Home /

‘A Common Word’ in the News

POPE/ Three great ironies about Benedict’s Holy Land visit

the most demanding high-wire act of his papacy, a grueling week that
saw the 82-year-old pontiff deliver 28 speeches while shuttling among
Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, it seems terribly
simplistic to offer a report card, but here we go nonetheless: Give
Benedict XVI an A for effort, and a B for execution.

Benedict scored gains in getting
Catholic-Muslim relations back on track, especially in Jordan, and with
a high-profile visit to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. He also
offered forceful words on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, endorsing
the two-state solution as a global moral consensus, and offered a shot
in the arm to the struggling Christian population — though how much
any pope can do to bring peace to the Middle East, or to arrest the
long-term demographic movement of Christians out of the region, is open
to question.

In Israel, and in Catholic-Jewish
relations, was there more ambivalence. The headline of an essay in
today’s Jerusalem Post summed things up by asking, “Why have so many
Jewish leaders here been reluctant to accept the pope’s gestures of
dialogue and peace?

Benedict’s visit to Yad Vashem on
Monday drew criticism from some Jewish commentators, mostly for what
the pope didn’t say — no reference to Christian anti-Semitism, no
reflection on his own biography as a German who saw the rise of Nazism,
no regret for the recent affair involving a Holocaust-denying bishop.
Some Israelis were also troubled by what they saw as the overtly
political character of his visit to the Palestinian Territories, and by
the way a local sheikh hijacked an inter-faith meeting in Jerusalem
Monday night to deliver an anti-Israeli tirade.

Nonetheless, many Jewish and Israeli
leaders declared themselves content. In effect, they argued, the very
fact that Israelis weren’t content just to see a pope at Yad Vashem, or
at the Western Wall, is itself a sign of progress. It means that a pope
coming to Israel is no longer a revolution or a cause célèbre, but
rather an expression of a basically normal relationship. Historically
inclined Israelis see a progression from Paul VI’s visit in 1964, when
the pontiff refused to utter the words “state of Israel” or to refer to
the country’s president as anything other than “mister”; to John Paul
in 2000, a trip that transformed relations; to Benedict in 2009, a
visit reflecting a now-routine friendship, with its ups and downs, but
fundamentally there’s no turning back.

Talking to average Jordanians, Israelis
and Palestinians, many seemed inclined to give the pope the benefit of
the doubt. After all, they said, he didn’t come here for his health; he
came to try, as best he could, to speak a word of peace, and to remind
the world of the importance of this region and its destiny. The world
may not be different because of his visit, that’s probably too high a
bar for even a pope to cross.

Beyond that basic summary, there are three great ironies about Benedict’s visit worth exploring.

Wordsmith pope has better luck with pictures

In the Gospel of John, Nathaniel asks
Philip the provocative question, “Can anything good come out of
Nazareth?” For Pope Benedict XVI, the answer to that question on the
penultimate day of his May 8-15 voyage was clearly “yes.”

The setting was an inter-faith meeting
among Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Druze in Nazareth. Toward the
close of the meeting, a song specially composed for the occasion was
performed: “Salam, Shalom, Lord Grant Us Peace.” It was a rousing
number, and by the end, the religious leaders on stage were singing
along, including the notoriously reserved Benedict XVI. For the last
stanza, the rabbis, muftis, sheikhs, and bishops, with the pontiff in
the middle of the group, stood on the stage and held hands.

It was arguably the best visual of the
trip, and as it turns out, it was a last-minute addition to the
program. Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, director of an inter-faith
institute in Jerusalem, said he had been concerned that the momentum of
the trip was being squandered by various controversies, and wanted to
do something to turn it around. Working through Jewish contacts, he
proposed to the Vatican that a song for peace ought to be performed at
the Nazareth event, including the iconic moment of the pope holding
hands with a rabbi and a Druze sheikh.

“I told them, you need a visual,”
Goshen-Gottstein told NCR immediately after the event. “There should be
a picture to correct what went wrong.” And thus it was that an
occasionally PR-challenged pontiff got an impromptu assist from a
Jewish rabbi. Looking back over the week, it’s ironic that this
wordsmith pope, whose métier is generally ideas rather than images,
often seemed to have more success at the level of symbolism.

