May 8, 2009


The pope in the Holy Land

Pope Benedict XVI faces many challenges as he ventures into the Holy Land for a week beginning today, May 8.

The politics of the Holy Land are always dangerous, and the pope won’t be able to avoid them even if he wished to do so.

The secular media probably will cover this visit closely, especially for its political ramifications.

Perhaps it would be nice if the pope could simply make a pilgrimage to the places revered by Christians because the Holy Land is where Jesus lived, died and rose again, and part of the trip will be a pilgrimage. He will visit the Basilicas of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Annunciation in Nazareth and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

But just a list of the people with whom he will meet shows that this visit is far more than a pilgrimage. In Jordan, he will meet with King Abdullah. In Israel, he will have separate meetings with President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who will soon be succeeded by Benjamin Netanyahu. On the West Bank, he will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Besides those political leaders, he will also meet with Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian patriarchs as well as Muslim and Jewish religious leaders. He will visit the King Hussein Mosque in Amman, Jordan. He has a very full agenda.

The Holy See and Israel have had full diplomatic relations since 1994. The Holy See has also had a “permanent and official” relationship with the Palestinian Authority since 1994.

Pope Benedict will be the third pope to visit the Holy Land—not counting St. Peter. Pope Paul VI visited in 1964 and went away concerned that the Holy Land was quickly becoming a Christian museum because Christians were leaving in droves.

After his return to Rome, Pope Paul asked the Christian Brothers to establish Bethlehem University and Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh, then president of the University of Notre Dame, to establish the Pontifical Institute for Ecumenical Studies in Jerusalem. Both continue to function today.

Pope John Paul II’s visit in 2000 was seen as a tremendous success in improving relations between the Catholic Church and Jews. He visited both the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and the Western Wall, where he placed a prayer expressing sadness for the wrongs that Christians have done to Jews.

Pope Benedict will visit those same places, and the world will be watching to see what he says and does there.

Relations between the Church and Jews have deteriorated somewhat since Pope John Paul’s visit, which is one of the reasons why Pope Benedict wanted to make this trip. His lifting the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops, including a Holocaust denier, almost derailed the trip until the pope said that Catholics must recognize and remember the Holocaust.

Just the fact that Pope Benedict is a German has caused him to be viewed with suspicion. It is sometimes pointed out that he was in the Nazi youth movement as a boy and in the German military during World War II. Of course, all German youth had to be in the Nazi youth movement, and he deserted from his military post at the risk of his life.

There was also the Vatican’s criticism of Israel when it invaded Gaza. Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Vatican’s Council for Justice and Peace, compared Gaza to a concentration camp.

It doesn’t seem likely that the pope will get involved in discussions concerning the Israeli-Palestinian problem since his meetings with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are mainly courtesy calls. However, just the fact that he will meet with Abbas and not go to Gaza to meet with the Palestinian faction there has political implications.

He is likely to observe the same problem that Pope Paul noticed—the decline in the number of Christians in the Holy Land. Perhaps that will come to his attention while he is in Jordan, where some of the hundreds of thousands of Chaldean Catholics who have fled from Iraq have relocated.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Pope Benedict alludes to this problem during his meeting with Muslim leaders in Jordan. This pope is not shy about demanding freedom of religion for Christians in Muslim countries.

—John F. Fink

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