William Shomali, the Palestinian born auxiliary-bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, was one of the concelebrants at the mass during which Pope Francis canonized the two Palestinian women saints in St Peter’s Square on Sunday morning, May 17.
I spoke with him afterwards and asked about the significance of the canonization, the importance of the comprehensive agreement between the Holy See and the State of Palestine, and if he sees any hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This is what he had to say:
What did you feel as you participated in the canonization ceremony of the two new Palestinian saints: Sisters Mariam Baouardy and Marie Alphonsine Danil Ghattas?
I was really in ecstasy, I was so happy to see how such humble people are raised as models of holiness for the whole Church. Their canonization showed us clearly that the real reward is the one from the Lord, not the rewards that come from men.
As I looked around and saw the Palestinian President, as well as Muslim mayors and a Mufti from Palestine sitting alongside the ambassadors from Israel and other countries, and with delegates from Israel, Jordan, Italy and France, I realized that holiness unites people.
What in particular does their canonization mean to you as a Palestinian?
The canonization of two Palestinian Arab nuns who were almost illiterate but reached a high degree of mystical communion with God and lived human values in a heroic way, confirms for me that holiness is possible and that the unique way to reach perfection and self-achievement is through holiness. I understood even more that such a state of human righteousness and ethical transparency is possible at any time and in any place by virtue of the extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit, who is the main protagonist of our sanctification.
These two saints were very meek and humble. They never sought to appear or to show off. Therefore it is truly extraordinary how God raises and glorifies the humble even many years after they have passed away.
What does their canonization mean to the Arab Christian community in the Holy Land?
The Arab Christian community has a special affection for the Saints. Now, they feel privileged to have two more intercessors that they can ask to help them in their difficulties, and two more models to emulate. This event has a national dimension for them also. They feel proud that these two Arabic speaking women saints, ancestors of families that are still living in the Holy Land, are Palestinian like them. They are happy too that Palestinians who are often labeled as causing violence are also capable of generating saints like these, who have gained worldwide renown.
How are Christians in the Holy Land reacting to this event? Did it come as a surprise to them?
The event was highly expected since the two were beatified some years ago and, much earlier declared venerable, which is the first step on the process of canonization. Even if the event was not a big surprise, the joy of the faithful and their enthusiasm was not less. In fact, we were surprised that more than 2300 faithful travelled from the Holy Land and Lebanon to Rome to attend to canonization ceremony. We had expected five hundred, and were astonished at the big number of people - young people and adults, that have come from all over - from towns and villages.
Was there any reaction from the Muslims to the canonization?
The official Islamic authority has not reacted so far. But the Palestinian media published the news, especially after President Abbas decided to take part in the event with a delegation of 25 Palestinian personalities. His decision to come did not surprise us since President Abbas never misses the Christmas midnight mass or the papal mass in Bethlehem. He is an open-minded man and considers Christian Palestinians as an important component of his people. He has great admiration for the Pope and treasures him as a friend.
Is there any reaction in the rest of the Arab world to all this?
Since the Christian Noursat TV broadcasted the event from Rome, millions across the Arab world and the Diaspora will have been able to able to see the ceremony and react.
Just before the canonization, the Holy See and the State of Palestine reached a Comprehensive Agreement regarding the life and activity of the Catholic Church in Palestine? How important is this agreement?
The agreement repeats the main affirmations of the basic agreement of the year 2000 between Palestinians and Holy See concerning taxes, properties and freedom of religion. It also stipulates freedom of conscience. The main difference this time is that the agreement will be signed between the Palestinian State and the Holy See and not with the PLO., thereby affirming not only the right of Palestinians to national self-determination but also supporting the two-state solution. The moral authority of Pope Francis and the Holy See will encourage other countries to give recognition to the State of Palestine too, especially at a time when negotiations are frozen.
In the midst of all this celebration and advances is there any light at the end of the tunnel in terms of progress towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians?
I am more convinced than ever that peace is a gift of God. It will come as a surprise. For this reason, it is necessary to invoke the intercession of the two Palestinian saints who lived in the Holy Land before it was divided. This is an efficient way to promote peace.