Fueled by wire stories from AP and AFP, the mainstream media have been running with a headline that Pope Francis, during a meeting at the Vatican on Saturday 16 May, called Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas “an angel of peace.”
The problem: the pope did not call Abbas — aka the terrorist Abu Mazen — an “angel of peace.”
He did utter the words “angel of peace,” and he suggested that Abbas could or might be one. In the context of the pope’s complete statement about the meeting, the implication was that Abbas could be an angel of peace if he resumed direct negotiations with Israel.
Why did Francis say the words “angel of peace” at all? Because he was making a gift to Abbas of a medallion engraved with an image of the Angel of Peace. The Vatican Insider feature of Italy’s La Stampa has this summary in its English version:
As is tradition with heads of State or of government, Francis presented presented a gift to the Palestinian leader, commenting: “May the angel of peace destroy the evil spirit of war. I thought of you: may you be an angel of peace.” Pope Francis had called Abu Mazen a “man of peace” when he visited Bethlehem in May 2014, just as he called the then Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, a “man of peace” during his subsequent visit to Jerusalem.
For those who are interested in comparing the original Italian report at La Stampa, it’s here. The same passage has more information about the gift of the medallion.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio ha regalato al leader palestinese, come è sua consuetudine con i Capi di Stato e di Governo, un medaglione con la figura dell’Angelo della Pace, commentando: «L’angelo della pace distrugge lo spirito cattivo della guerra. Ho pensato a lei: che lei possa essere un angelo della pace». Papa Francesco aveva definito Abu Mazen «uomo di pace» durante la visita a Betlemme nel maggio del 2014, così come aveva definito l’allora presidente israeliano Shimon Peres «uomo di pace» nella successiva tappa a Gerusalemme.
A more direct, exact translation is as follows:
Jorge Mario Bergoglio [i.e., the pope, but using his given name as the head of state of the Vatican] gave the Palestinian leader, as is his custom with heads of state and government, a medallion with the image of the Angel of Peace, commenting: “The angel of peace destroys the evil spirit of war. I thought of you*: that you might be an angel of peace.” Pope Francis had called Abu Mazen a “man of peace” during the visit to Bethlehem in May 2014, just as he called former Israeli President Shimon Peres a “man of peace” at his next stop in Jerusalem.
To summarize, then: Pope Francis had previously commended both Abbas and Peres as “men of peace,” presumably intending papal encouragement for the pursuit of peace. At the meeting with Abbas on Saturday, the pope gave Abbas a medallion with the image of the Angel of Peace, and commented that Abbas might be, or would have the chance to be, an angel of peace. He did not say that Abbas is an angel of peace.
In the latter regard, it’s worth noting further that the pope’s wish for Abbas is expressed in the subjunctive mode: “che lei possa essere un angelo della pace.” The level of dubiousness or “unfulfilledness” conveyed by the subjunctive mode in romance languages is something English no longer has a strong equivalent for. A more exact translation of the idea in English would be something like “may it be that you become an angel of peace,” or “let it be that you become an angel of peace.”
What the use of the subjunctive makes clear is that the pope was not saying Abbas already is an angel of peace. Notably, Francis went on in his additional remarks to hope that direct talks would resume between the parties:
Next, the peace process with Israel was discussed and the hope was expressed that direct negotiations between the Parties would resume in order to find a just and lasting solution to the conflict. For this purpose, the wish for Israelis and Palestinians to take determined and courageous decisions in aid of peace, with the support of the international community, was once against reiterated.
Read the whole La Stampa summary for yourself; it’s clear that the pope’s official comments were phrased carefully, avoiding premature applause for anyone’s incarnation as an “angel,” and endorsing mutual, direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs as the way ahead.
The MSM, of course, heard what they wanted to hear, and wrote biased headlines accordingly.
** UPDATE **: An acquaintance sent me the link to a Spanish-language Zenit article on the Abbas visit, whose wording mirrors the sense of the Italian story. The Zenit piece contains an additional piece of information as well: Pope Francis reportedly gave Abbas a copy of his 2013 encyclical Evangelii Gaudium. One of the things that encyclical was most especially noted for was its positive, affirming statement on the relation of the Church with Judaism and the Jewish people. Here is the relevant passage:
Relations with Judaism
247. We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked, for “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). The Church, which shares with Jews an important part of the sacred Scriptures, looks upon the people of the covenant and their faith as one of the sacred roots of her own Christian identity (cf. Rom 11:16-18). As Christians, we cannot consider Judaism as a foreign religion; nor do we include the Jews among those called to turn from idols and to serve the true God (cf. 1 Thes 1:9). With them, we believe in the one God who acts in history, and with them we accept his revealed word.
248. Dialogue and friendship with the children of Israel are part of the life of Jesus’ disciples. The friendship which has grown between us makes us bitterly and sincerely regret the terrible persecutions which they have endured, and continue to endure, especially those that have involved Christians.
249. God continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant and to bring forth treasures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with his word. For this reason, the Church also is enriched when she receives the values of Judaism. While it is true that certain Christian beliefs are unacceptable to Judaism, and that the Church cannot refrain from proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Messiah, there exists as well a rich complementarity which allows us to read the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures together and to help one another to mine the riches of God’s word. We can also share many ethical convictions and a common concern for justice and the development of peoples.
(Of particular note, from a Christian standpoint, is that the section on Judaism is set apart from the section on “interreligious dialogue.” It is in that latter section that Pope Francis addresses the Church’s relations with Islam. This is not a rebuke to Islam or Muslims, but it clarifies that the Catholic Church recognizes a religious and spiritual connection with Judaism that it does not recognize with other religions, including Islam. It also clarifies the Church’s position that the Jewish covenant with God has never been revoked.)
We can assume that Francis did not select a text at random to give to Abbas at their meeting. On the topic at hand, meanwhile, my friend puts it this way: “There’s a sense in which the Pope did the exact opposite of what the NYT and AFP reported: he urged Abbas to change his way.”
In light of all the facts from the Italian and Spanish reports, that case can indeed be made.
* Italian cognoscenti will recognize that, technically, “lei,” without capitalization, is the pronoun “her” or “she.” The formal “you” is written “Lei,” with a capital L. However, since La Stampa translated the passage to reflect the pope addressing Abbas in the second person and calling him “you,” we can assume this was a case of grammatical sloppiness in the Italian original. “You” also makes more sense in the overall context of the event and the pope’s remarks.