09/15/2014 04:34 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2014

The Catholic Church in Jerusalem and its Role as a Peacemaker

One night last week, I moderated a public discussion in Jerusalem on a seemingly obscure topic: "The Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem--how it Sees the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and What is its Role as Peacemaker." The program was co-sponsored by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, which I direct. The topic was fascinating, and more than this, there was an important message of peace revealed to us with great clarity and care. It is this message which I want to focus on in this posting.

The opening presentation by Fr. David Neuhaus, a friend of many years, was informative and eye-opening. Fr. David serves as the Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel and coordinator of the Church's work with migrant workers and asylum seekers.

First of all, Fr. David gave the packed audience some basic information about the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Founded in 1847, it is the local Catholic Church, and it is part of the Roman Catholic Church under the Pope. Its geographic range covers four political entities: Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Cyprus and it is one of the 13 official churches in Jerusalem.

About 2-3% of the population in the Holy Land is Christian, and in Israel, about 15% of local Christians are "Latin" (i.e. Roman Catholic). In Palestine and Jordan, the percentages are higher: about 35-37 of the local Christians are Roman Catholic.

The most important part of the lecture for me, however, was not the basic statistics, although they were very helpful as context. Rather, Fr. David's description of the development of a vision of peacemaking of this local church was particularly new and fascinating for me, and for the audience.

In the first period, from 1847-1987, the Latin Patriarch was always Italian, and the patriarchs over those 140 years were largely "conservative" and did not enter into "politics".

The first local Palestinian Patriarch, Michel Sabbah (1987-2008), changed all this. In the opinion of Fr. David , this was a revolution in the local church. It brought to the local leadership a post Vatican II religious figure, who in many ways was similar to Pope John Paul II.

Patriarch Sabbah wrote many important "pastoral" letters, especially on subjects related to justice and peace. He was very critical of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but at the same time, he remained a man of dialogue and peace. I personally met him many times and always felt that he was open to hearing what I had to say. He was active in dialogue sessions that I organized in Jerusalem, and always spoke softly but with a prophetic voice.

In his final pastoral letter in 2008, he wrote about the importance of non-violent resistance from a position of love, and about the need for both peoples to learn to live in peace:

Like all the inhabitants of this land, Palestinians and Israelis, the Christians, both Palestinian and Israeli, are involved in this conflict.... Like all the Palestinians, we are victims of the occupation. Like all the Palestinians, we have to pay the price in order to again find our political and economic freedom (...) that is certainly an obligation, but we also believe in the commandment to love, and thus in a resistance that enters into the logic of Christian love. A non-violent resistance but one that is capable of leading the two peoples to enjoy in equal ways their freedom, their sovereignty and their security.

I will admit that not all members of the Israeli establishment viewed Patriarch Sabbah (who is now retired but remains active) as a peacemaker. However, I always encountered him as a man of peace and dialogue, and have always had great respect for his leadership.

After the erudite lecture by Fr.David, my respect and admiration has grown. I was not aware of all the pastoral letters and all the new institutions that Patriarch Sabbah developed within the local church, including its own local Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews. Nor was I fully aware that he is best known for being a spokesman for Justice and Peace, despite everything else he did for local Catholics and local Catholic institutions.

Nor did I know that on the eve of the Gaza conflict this summer (on July 8, 2014) that the Justice and Peace Commission of the entire Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land issued the following statement --

Our role, as religious leaders, is to speak a prophetic language that reveals the alternatives beyond the cycle of hatred and violence. This language refuses to attribute the status of enemy to any of God's children; it is a language that opens up the possibility of seeing each one as brother or sister. Pope Francis at the invocation for peace cried out: "We have heard a summons, and we must respond. It is the summons to break the spiral of hatred and violence, and to break it by one word alone: the word "brother". But to be able to utter this word we have to lift our eyes to heaven and acknowledge one another as children of one Father." Religious leaders are invited to use language responsibly so that it becomes a tool to transform the world from a Wilderness of darkness and death into a flourishing garden of life.

During the past 6 weeks, we Jews have been hearing the prophetic voice of Isaiah every week in our synagogues as part of the seven prophetic readings of "consolation" that we began reading after Tisha B'Av (the holiday which marks the destruction of the first and second Temples and other tragedies in Jewish history). No prophet spoke more about peace and justice than did Isaiah (who is of course shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike).

Would that we would hear more prophetic voices from our religious leaders today in Israel, Palestine, and the region! Leaders who would speak profoundly and passionately about the need for peace for all people and all peoples in this Land.

And would that we would listen and hearken to these voices.
All of us.
Israelis and Palestinians.
Jews, Christians and Muslims.