Pope Francis has invited the leaders of Israel and Palestine to come to Rome and pray with him at the Vatican. And they’ve each accepted.
This is a really big deal, though the press has pretty much dismissed it as “symbolic.”
I guess in a way it is. Shimon Perez, the president of Israel, is very old and is just about to leave office. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of Palestine, is really in charge of only half of his country. The two could not arrange a peace treaty even if they wished to do so.
But they aren’t coming to Rome to contract a peace treaty. They’re coming to pray, and that is an important symbol of a world that is possible.
It is only symbolic, but symbols are important.
Think of the secular symbols in our national life. We pledge allegiance to the flag. Really? To a piece of cloth? No, to the republic for which it stands. We pledge allegiance to a symbol.
But, throughout the nation’s history, hundreds of thousands of Americans have died in defense of that symbol.
Take another symbol, and this one isn’t so self-evident. Take a nuclear submarine. It is a big, complex weapon. An underwater ship capable of firing ballistic missiles carrying enough destructive power to pretty much end civilization as we know it.
But, really, it’s just a symbol, a symbol that says we can kill you if we want to, so don’t even think about messing with us.
A nuclear missile submarine doesn’t really have any practical purpose other than being a symbol. Firing its missiles would be a suicidal act for whatever country chose to do so.
So, we tend to trust symbols, even though, practically, they are useless. I guess a flag could be used as a garment or a table cloth, and I guess a nuclear submarine could be used to transport passengers but, in general, they have use only as symbols.
The fact that Abbas and Perez have agreed to fly to Rome to pray with the pope (who earlier came to their respective countries and prayed with them) is a symbol, but it is an important symbol.
It says, symbolically that they believe in the same God and are subject to the same God.
Will their prayer bring peace? Hardly likely. There are a whole lot of people out there who gain financial and political power by maintaining the conflict.
But that doesn’t mean the symbol is powerless. It may be only a drop of water in the desert, but drops of water eventually turn a desert green.