Pope Francis canonised two Palestinian nuns

Mariam Baouardy (left) and Marie-Alphonsine Ghattas (right).

“Considering that when the Saints lived in this world they were at liberty to roam the earth, do you really think that in Heaven God would have them tied to a post?” wrote Sir Thomas More (1478 – 1535). His words reflect the transcendental and unquantifiable nature of prayer. It was prayers to Marie Alphonsine Ghattas (1843-1927), a nun who lived in Ottoman-ruled Palestine, that a family attribute for the miraculous healing of an electrician who was injured in 2009 and considered brain damaged by doctors.

Her legacy continues to be felt amid the cavalcade of children who attend the kindergartens and schools managed by the Congregation of the Rosary Sisters (which she co-founded).

Pope Francis’s decision to canonise her and another Palestinian nun Mariam Baouardy (1846-1878) is a synechode. It is part of a larger narrative: to remind Muslims, Jews and Christians in the region of a perfect model of faith but also finding a unity across religious divide as both are named Mary, and this name translates across all three religious traditions, in a region where the numbers of Christians declining steadily because of low birth rates, and emigration for economic reasons; but many have been forced to leave because of violence and wars, and as a result of overt discrimination, and persecution.

It should be noted that both are the first Arabic-speaking saints in the Catholic church. In the past year alone, Arabic has been added to the five main languages used in Vatican information bulletins.

What of Baouardy? Born to Greek Catholic parents from Syria and Lebanon. Her life served to educate, founding a Carmelite monastery in Bethlehem, she is said to have performed various miracles (a condition for sainthood), and experienced stigmata – marks or bleeding that resemble the wounds Christ experienced on the cross.

To return to the transcendental, St. Ambrose (337 AD – 387 AD) wrote, “To the good man to die is gain. The foolish fear death as the greatest of evils, the wise desire it as a rest after labors and the end of ills”. Death is merely the road towards sainthood. It proves their path towards God in Heaven. That path requires investigating if the person in question lived a sufficiently holy and virtuous life. Proof of their holiness is forwarded to the Pope. If the Pope finds that a person’s life had “heroic virtue”, they earn the title of “venerable”. Before canonisation a proof of miracles by virtue of praying to the deceased proves beyond that doubt that the individual is with God and able to converse on behalf of others.

The event drew cardinals and bishops from Rome and various parts of the world, including a delegation of 2124 individuals from the Palestinian territories and Jordan, alongside the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal. The Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas attended, alongside individuals from Lebanon, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Cyprus.

That ceremony took place just after the Vatican signalled their intention to sign its first treaty with Palestine. But that intention merely confirms the language of Palestinian statehood used in official documents since November 2012. A move criticised by some Israeli officials.

In the occupied West Bank, there is an estimated 17,000 Palestinian Catholics and 33,000 who self-identify as Greek Orthodox (or other eastern denominations). There is an estimated 3,000 (or more) Christians in this area and around 300 or so Catholics, compared to about 1.4 million Muslims that are living in the Gaza strip. Around 130,000 Christians live in Israel. In 1948, Christians constituted 18 percent of the population, a figure that fell to around two percent in 2014.

This canonisation indicates Pope Francis’s continued support of Christians facing persecution in the Middle East and Nigeria. But also a desire to see direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine resume alongside the promotion of interfaith dialogue.

As Fr. Badir concluded,

“The two saintly nuns, whose canonisation coincides with the Church celebrations of the year of consecrated life and the blessed Marian Month of May, pray that the Lord would bring peace and calmness to our hearts and minds, and that we will return to worshipping the Almighty. … We view the consecration of the founder of the Rosary Sisters as an invitation to intensify the daily Rosary prayers in Churches, houses, and parish groups to bring peace, love and mutual respect among all the peoples of the Middle East”.