Pope Francis on Sunday canonised two nineteenth-century Palestinian nuns at a ceremony in Rome attended by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, days after the Holy See said it would soon sign its first treaty with the State.
Marie-Alphonsine Ghattas, who founded the Dominican Sisters of the Holy Rosary of Jerusalem, and Mariam Baouardy, a mystic and member of the Discalced Carmelites, are the first modern-day saints to hail from the territory that made up historic Palestine.
“Their luminous example challenges us in our lives as Christians,” Pope Francis told thousands of pilgrims in St Peter’s Square on Sunday. He praised the two saints, who had lived under Ottoman rule, for their “encounter and fellowship” with Islam.
“Poor and uneducated, Sr Mariam Baouardy was able to counsel others and provide theological explanations with extreme clarity, the fruit of her constant converse with the Holy Spirit. Her docility to the Spirit also made her a means of encounter and fellowship with the Muslim world,” he said.
On Saturday Francis met President Abbas at the Vatican and called for negotiations between Israel and Palestine to be resumed. The Vatican described the short meeting as “cordial”.
One of the gifts the Pope presented to President Abbas was a large, round bronze medal representing an angel of peace.
He reportedly told the Palestinian leader: “It is appropriate because you are an angel of peace.”
Afterwards the Vatican sought to clarify the exchange. Spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said he could not verify what the Pope said because he had been speaking privately and “colloquially” to Abbas.
But he acknowledged: “The sense of encouraging a commitment to peace was very clear and I believe that the very gift of the symbol of an angel of peace was made by the Pope with this sole intention.”
Abbas last year visited Rome for an unprecedented prayer meeting in the Vatican Gardens with Francis and the outgoing Israeli President, Shimon Peres.
Four days before Sunday’s canonisation, the Vatican announced that the text of a formal agreement between the Holy See and the "State of Palestine" had been finalised.
The agreement, which is not the first time that the Vatican has formally recognised the existence of the State of Palestine but is its first treaty with the country, would recognise freedom of religion in the State of Palestine and outlines the rights and obligations of the Catholic Church, its agencies and its personnel in the territory.
At a press conference in Rome, Jordanian priest Fr Rifat Bader said the two new Palestinian saints were instrumental in the promotion of women in the Arab world and in efforts for interreligious dialogue toward peace.
"We view this grand event, which takes place for the first time since the days of the apostles, as a message of solidarity and encouragement to the Christians of the Holy Land, especially to the Christians and parishioners in all other Middle East countries, and to those who have been forcibly displaced and deported from their home countries, to all those who suffer from persecution," Fr Bader said on Friday.
Dr Harry Hagopian, who advises the bishops’ conference in England and Wales on the Middle East, described Sunday’s canonisations as significant. “Christian Churches and organisations who wonder at times how [best] to highlight their witness and solidarity should perhaps not underestimate the significance of an event that weaves together so many strands,” he said.
The Pope also canonised two other sisters who worked in education: St Jeanne Emilie de Villeneuve, a French nun, and Italian sister St Maria Cristina of the Immaculate Conception.
Top: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greets Pope Francis at conclusion of canonisation Mass, and images from the Mass, Photos: CNS