Hétu, National Director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA).
“For me, this was my first time entering Gaza. It reminded me of my first experience facing third-world poverty in the shanty towns of Lima, Peru. But there was one exception: the level of destruction of hospitals, schools, homes and infrastructure (including the water and electrical systems) was overwhelming. More than 110,000 people lost their homes. Even now, months later, most people have electricity only a few hours a day.” – Carl Hétu
Little by little, the Catholic Church, including Canadian bishops and clergy, are recognizing the enormous suffering endured by the Palestinian people. After years of ‘making amends” for the Holocaust, they are becoming aware of another people’s pain and misery in the Holy Land. And they are bringing this awareness to the attention of their followers. But they will have to move cautiously in the face of more conservative factions which strongly oppose any criticism of Israel. Some ultra conservative evangelical Christians have even claimed that such moves are “influenced by Satan”.
While very powerful, the Pope is not the whole church and cannot act alone. But there are encouraging signs of a broad movement within the Catholic Church’s toward concern and empathy for all those who live in the Holy Land, including Palestinians.