American and British media breathlessly reported this weekend that Pope Francis had hailed Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian government such as it is, as an “angel of peace.” But a number of other news outlets, such as Italy’s La Stampa and Zenit, a Vatican-focused news service, reported it quite differently: that the pope had exhorted Abbas to be an “angel of peace.” Ellen Carmichael covered the contradictory reports and the reasons for the media’s elation for NR here.
So what did the pope really say in the disputed sentence? It’s not clear, because it was said quietly and in a side conversation — when it was easy to believe, from the original reporting, the pope had made some public declaration on the matter. Thankfully, the Times of Israel and the BBC both have summaries of the controversy, explaining the confusion surrounding the “angel” phrase and noting prominently the Vatican’s statement that, whatever the pope said to Abbas himself, the public gesture was meant as an exhortation to peace.
Meanwhile, the NYT, in the long tradition of its awful reporting on the Church, says that “Vatican officials did little to clarify the matter.” Really? Here’s what a Vatican spokesman said:
When the pope presents [the medallion] to the president, he says a few words to explain why he gives this gift, that is the desire and commitment to peace. The meaning of the gift is clear as a hope and invitation to commit themselves to peace. Each one of us should be for others and for the world as an angel – a messenger of peace. Personally, I was present at the audience, but I did not hear the exact words because they were said in a conversational manner and close between the two.
Meaning to encourage the commitment to peace seems clear to me and I believe that it is necessary to specify that that the same gift, of the symbol of the angel of peace, is given by the Pope with this intention to many presidents and not just Abbas.
Indeed, cursory research finds that Pope Francis has given such a medal to the heads of state of everywhere from Azerbaijan and Bahrain to Brazil, Cape Verde, and Haiti. The Vatican says they won’t comment on what the pope said in private conversation, and they don’t need to: The public gesture is, the Vatican just said and the record clearly reflects, a call to be a force for peace, not some kind of laurel. Media prioritizing unreliable claims about the pope’s private comments over his clear intent are either unscrupulous or, as Ellen pointed out, far too eager to hear the pope say what they want to hear. (Those looking for some sort of laurels can find them, too — they just come with the same kind of near-universality. Francis has called both Abbas and his former Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres, “men of peace.”)