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Register news analyst considers Pope Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land a “modest success.”
BY Father Raymond J. de Souza National Catholic Register
JERUSALEM — The visit of
Pope Benedict XVI to the Holy Land was a modest success. There were
satisfactory results, but nothing spectacular or memorable. The trip was often
compared unfavorably to the epic visit of Pope John Paul II in 2000, the great
Jubilee pilgrimage marking two millennia of Christian history.
Pope Benedict made a different
choice for significantly different circumstances. He opted not for a sweeping
Christian pilgrimage to the biblical sites, but an interreligious and political
venture set along a Christian itinerary.
John Paul focused on relations with
Jews. Benedict focused on Muslims.
Circumstances have changed in nine
years. A heavy spirit has settled over the Holy Land, with peace a distant
prospect. This is not the year of the Lord's favor.
Since John Paul's visit in 2000,
history has been moving at an accelerated pace, with major events falling one
upon the other:
the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon; the failure of the Camp David
negotiations between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat;
Arafat's subsequent launching of the second intifada, this time marked by
the building of the security wall to stop the terrorists;
a massive, ongoing security presence by the Israeli armed forces in the West
the creation of a new Israeli political party, Kadima;
the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005;
the Palestinian parliamentary victory of Hamas in 2006;
the second Lebanon war later that year, considered a failure in Israel;
the Palestinian civil war that delivered Gaza to Hamas control in 2007;
the daily rocket fire from Gaza into Israel; the establishment of Iranian
proxies in both Lebanon and Gaza; the economic embargo of Gaza by Israel;
and finally, the Gaza war earlier this year.
Israelis and Palestinians have
experienced nearly a decade of constant violence and turmoil. Benedict arrived
at a time when reserves of goodwill were depleted.
In response, the Holy Father chose
to use his visit to advance two goals.
The first was to argue that
cooperation between religions could prepare the ground for wider cooperation
between peoples in the political order.
An important aspect of this was
further advancing Benedict's argument that reason must curb religious
fundamentalism, especially in regard to Islam.
The second goal was to encourage and
strengthen local Arab Christian communities who find themselves squeezed
between Israeli security and Islamist extremism.
Those goals explain the curious
itinerary for Benedict's visit. He began with three days in Jordan, where there
is only one site of great biblical significance: Mount Nebo. Yet in Jordan he
was able to press his argument to a Muslim audience that Islam must rediscover
the power of reason in order to curb religious extremism, hostility and
He was able to spend considerable
time with the Jordanian Catholic community, which provides most of the priests
who serve in the Latin Patriarchate, which includes Jordan, Israel, Palestine
and Cyprus. He was able to appeal for greater toleration for Christians by a
Muslim majority — the happy case in Jordan but not always so in other Arab
Israel and the West Bank, Benedict gave less attention to Christian holy sites
than Christian communities. Instead of offering Mass in places like the Cenacle
and the Holy Sepulchre, he devoted his time to outdoor Masses in places of less
Christian significance — the Kidron Valley and Nazareth's Mount of the
Precipice — where more Christians could gather.
He visited Orthodox and Armenian
sites to strengthen other Christian communities. He devoted his visit to
Bethlehem not so much to the Nativity Grotto as expressing his sympathy and
solidarity with Palestinian suffering and political aspiration. Benedict
surprised everyone by skipping the Sea of
Galilee altogether, dotted though it is with tranquil biblical shrines.
Paul's visit was principally a spiritual journey to the holy places — so much
so that he wrote an entire apostolic letter on the significance of the
pilgrimage. The historic encounter with Jews was the second major theme.
Benedict reversed the priority — this was a visit about relations with Jews and
Muslims, with greater attention being paid to the latter than the former.
then to assess the visit?
the interreligious dimension, Benedict's gestures of esteem for Muslims —
visiting a mosque in Amman and the Dome of the Rock — were genuinely
appreciated. His addresses in both emphatically Muslim sites advanced his
themes of religious liberty, cooperation and the essential role of reason for
is likely that such arguments from a Christian pastor have never been so
precisely articulated before an attentive Muslim audience.
the Jewish side, the Israeli press in general judged the visit a
well-intentioned disappointment and a missed opportunity. Much was made of
Benedict's address at Yad Vashem, which many argued did not go far enough in
expressing contrition for both German and Catholic responsibility for the
some important rabbis came to Benedict's defense, they were principally the
professional dialogue partners already disposed to look for positive rather
than negative signs.
is likely after this visit that the impression of Benedict's policies as at
least insensitive, if not mildly hostile, to Jewish concerns will settle as an
enduring conclusion. After the Bishop Richard Williamson affair in January, it
would have required a game-changing performance from the Holy Father to alter
that storyline in the media narrative of his pontificate, and that was not
accomplished here. It's a shame, as even his critics acknowledge Benedict's
goodwill toward Jews.
deeper, though, is at hand. It was very clear from both the sites visited and
the addresses given that the priority of attention was on Islam.
Catholic-Jewish relations dominated from the time of Vatican II through John
Paul's pontificate, Catholic-Muslim relations are now emerging from that
shape of 21st-century geopolitics depends to a great degree on developments in
the Islamic world. Two issues close to Benedict's heart also depend more on
Muslims than Jews. The religious liberty of Christians in the Middle East
depends largely on Muslim toleration, save for those few Christian Arabs who
live in Israel proper.
also sees Muslims as allies in the struggle against secularism, in contrast to the
worldwide Jewish community, which is already largely secularized.
Christians responded enthusiastically to the visit. It is rare for Christians
anywhere in the Middle East to be the focus of international attention, let
alone to have large-scale festive occasions where they are a temporary
majority. The Holy Father's words of encouragement to persevere in a difficult
environment were appreciated, even if their practical effect may be limited.
even at the end, many Christians here were ambivalent about the visit.
At the level of the ordinary faithful, complaints were frequent that the
Vatican had given the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu — deeply
unpopular among Arab Christians — a propaganda victory only months after the
Gaza war. At the level of the leadership, sources close to the Latin Patriarch
have long confirmed his desire that any papal visit be contingent upon
resolution of legal and financial issues left over from the 1993 establishment
of Holy See-Israel diplomatic relations. The patriarch was overruled on that by
Rome. The Pope came without such agreements achieved.
82, Benedict could not long delay a visit here without risking that he might
not make it at all, despite his current good health.
to visit the Holy Land was not an option, so the visit went ahead, despite
reservations and obstacles that remained, even at the end. In that
light, and given the potential for disaster in this part of the world, a modest
success is no small thing.
Father Raymond J. De Souza
was the Register's Rome
correspondent from 1999 to 2003.