On his arrival in Jordan today, Pope Benedict spoke of himself as a pilgrim of peace. He came he said with “the intention to pray for the precious gift of unity and peace, most specifically for the Middle East. Peace for individuals, ... for communities, peace for Jerusalem, for the Holy Land, for the region, peace for the entire human family; the lasting peace born of justice, integrity and compassion, the peace that arises from humility, forgiveness and the profound desire to live in harmony as one.”

In keeping with the pilgrim character of his trip, the Holy Father underscored the virtues that make for peace: justice, integrity and compassion, humility, forgiveness and harmony. Speaking to the young people with disabilities served by the Regina Pacis Center, he reminded them that their struggles show the world that “suffering can bring about change for the good.” He continued, “even hearts hardened by cynicism or injustice or unwillingness to forgive are never beyond the reach of God, can always be opened to a new way of being, a vision of peace.”

In the Middle East where peace between Israelis and Palestinians has been so elusive, it is not a message that will be easily accepted. “It’s not your love, I want but your respect” is the realistic axiom of many in the region. The soft virtues of Christianity are demeaned as “sentimentality.” How can the pope’s message of peace be heard?

Some, like NCR Reporter John Allen (NYT, 07/05/09),  have proposed that Christians still represent a third force between Israeli Jews and Arab Muslims. That may have been a case forty or fifty years ago, but both demographic changes and political shifts make any mediating role quite unlikely. Only in Lebanon do Christians have sufficient political strength to affect political outcomes. Their influence of Palestinian and Israeli Christians on both Israeli and Palestinian politics has significantly diminished. In Israel, not even the Vatican has been able to shore up their rights under the 1993 Fundamental Agreement. While Hamas has sometimes defended their interests, its followers are frequently hostile. Only in the Palestinian Authority, under Fatah, do Christians have some influence, and even there it is mostly an afterthought. During the Camp David II talks in 2000, for example, Yasser Arafat withdrew his agreement to cede the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, after a protest from the heads of churches in Jerusalem.

Diplomatically, Pope Benedict’s strong card in this trip will be giving voice to world opinion in favor of a peace agreement that entails a two-state solution and upholding the ecumenical Christian call for a shared Jerusalem. He could also offer support for the Arab Peace Proposal, a plan for a regional peace that is compatible with President Obama’s hopes for the region. He possesses the power of the pulpit, not of the sword. When it comes to actual negotiations, however, leading (Vatican and U.S.) church officials have already been in conversation with the president both about resolutions for short-term problems, like visas for clergy in Israel, and their hopes for a universal peace.

Unlike 2000, when church leaders got engaged only at the last minute, President Obama has reached out to them directly and established lines of communication. It is likely that when issues of Jerusalem begin to be addressed–and the administration has made clear to Israel that they must be taken up–the church will be consulted. Its long-standing concerns for general access to the Holy Places and for equal rights for believers of the three traditions will be on the table as well.

At the same time, “the soft virtues,” despised by the hardliners on both sides will prepare the way for long-term reconciliation.  Regina Pacis, one of several Catholic institutions in the Holy Land, caring for the disabled points to the way the church’s pro-life peacemaking stance opens the way to reconciliation.  Institutions for the handicapped are rare in the region, but the Catholic church makes exceptional service to the handicapped, to HIV/AIDS suffers and the mentally challenged, giving witness to the value of all human life. Like the Catholic schools these healthcare institutions serve Muslims and Jews and well as Christians, so that, in the dialogue of everyday life they demonstrate the co-existence and conviviality so integral to true peace.

Drew Christiansen, S.J.