Alon Goshen-Gottstein

Shall We Pray with Pope Francis?

Muslims praying (Photo: Claudia Henzler)
Elijah Muslim Leaders in Prayer (Photo: Claudia Henzler)

On Sunday, Pope Francis will be engaged in a first of its kind, ever, activity. He will be bringing political leaders to the Vatican to pray for peace. This initiative is the only concrete outcome of his visit to the Holy Land. Francis has invited Presidents Peres and Abbas to the Vatican, along with a Coterie of religious leaders – Christian, Muslim and Jewish – to pray for peace in the Holy Land. Patriarch Bartholomew will join them; people worldwide will unite in praying along with them. Yet in Israel there is no movement towards this moment – no preparation, no attention, no intention. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate, a partner to this initiative, has yet to ask for a day of prayer, or even a moment of prayer, to support its own involvement in this peace-prayer-initiative.

Why do we hear nothing of this initiative? Because we are tired. We are all tired. Decades of peace talks that lead nowhere; endless preaching by the world’s leaders and an increasing sense of being misunderstood and isolated – this is the frame of mind of most Israelis. Recent political developments on the Palestinian side make the prospects of true peace seem farther than ever, and we are braced for splendid isolation and an all-out effort to care for our own needs under emerging circumstances. In all this, the idea of a prayer for peace in the Vatican seems like a dream, an illusion. Why Vatican? How odd that rabbis should have to go the Vatican to pray. And with Abbas? And Peres, who is on his way out of an office that doesn’t empower him to make peace in the first place? It all seems like a show that has little to do with us. Our realism has no room for such shows.

Chief Rabbi Bakshi Doron
Elijah Member Chief Rabbi Bakshi Doron

But let us think again. The name of the game is hope. We can’t live without hope; no one can, not our friends and not our enemies. All too many have lost hope. Political solutions seem farther than ever. What tools do we have that allow us to fight hopelessness? The answer is a turning to the heart. Whatever our political view, collectively, as Israel, something has hardened in our heart. The accumulation of disappointment, suspicion, suffering, isolation (and perhaps also a small dose of selfishness and materialism) have made our collective heart just a little harder than it was several decades back. While avoiding judgement, let us be open to this reality. How then can we open our heart? How can we massage out some of the knots of resentfulness that have set in? How can we do so without falling into false hopes of facile political solutions, the likes of which seem beyond reach in the foreseeable future?

I believe Pope Francis has a message that goes beyond a show of diplomacy. It is a message that especially those who see no diplomatic solutions on the horizon and those who have lost hope need to hear. As a geniune religious leader and a genuine man of prayer he invites us to turn to the heart, to bring in a ray of hope. This is prayer. It is not the prayer of hurried synagogue ritual nor the elaborate ritual of Church celebration. It is, rather, the prayer of sincerity, of supplication, of hope – the prayer of the heart. It is prayer that allows the heart to remain open, even to slightest degree. It is prayer that allows us to remember that there can be hope in life, even if we cannot see the way out. It is prayer that provides a path to our discovery of what that way might be.

Cardinal Schonborn (Photo: Claudia Henzler)
Elijah Member Cardinal Schonborn in Prayer (Photo: Claudia Henzler)

I don’t know if Sunday’s prayer-show will also be a moment of true prayer. But I am convinced that the man who initiated this moment believes and practices true prayer and it is with this intention that he invites our leaders to pray for peace. This invitation should extend to all, to the communities that will be represented in Rome and to all religious communities worldwide. It should also be extended to those of us who rarely if ever pray – be it because they are alienated from the ritual of their community, because they have never learned how to pray or because they simply do not believe in prayer. But if prayer is opening the heart to hope, to a higher hope; if prayer is the willingness to let go of our hardness of heart for only a minute – then we all have the right and the obligation to join leaders in Rome by taking a moment on Sunday afternoon to turn to our hearts, even as they turn to God in prayer. It is sufficient that we turn upwards, or inwards, with the cry of the heart that affirms: Things can be different; may they be so. That’s all it takes.

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About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.