During the first three days in Jordan,
the iconic moment was the pope’s visit to the Hussein bin-Talal Mosque
in Amman, only the second mosque this pope has visited and just the
third a pope has ever entered. Though Benedict said all the right
things about Christian-Muslim harmony, his speeches in Jordan didn’t
offer any particularly new ideas; in fact, many observers thought the
two best pieces of oratory came from Benedict’s hosts, King Abdullah II
and Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad.

Certainly from the Vatican’s point of
view, Ghazi’s speech at the mosque, when he thanked Benedict for
expressing “regret” after delivering a 2006 speech in which he quoted a
Byzantine emperor linking Muhammad, the founder of Islam, to violence,
was much appreciated. Privately, they touted it as “closing the book”
on the Regensburg episode.

Attention to the symbolic register
seemed to pervade this trip. A brief mini-fracas occurred in Jordan
because the pope didn’t take his shoes off at the mosque, even though
it wasn’t his idea. (As it turns out, his hosts had laid down strips on
carpet for the pontiff and his party to walk along, so they told him he
didn’t need to take the shoes off.) Thus when the pope visited the Dome
of the Rock on Tuesday, one of the three holiest sites in Islam, he
immediately removed his shoes — and because there was no live video
feed, his spokesperson made sure to inform the press.

In terms of Jewish reaction, the pope’s
symbols weren’t the problem. They weren’t enough, however, to offset
mixed reaction to his words — perhaps because they had seen a pope do
these things before.

Benedict visited the Yad Vashem
Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, meeting survivors and gazing
sorrowfully at the pictures of the victims. He visited the Western
Wall, pausing for a full one minute and twenty seconds of silent prayer
and leaving behind a note in the wall praying for peace. He met the two
Chief Rabbis of Israel on their home “turf.”

Even so, the ultra-religious Shas party
advised its ministers to stay away from papal events, claiming that to
even show up would dishonor the memory of Holocaust survivors.
Meanwhile, Tzohar rabbis, an orthodox movement in Judaism, asserted
that Benedict should acknowledge that the very existence of the state
of Israel is a theological “slap in the face” to Christianity –
because rather than suffering for not recognizing Jesus, the Jews have
earned their own homeland.

That, however, didn’t satisfy critics
of the Yad Vashem speech — a point that didn’t sit well with some
papal advisors. “I was surprised, I have to say,” Cardinal Walter
Kasper, the Vatican’s top official for relations with Jews, told NCR on
Thursday. “There seems to be an attitude of, ‘That’s good, but it’s not

Cardinal John Foley, an American who
serves as head of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, a group devoted to
assisting the church in the Holy Land, is travelling in the papal party
along with Kasper. He used similar language in reacting to critics of
the Yad Vashem speech. “I don’t know what they’re looking for,” Foley
told NCR. “The attitude seems to be, ‘Thanks, but …’” Perhaps there’s a
lesson here for any leader visiting the Middle East: the great thing
about symbols is that they’re open to interpretation, whereas words
carry fixed meanings that tend to invite dissection and debate.

An apolitical pope scores political points

Benedict XVI is notoriously resistant
to attempts to turn the Catholic church into a political action
committee, or the message of the Gospels into a revolutionary
manifesto. At the outset of this trip, aboard the papal plane en route
from Rome, he announced he was coming not as a politician but as a
pilgrim. Yet looking back, some of the pope’s strongest moments came in
the political arena.

His run began the moment he touched
down at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, when he affirmed his support for
the “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Later
that day, at a gala event hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres at
the presidential palace in Jerusalem, the pontiff pointedly advised the
Israelis that true security depends upon justice.

The most overtly political day of the
trip came on Wednesday, when Benedict travelled to Bethlehem in the
Palestinian-controlled West Bank. Among other things, he visited a
Palestinian refugee camp — a stop that had a pastoral dimension, to be
sure, of offering comfort to suffering people, but one that also had
obvious political subtext. That’s all the more so because the Aida camp
abuts Israel’s almost 30-foot tall “security barrier,” which the
Palestinians call an “apartheid wall.”

In his farewell address today, Benedict called the wall “one of the saddest sights” of his entire visit.

In the Aida camp, Benedict used the
magic words of a “Palestinian state,” and expressed sympathy for the
desire of refugees to return home — or, at least, to live in a
homeland of their own. His criticism of the wall was especially strong,
calling such barriers between peoples “tragic.”

