Pope Benedict XVI's pilgrimage to the Holy Land
Author: Open Forum
Date posted: Thursday 28 May 2009
by Rabbi David Rosen
The fact that virtually all parties directly involved in the papal visit to the Holy Land (Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories) consider it to have been a success, makes one wonder why it did not appear that way in much of the western press (albeit not everywhere; the Italian media, for example, gave far more comprehensive coverage of the trip and definitely reflected the positive tenor of the visit).
From a Jewish perspective, Benedict XVI's encounters in Israel with the highest civic, political and religious leaders could hardly have been warmer, and having been present at most of them, I can personally confirm this. While, inevitably, his visit to Israel generally, and to the Kotel or Yad VaShem in particular, could not have the same historic significance as when John Paul II visited them as the first pope ever to do so, Benedict followed in his footsteps, showing the deepest respect towards both Jewish tradition and Jewish suffering.
Moreover, when still in Jordan and speaking to an Arab audience that was Muslim as well as Christian, he emphasized the unique bond of Christianity with Judaism – something quite amazing considering the sensitivities of the Church's relationship with the Muslim world. Among his notable speeches during his visit, those he made both on arriving and leaving Israel were more than admirable in terms of affirming Israel's integrity, the need to guarantee her secure future and his repeated condemnations of antisemitism and all hostility towards the Jewish people. Even when demonstrating sincere compassion for Palestinian suffering and national aspirations, Benedict was at pains to warn strongly against any use of violence.
There was some disappointment over the pope's speech at Yad vaShem. Some of that disappointment was based on unrealistic expectations of what he might say there, and in truth, if he had only demonstrated a little more personal emotion, his sincerity would have come across better. He could even have just added ‘as I said when I was in Auschwitz/Birkenau, to stand here as a German Pope is especially difficult.’ That would have probably placated the critics. Some of the criticism just demonstrated ignorance. The complaint that Benedict used the term ‘kill’, rather than ‘murder’ reflected unfamiliarity with the English translation in the Bible of the sixth commandment in the Decalogue. The words that Jews translate as ‘you shall not murder’, appear in the vernacular as ‘you shall not kill’! (In fact, in response to this criticism, Benedict XVI specifically referred in his parting speech to the six million ‘brutally murdered’ during the Shoah.)
However, other criticism reflected downright anti-Christian prejudice. Of course there are real historical reasons for this, but why did much of the media bother to highlight these, rather than the very significance of the fact that Pope Benedict XVI was there paying his respects to the six million Jewish victims of the Shoah (and also clearly condemning Holocaust denial)?
One cannot avoid the conclusion that there is a widespread grudging attitude towards Benedict XVI in the media and even hostility in some quarters, and it is not too difficult to analyze this.
As a generalization, it is fair to say that the media is liberal and very secular. Religious conservatism is not the favourite flavour of the day. However, while John Paul II was no less conservative than Benedict XVI, he was a great communicator and had ‘superstar’ status. The human desire to be associated with superstars, especially evident with media, substantially raised John Paul II above such prejudicial attitudes. However, Benedict XVI does not have those communication skills and does not have the same kind of image. Above all, he has made a number of serious faux pas since becoming pope and has shown himself to be vulnerable to mistake. As a result, there is a widespread hawkish attitude towards him that waits for a slip- up on which to pounce.
Aside from Benedict's successful pilgrimage in John Paul II's footsteps, there were two significant aspects in which he went further than his predecessor. The first was in the degree of focus on the local Church, and the second was the focus on interfaith relations. In this regard, the media understandably picked up on how an event to support interfaith work in the Holy Land at the Notre Dame Centre in Jerusalem was hijacked by an extremist Muslim cleric. However, the real interfaith moment during this pilgrimage was in Nazareth, where, led by a rabbi singing a song of peace, the Pope held and raised hands in prayer and celebration with the other religious leaders on the dais, before hundreds of religious figures from the different faith communities in Israel. This event reflected the real spirit of the papal visit, but most major media outlets did not even report on it.
Rabbi David Rosen is the Chairman of IJCIC, the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations and Director of the American Jewish Committee's Department for Interreligious Affairs and its Heilbrunn Institute for International Interreligious Understanding. He also serves on the Israeli Chief Rabbinate's Commission for Interreligious Dialogue, and represents the Chief Rabbinate on the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land. He was a member of the Permanent Bilateral Commission of the State of Israel and the Holy See that negotiated the establishment of full diplomatic normalization of relations between the two; and in November 2005 he was made a papal Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory the Great for his contribution to promoting Catholic-Jewish reconciliation. This article is based on a presentation Rabbi Rosen gave to the Council of Christians and Jews in May 2009.
Comments on this entry (1)
Please note that views expressed in these comments do not represent the views of JPR.
The \"disappointment\" at Yad V\'Shem commented upon by Rabbi Rosen was quite profoudly felt in Israel where I was staying thoughout the time of the Pope\'s visit and it is hard to believe that such disappointment was not foreseen by the Pope or his advisers. 921fa
frank green - Friday 26 Jun 2009
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