It's a sad axiom of modern life that the holier the land, the more dangerous the terrain, and Pope Benedict XVI will quickly discover that truth for himself when he travels to Israel and Jordan this month for a week-long trip (May 8-15) that is officially described as a "pilgrimage." But that irenic billing doesn't begin to convey how fraught this trip is for the pontiff, who will bring with him a reputation for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, as witnessed in the recent controversies with the Jewish community, as well as lingering tensions with Muslims over the Pope's comments about the Prophet Muhammad.
And that's not to mention the usual minefield of politics and violence in the region.
As much as Benedict will try to focus on peace and faith and the sacred sites of the Abrahamic faiths-- most especially Christianity, of course
--a host of flashpoint issues will inevitably intrude. In fact, it's happening already: Palestinians preparing to welcome the pontiff to the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem are building a stage next to the monumental wall that Israel is building to seal off much of the West Bank--a vivid symbol that Israel is none too pleased to have as the backdrop. Israeli officials last week ordered a halt to construction, but Arab workers are reportedly continuing.
Meanwhile, in an unusually frank interview, Benedict's chief aide for interfaith affairs, Cardinal Walter Kasper, told German media that because the Holy Land is the "mother of many other conflicts in the world today" this trip would be "quite different" and more challenging than Benedict's previous trips. Here's Kasper:
"Both the political and the church situation in the Middle East are anything but easy. A balance will have to found between the Pope's encounter with Israel and the Jews on the one hand, and with the Christians, who for the most part live in the Palestinian territories, on the other. A difficult task--but all the more necessary for that."
Benedict's tour starts with three days in Jordan, where he will celebrate Mass in a stadium in Amman. He will meet with Muslim religious leaders and visit a mosque, his second as pope. Then it is on to Israel, where he will visit the Western Wall, the Holocaust memorial and the Dome of the Rock, and celebrate outdoor Masses in Bethlehem and Nazareth as well as visiting the refugee camp.
It is a schedule as daunting as it is ambitious, and for those looking to sort through the maze of issues that the 82-year-old Benedict will negotiate during this trip, it may be helpful to file them in three categories: the religious, the political, and the personal. All three overlap, of course, and conflict in one area can quickly bleed into another.
The religious issues: Relations between Jews and Christians, and the Catholic Church in particular, are inherently fraught in the way that every family is happy and unhappy. Christianity's emergence from Judaism, its claims that Jesus was the Messiah, and of course the tragic legacy of nearly two millennia of anti-Semitism, would all be enough to keep ecumenists busy under ideal circumstances.
But Benedict has complicated those relations at several points in a pontificate that is just four years old. He has, for example, continued to heap praise on the controversial wartime pope, Pius XII, and keep open the possibility that Pius could be made a saint. On this trip, while Benedict will visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, he will not visit the memorial's museum because an exhibit includes a photo of Pius and caption that says that pope did nothing to stop the Nazi slaughter of the Jews--a widely held view that Rome sharply disputes. Benedict's 2007 decision to restore the old Latin Mass also struck Jews as elevating a passé Catholic culture that had been inimical to Jews, and the dismay turned to anger when it was revealed that the pope would also restore a controversial Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews. The Vatican later modified the prayer somewhat, but did not mollify critics.
Most recently, Benedict's January decision to lift the excommunications of four leaders of a right-wing sect of Traditionalist Catholics that has a fetid history of anti-Semitism--one of the bishops has been an outright Holocaust denier--sent Catholic-Jewish relations spiraling to their lowest point since before the breakthrough years of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Both sides have since been working feverishly to ensure that this Israel visit is a success. The Jewish community wants to have a friend in the Pope, and there is concern that this trip could be a make-or-break moment in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, at least for the rest of this pontificate.
The political issues: They are never far from religion in the Middle East. While Vatican policies have often been seen as skewed toward the Palestinians--that is, after all, where the few remaining Christians in the Holy Land are concentrated--there are signs that Rome under Benedict is being more evenhanded, if only to judge by the fact that the Vatican has been criticized by Israelis and Arabs for denouncing violence and policies by both sides. Still, the pope is deeply concerned about the ongoing exodus of Christians from Israel and the Occupied Territories--10 percent have emigrated in the last five years alone, with the vast majority blaming harsh Israeli policies for their agonizing decision. Israel's crushing invasion of Gaza was especially upsetting to the Vatican, and to Catholics around the world.