To be sure, Benedict also made points
that cut in the direction of Israel’s security concerns. Pointedly, he
urged Palestinian youth to resist the lure of “acts of violence or
terrorism.” During his departure address today, the pope called himself
a friend both of the Israelis and the Palestinians, and then said in
unusually impassioned terms: “No more bloodshed! No more fighting! No
more terrorism! No more war!”

Of course, it would be unrealistic to
expect Benedict to bring peace to the Middle East after one week-long
journey. Waves of leaders from all over the world have crashed through
here in the 61 years since the foundation of the State of Israel and
the first Arab-Israeli war to try to make peace, and to date all have

Nonetheless, the pontiff did make three
points that in the context of a new Israeli government sending mixed
signals, and a Palestinian leadership influenced by militant currents
in Hamas, were undoubtedly worth making. Perhaps only a pope could make
them: • The two-state solution reflects a global moral consensus • The
wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territories is a tragic
contradiction in an increasingly inter-connected world, and must,
sooner or later, come down. • To retain moral credibility, the
Palestinians must reject terrorism.

Whether all this will change things is
anyone’s guess, but at a minimum one can say that the bookish Benedict
showed a fairly deft real-world political touch.

A pro-Israel pope has his toughest time in Israel

Perhaps the deepest irony of the week
is that Benedict XVI is arguably the pope most inclined to be
sympathetic to Israel since the Jewish state was founded six decades
ago, yet the Israelis in some ways were his toughest crowd.

In the Vatican, there are essentially
two cultural milieus: one associated with the Secretariat of State,
composed of diplomats, and another that looks to the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith, made up mostly of theologians. The
diplomatic guild tends to tilt toward the Palestinians — in part,
because that’s the default setting of European diplomats; in part, for
reasons of social justice; in part, because the vast majority of
Christians in the region are Arabs. The theologians tend to be more
inclined to sympathy with Israel — partly because some of them move in
politically conservative circles, but more deeply because their concern
for the Bible and for church tradition leads them to regard Judaism as
the church’s primordial inter-faith concern.

Benedict XVI is an avatar of that
second, theological instinct. For this pope, the scriptural matrix of
Christianity and its roots in Judaism are matters of deep importance.
(Benedict used St. Paul’s image of Christianity as a shoot grafted onto
the tree of Judaism in his farewell address this afternoon.) Moreover,
Benedict has also cultivated respect for contemporary Jews and Judaism;
the scholar he cites most positively in his recent book Jesus of
Nazareth, for example, is Jewish writer Jacob Neusner. Obviously, the
late John Paul II felt a deep personal bond with Jews and Judaism, and
many Jews loved him for it. Nonetheless, John Paul was also a political
activist, and when it came to the politics of the Middle East he and
his team were often sharply critical of Israel. Though Benedict XVI
hasn’t changed the substance of any Vatican positions, his own tone is
often more moderate.

Benedict XVI thus arrived in Israel not
only as a pope committed to theological and spiritual fraternity with
Judaism, but also one less instinctively hostile to concrete Israeli
policies than many other Catholic leaders.

Perhaps the point was invisible to most
of the Israeli public, but local Palestinian Christians actually
complained before, and during, the trip that the pope was caving in to
Israeli sensitivities at every turn — not travelling to Gaza, not
protesting when the Israelis refused to allow the residents at Aida to
erect the stage immediately below the wall, and not protesting when the
Israelis closed down a Palestinian press center in East Jerusalem. Even
his schedule reflected deference to Israeli sensibilities. Benedict
made sure to fly out of Tel Aviv well before sundown on Friday, so as
not to disrupt the Sabbath.

Most Israeli leaders seemed to
recognize this, which is probably why they rushed to Benedict’s defense
when the criticism began. At the inter-faith event in Nazareth, for
example, Bahij Masour, who heads the religious affairs division of
Israel’s Foreign Ministry, made a point of saying during his
introduction that the pope “has clearly condemned anti-Semitism and
denial of the Holocaust.” Certainly Israel’s President, Shimon Peres,
went out of his way to be gracious to the pope, including hosting a
lavish gala in his honor at the presidential palace in Jerusalem on

As Israelis sort through the images
left behind by the pope’s trip, perhaps more of this will become clear.
Kasper, at least, thinks so. Pressed as to who exactly holds the
attitude he described above — that nothing the pope does is ever
enough — Kasper replied, “the media and some official groups.” Not
real people? “No, not real people,” he said, smiling.

Copyright © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company