VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis, flanked by the presidents of Israel and Palestine, on Sunday hosted a special spiritual meeting in the Vatican gardens to pray for peace in the war-torn Middle East.
The unprecedented encounter held in the early evening with the towering Basilica of St. Peter's as a backdrop, was the fruit of Francis' surprise invitation to Israel's Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine during the pontiff's three-day visit to the Holy Land last month.
Over the last several days, the Vatican repeatedly downplayed expectations the summit might lead to a quick breakthrough, and that turned out to be the case. The meeting was cordial but not warm, with Peres and Abbas lightly embracing at its end before planting a small olive tree the Vatican said would be "an enduring symbol of the mutual desire for peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples."
In his invocation, Francis thanked Peres and Abbas for making the trip, and he said the younger generations were "weary, worn out by conflicts and yearning for the dawn of peace."
But in their remarks, Peres and Abbas declined to pick up the baton. Both men called for peace, but neither giving a hint that a spirit of compromise might be in the cards.
"We all need peace," Peres said, echoing long-held stances he has voiced. "Peace between equals."
Abbas followed suit, asking God to "bring comprehensive and just peace to our country."
Afterward, Vatican officials said they remained hopeful that Sunday's encounter might be a kind of groundwork for future talks. There was some reason to believe that could happen. It was the first time Peres and Abbas met in public in more than a year, and it took place a little more than a month after peace talks led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry dramatically collapsed.
As has become the norm for Francis, the day's events got started in a humble manner, with the three leaders, joined by Ecumenical Orthodox Christian Patriarch Bartholomew, arriving in a plain white van before emerging together and walking down a short tree-lined road to take their seats. Peres sat to Francis' right and Abbas to his left.
Bartholomew — who Francis invited to show how the main branches of Christianity with a history of bitter disagreements could reconcile —- sat to the side at the head of a section of religious leaders and was the most high-profile figure to lead one of the prayers.
A nine-person chamber orchestra, with three musicians each from Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, played as the men approached their seats and again between prayers.
Representatives of the three faiths recited a total of 18 prayers in various languages. Each group took its turn in order of the age of the religion: Jews first, followed by the Christians, followed by the Muslim readers.
Earlier in the day, people in St. Peter's Square said the symbolism of the day's summit was not lost on them.
"I know it is extremely rare that these leaders would agree to meet like this," said Angelo Santos, 59, a restaurant worker. "All we can do is join the pope and these leaders to pray for a successful outcome."
Anthony Gregory, 22, a seminarian from Rhode Island, agreed. "The stakes are high for a meeting like this, and we have to believe the Holy Father can succeed where so many failed before," he said.
According to Alistair Sear, a priest and retired church historian, it could take months or years to know whether Sunday's encounter will go down in history as a curiosity or the start of a process that will lead to a peaceful resolution.
"To judge what happened, we have to know what happens next, and then what happens after that and after that," he said. "For now, we must be content with Pope Francis' ability to bring together these two leaders and for them to agree to join in prayer and to show hope."