Pope Francis is an electric figure and the Middle East is the world’s most contested piece of real estate, so it’s no surprise that when the two collide, the result is generally a frenzy. The most recent example is a fuss over whether the pontiff did, or didn’t, call Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas an “angel of peace” on Saturday.
The phrase was allegedly uttered during a moment of informal chat between Francis and Abbas in a Vatican meeting. It came two days after the Vatican announced a treaty with the “State of Palestine,” and a day before Francis canonized the first-ever Arab Palestinian saints.
To set the scene, the remark reportedly came during a customary exchange of gifts whenever the pope meets another head of state. It’s basically a photo-op staged in the library of the papal apartment, with delegations from both sides and a pool of reporters also in the room.
The pope and his visitor walk across the room together to a large wooden table where the gifts are displayed, spending a couple of minutes describing the presents to one another.
Francis gave Abbas a large bronze medallion depicting an angel of peace. Though the Vatican never releases an official transcript of the pope’s remarks in these settings, several people later reported hearing Francis use the phrase “angel of peace” with regard to Abbas.
Most news outlets reported the line as a descriptive phrase – “You are an angel of peace.” The Italian paper La Stampa, however, which sometimes functions as an outlet for things Francis wants to get on the record, had the phrase as an exhortation – “May you be an angel of peace.”
It’s tough to tell the difference in Italian, since the distinction between “you are” and “may you be” in this case comes down to two very similar-sounding verbs. Even after repeatedly listening to audio recordings, it’s hard to be certain which one Francis actually used.
After a careful review, the Associated Press on Monday night amended its official version of the quote to “you are a bit an angel of peace.”
On Sunday, the Vatican released a “clarification” that didn’t actually specify what the pope said, but insisted that whatever it was, the idea was to encourage Abbas to act as a peacemaker – the same message, the statement insisted, the pope always delivers to visitors.
The phrase “angel of peace,” the Vatican clarification also noted, was prompted by the nature of the gift and therefore wasn’t a gratuitous tribute.
There are three points to take away.
1. It’s not a big deal.
We still don’t know exactly what Francis said, but there’s a near-universal consensus among both Vatican personnel and the press corps in Rome that whatever it was, too much is being made of it.
Given both the context of the gift and Francis’ well-known penchant for spontaneous utterances when he veers off-script that he doesn’t necessarily intend to be taken seriously, whatever he said to Abbas on Saturday strikes most observers as a one-off bit of exuberance rather than a groundbreaking diplomatic declaration.
2. It’s not new.
Even if Francis really did use a simple propositional sentence – “you are an angel of peace” – it wouldn’t change much, given that in May 2014 he publicly defined Abbas as a “man of peace” during a visit to Bethlehem, just as he called then-Israeli President Shimon Peres a “man of peace” during a stop the next day in Jerusalem.
Francis repeated the phrase for both men when he brought them together for a peace prayer in the Vatican gardens a month later.
In the Biblical sense, an “angel” is a messenger of God. The difference between terming Abbas a “messenger” and a “man of peace” thus isn’t that enormous, and in any event the point is clear – Francis believes Abbas is a statesman committed to the cause of peace, just as he believes the same thing about the former Israeli leader.
(By the way, you can take to the bank that whenever Francis meets an Israeli president the next time, he’ll also get an angel of peace medal and the pope will whisper a sweet nothing into his ear, too.)
3. The fracas risks missing the forest for the trees.
The big picture from last week is that the Vatican delivered three major gestures of support for the Palestinians – signing a treaty with the “State of Palestine” governing the tax and legal status of Church properties on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the meeting with Abbas, and the canonization of the Palestinian saints.
All that is consistent with the Vatican’s long-standing support for Palestinian sovereignty, a position that significantly pre-dates Pope Francis. It was also predictably upsetting to the Israelis, with a foreign ministry spokesman expressing “disappointment.”
The trick now for the Vatican, it would seem, is to convince the Israelis that at least in this instance, the Palestinians’ gain is not Israel’s loss.