"The Holy See is in favor of a two-state solution but that does not seem so important to the Israeli government at the moment," Cardinal Kasper said in remarks that are not likely to be welcomed in Jerusalem. "The diplomatic high-wire act will therefore be not to accept any false compromises."
Moreover, since the Vatican and Israel signed a landmark accord in 1993 (full diplomatic relations followed the next year) negotiations on the fiscal status of church properties in Israel--such as whether or what taxes they must pay--have dragged on and become a source of constant irritation. The papal visit was supposed to be the spur that would finalize an agreement. "Everybody is tired," a source close to the talks told Catholic News Service. "The visit by the pope may be the time to finalize it." But so far there has been no breakthrough.
A final factor concerns the Vatican's insistence that the State of Israel not be part of theological dialogue. As things stand, Rome dialogues with Jews through Kasper's interfaith office and with Israel through its Secretariat of State. But "increasingly, Jews are finding the Vatican's separation of the religious and political relations with the world Jewish community unacceptable," Father John Pawlikowski, a Chicago-based priest who is a leading expert in Catholic-Jewish relations, said in a speech last fall.
The personal issues: There will be no end to the focus on the personal biography of Pope Benedict. Born Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria in 1927, Benedict XVI was raised under a Nazi regime for which he had no love, but which has affected his pronouncements as pope. Yes, young Joseph was enrolled in the Hitler Youth at 14, as required by law. But the painfully shy boy was allowed to skip out. And yes, he was drafted into the German army at 16, first on anti-aircraft duty around Munich and then in a labor battalion before deserting at the war's end. But the studious Ratzinger clearly had no stomach for battle nor his family any love for Nazism, and headline gibes ("White Smoke, Black Past," said the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot after his election) soon turned to more sober dispensations. "As for the Hitler Youth issue, not even Yad Vashem has considered it worthy of further investigation," an editorial in the Jerusalem Post said the day after the conclave. "Why should we?"
But since then, Benedict's talks to Jews and about Judaism have lacked any of the eyewitness power or introspection that one might have expected from this German pope. Unfortunately, that has long been his way; Jews are nearly invisible in his memoirs of his childhood, despite the virulence of the Jewish purges in and around his hometown. In discussing any specifically Catholic responsibility for the war and the Holocaust, Benedict has tended to be frustratingly elliptical, to say the least. When the issue has been raised, he rejects as "rash" any connection between the Catholic Church and Nazi anti-Semitism, and notes that Catholicism was a principal target of the Nazis.
Even in discussing the Holocaust--most notably at the Birkenau extermination camp at Auschwitz during a May 2006 trip to Poland--Benedict speaks of the German people as having been "used and abused" by the Nazis, and he sought to shift the Holocaust framework to the theological import of the site, and the age-old question of God's absence at a time of such suffering. As the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, said later of the Auschwitz address: "Talking about God's silence is a good way to avoid the problem of man's silence."
Can Benedict take such an approach when he visits Yad Vashem? And what of Islam? Benedict will also visit the Dome of the Rock--the Muslim shrine on what Jews call the Temple Mount, and the place from which Muhammad ascended to Heaven. That would be the Muhammad who Benedict critiqued using some tough quotes in a 2006 lecture in Regensburg in Bavaria, citing a medieval charge that the Prophet brought to the world "things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." That, in turn, sparked a violent counterreaction and a major theological and diplomatic crisis. Muslim scholars since reached out to the Vatican in a quest for a dialogue that is getting things back on track, but the potential for catastrophe is great. As a leading Muslim scholar in Jordan, Hamdi Murad, recently said, "Scholars and ordinary Muslims alike want to hear something more open-hearted, open-spirited, to understand that the highest figure in Christianity has opened his heart to see Muslims as his brothers."
Such self-revelation is tough for Benedict. His character is his destiny: He is a conservative who believes in saying what he thinks, a theologian and academic who speaks the language of disputation not diplomacy, the idiom of a prefect, not a pastor. He likes to keep his own counsel, mulling decisions privately and then promulgating them either over the objections of his advisors or without their input. That is what happened with the speech on Islam, the restoration of the Latin Mass and Good Friday prayer, and the latest episode with the Traditionalists.
One Italian theologian has dubbed the trip the "solitude of Benedict XVI." In the Middle East, it could be a diplomatic crisis waiting to happen. So Benedict will have to be especially careful to watch what he says, and where he steps. Which means he should probably keep his head down, if only in prayer.
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