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How the Pope Fell Short as a Guest

6 years ago
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Pope Benedict XVI is leaving the Holy Land Friday much as he found it, which is not surprising given the length and depth of the enmities in that violence-wracked region. But this self-described "pilgrim" also seems to be leaving Israel, Jordan and the Occupied Territories much the same man who arrived a week earlier. And that may be the enduring, and for many, the dismaying lesson of this visit.

On the whole, Benedict did not fare poorly, or at least he didn't make any major missteps, which were the real fears given his occasional gaffes. During the first days in Jordan and Jerusalem, the pontiff modulated his rhetoric on faith and reason in meetings with Muslims, and during his visits to a mosque and Islamic holy sites.

Even before he arrived in the Middle East, Benedict had been working to repair the fallout from his ill-advised speech in September 2006 in Regensburg, his hometown in Bavaria, where he cited a medieval accusation that the Prophet Muhammad brought to the world "things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

That careful tack continued this week. On entering the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the pope removed his (red) shoes, as per Islamic custom, and when he entered the Hussein bin-Talal mosque in the Jordanian capital of Amman he did not pray, but, as the Vatican put it, he did stop in a "respectful moment of reflection." That was an improvement on Regensburg.

The Israeli leg of Benedict's pilgrimage also started out well. He was welcomed with red carpets and flag-waving children. President Shimon Peres gave him a 300,000-word Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible inscribed on a silicon particle with nanotechnology and showed him a new strain of wheat named after the pope. Benedict even bit into dates that Israeli children gave him as part of a traditional Jewish welcome, though Vatican protocol strictly prohibits the pontiff being seen eating in public.

That was the last bit of innovation from Benedict. The fact that this German pope, raised under the Nazi regime and an eyewitness to the Holocaust as a teenager, was visiting the Jewish state that was birthed from that genocide raised great expectations that Benedict--once Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger--would mine that experience during his meetings with Jewish leaders and rabbis, and in particular his visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. But it was not to be. Even before the visit, Vatican sources tried to tamp expectations. One Vatican office told Catholic News Service that Benedict "will not be going to Yad Vashem to apologize as a German, but to invoke a wider lesson on the dangers of racism and anti-Semitism."

And that's what he did, and quite movingly. But it was not what his hosts hoped to hear. "Something was missing," said Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, chairman of the Yad Vashem Council and a Holocaust survivor. "There was no mention of the Germans or the Nazis who participated in the butchery, nor a word of regret. If not an apology, then an expression of remorse." Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev called the pope's "restraint" a "missed opportunity." And those were the gentler critiques.

Were they fair? The Vatican clearly didn't think so. The papal spokesman, a kindly but overworked Jesuit priest, Father Federico Lombardi, voiced his--and the pope's--frustration that they were not being given the benefit of the doubt: "Maybe sometimes he [Benedict] feels he was not well understood," Lombardi said. "I feel the same." But Lombardi--who has a rough job trying to spin some of the pontiff's less politic statements--overshot his defense by telling reporters that Benedict was "never, never, never" in the Hitler Youth even though the pope, in interviews and his own memoirs, spoke of being forced to join briefly. Lombardi then had to issue a clarification, and the story went for another spin through the news cycle.

That is not really what anyone hoped for from the Israeli leg of the visit, though as I wrote in my pre-trip scene-setter, Benedict's performance was not a total surprise considering the pope doesn't like to cite his personal biography to buttress his public statements.

And yet, pilgrimages are by definition internal journeys as well as trips across a physical landscape. It is a fair criticism to have hoped that this pontiff above all--a German Catholic who will certainly be the last eyewitness to the Holocaust to sit on St. Peter's Throne--would have opened his heart during his visit to the Jewish state.

Before the trip, many political commentators and savvy Vatican-watchers, such as John Allen in a New York Times op-ed speculated about how Benedict might help bring peace to the Middle East. That, after all, is the world's major concern.

But Benedict had two feasible goals. The first was to be a Christian witness to both Jews and Muslims--a humble leader as well as a man of faith. As Father Drew Christiansen, a Jesuit expert on the Middle East and editor of America magazine, recalled in a blog post, Pope John Paul II, too, faced criticism over his interfaith missteps when he journeyed to the Holy Land in 2000. Things looked especially grim when a rabbi and an imam at an interfaith gathering set to bickering and stalked out.

"The Holy Father, impaired by Parkinson's disease, continued by himself, planting three olive trees as symbols of peace and then watering them," Christiansen wrote. "The three were to have planted and watered them together. The next morning the conservative Jerusalem Post editorialized that in a land where religious leaders are forever engaging in politics, the pope had taught them all how to lead."

The pope's other major task was to demonstrate support for a Christian community that is nearing extinction in the birthplace of Jesus. That he did boldly, and of necessity.

In Bethlehem he called for a sovereign Palestinian state and a lifting of the embargo on Gaza. In the Palestinian refugee camp of Aida, he called on Israel to dismantle the wall being built to keep Israelis and Palestinians apart--a barrier that is making life even more miserable for the Arabs, which include the dwindling Christian populace.

The irony of this visit is that the community most opposed to Benedict's trip were the Christians, who feared the pope could do nothing except make matters worse for them, even if he did nothing at all. "The thing that worries me most is the speech that the pope will deliver here," the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, told the Israeli daily Haaretz on the eve of the visit. "One word for the Muslims and I'm in trouble; one word for the Jews and I'm in trouble. At the end of the visit the pope goes back to Rome and I stay here with the consequences."

Saint Paul famously wrote that he had to be all things to all men to effectively preach the Gospel, and the successor of Saint Peter faced the same challenge this week. Instead, Benedict wound up being himself, which is not always a bad thing. But whether that is what the situation called for is a verdict that history will deliver, and probably sooner than later.
Filed Under: Religion

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