Who wrote the pope’s speeches for this trip?

May 13, 2009

pope-wall-speechWho wrote Pope Benedict’s speeches for this trip? Why do his speeches to Muslims hit the spot and those to Jews seem to fall short? Does he have two teams of speechwriters, one more attuned to the audience than the other?

We don’t know the answers (yet) but a pattern suggesting that has certainly emerged. Look at what he had to say today in Bethlehem to Palestinians, Christian and Muslim:

  • To Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: “Mr President, the Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers…”
  • To Palestinian Catholics at Mass: “In a special way my heart goes out to the pilgrims from war-torn Gaza: I ask you to bring back to your families and your communities my warm embrace, and my sorrow for the loss, the hardship and the suffering you have had to endure.”
  • At Aida refugee camp: “I know that many of your families are divided – through imprisonment of family members, or restrictions on freedom of movement – and many of you have experienced bereavement in the course of the hostilities. My heart goes out to all who suffer in this way.”
  • On the Israeli-built wall: “In a world where more and more borders are being opened up – to trade, to travel, to movement of peoples, to cultural exchanges – it is tragic to see walls still being erected… How earnestly we pray for an end to the hostilities that have caused this wall to be built!”
(Photo: Pope Benedict speaks at Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, 13 May 2009/Tony Gentile)

These comments stand in strong contrast to his speech at Yad Vashem, which was so abstract that his Jewish audience — and commentators in the media — were openly disappointed by it. They called it lukewarm, said he avoided speaking clearly about the Holocaust and said nothing about the fact he himself is German. He skirted the contentious issues that strain Catholic-Jewish relations, such as the possible beatification of the late Pope Pius XII or the recent lifting of the excommunication of an arch-conservative bishop who denies the Holocaust.

The latest gaffe came yesterday when his spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, flatly denied to journalists that the German-born pope had ever been a member of the Hitler Youth (see our story). He was reacting to repeated mentions of this in the media and possibly a comment to that effect by the speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin. But the pope, while he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, said in a book over a decade ago that he had been enrolled in the Hitler Youth by force. Reporters who had the book back in their office bookcases quickly found the quotes on the internet. Within hours, Lombardi had to eat humble pie and admit the book was right after all.

lombardiComing after the uproar over the case of the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson, where Vatican communications were chaotic, one has to wonder why some speeches work and others don’t. Just imagine if Pope Benedict had added a line to his Yad Vashem speech saying there was no place in the Church’s ministry for Holocaust deniers. Or cut and pasted that line from his speech in Auschwitz in 2006: ” I come here today as a son of the German people.” It would have been so easy. It would have been so effective.

(Photo: Rev. Federico Lombardi, 12 March 2009/Alessia Pierdomenico)

Fr. Lombardi told us yesterday that Benedict had said all these things before and couldn’t be expected to repeat them all in every speech. To criticism that he didn’t mention the total number of Holocaust dead or the issue of anti-Semitism at Yad Vashem, he said the pope had spoken about them on his arrival at Tel Aviv airport — hardly comparable to the Holocaust memorial as a place for a solemn statement. And his reaffirmation of the Vatican’s support for a Palestinian homeland was also just a repetition of what had been said before. By these arguments, he could have skated over that issue today, but he didn’t. Today’s speeches had far more sense of the occasion and the location.

So we’re left with the question we started with. Who writes these speeches? It’s something we’ll have to follow up once the morning-to-evening coverage of this visit is over.


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A speech will be satisfying or not, depending largely on the listener’s expectations. The Jewish audience at the Holocaust Memorial had very specific expectations. They wanted to hear to hear specific words, and begging for forgiveness about a tragically inhumane event of 55 years ago. Except, the asking for forgiveness already happened in the year 2000, by John Paul II.
The Palestinian audience wanted to hear something, anything, about an ongoing tragic situation, which got much worse since the year 2000. The Pope addressed both situations appropriately. The listeners, according to their expectations, were either less or more satisfied.

Lombardi stated that the Pope was not ‘in the Hitler Youth’ while the Pope said that he was enrolled into of Hitler Youth membership. Membership in the HY was a matter of government policy: after 1941, every 14 year old boy was automatically enrolled, no questions asked, no consent requested. Being in the HY, what Lombardi is talking about, is a matter of attending meetings and participating in activities. The young Ratzinger refused to attend any meeting. Therefore, Lombardi’s comments were true. Ratzinger was never in the HY.

What I find deeply disappointing is that journalists look at this situation with concern and suspicion, ending up manufacturing a new conflict or controversy, which actually does not exist. Why not looking at this event as witness to virtue? Instead of pointing out (perceived) ‘inconsistencies,’ why not pointing out that a 14 year old boy had the courage to stand up against a totalitarian regime and say ‘NO’ to its demands? Anyone who ever lived under such regimes knows what it means to do such a thing. Most 14 years old of today cannot say ‘no’ to their peers, let alone standing up to an oppressive regime. Add to this that about the same time a cousin of Ratzinger (about the same age as he was) was killed by the Nazis because he was disabled. Why not reflecting on the moral fortitude of a 14 year old boy, who was facing psychological trauma and danger to his life for choosing right over wrong, as opposed to evaluate his past with suspicion?

Posted by Newsjunkie | Report as abusive

You might well ask, who wrote the headline for your article?

Most of the time it isnt the author, but someone who knows how to catch the audiences attention. Your editor succeeded.

Please, the Pope is eighty-something. Did you actually watch his public masses and diplomatic addresses?

I am impressed with this man’s physical and mental strength. The Pope also succeeded with getting his message out, its just that you dont like his message.

You want the criticize the head of the Catholic Church?

Please list any head of state But who has done more for advancing the cause of peace in the world today.

Tony Blair? G. Bush? Barak Obama? Hugo Chavez? L.O.L.
(who writes their speeches ? ? ? ? )

Posted by ed | Report as abusive

The reason the Holy Father couldn’t be so specific about the holocaust and the Church’s supposed role is because the historical evidence is becoming increasingly clear that the 6 million number is a big myth and that the traditional holocaust narrative is in shambles.

Also, the historical evidence is beginning to vindicate any charges that the Church as an institution has any culpability in the holocaust.

Read the new book “Debating the Holocaust” by Thomas Dalton PhD and your eyes will open. It is just a matter of time until “truth will out.”

Posted by Scott | Report as abusive

Intolerant Jews will not give an inch in any direction to a German Pope despite the fact his father had to retire early b/c of his opposition to the Nazis and they had to pay higher tuition for Joseph b/c he wouldn’t attend Hitler Youth meetings and was forcibly conscripted into military service at 14 years of age when his seminary was closed down and went AWOL at risk of getting shot – NOTHING he would have said would satisfy. His sincere words spoke to the inner workings of man and his heart.
I was deeply touched by his sensitive image of the horror destiny to befall on parents whose innocent children would be murdered by evil people and his profound reminder that those brutalized and killed will always forever by God and their loved ones – by their sacred name – not a number. If anyone reads anything about this man they will see how gentle and decent a man he is.

Posted by Kate | Report as abusive

Newsjunkie, your explanation of being “in the HY” is pure doublespeak. First you say that, “after 1941, every 14 year old boy was automatically enrolled, no questions asked, no consent requested.” So Joseph Ratzinger was a member, i.e. he was in the HY. This is not deplorable in itself because he had no choice. Whether he went to meetings or not does not change that status, it only qualifies it so we can see he was a reluctant member, not an ideologically convinced member. Using a qualifying argument, which is secondary to the fact, to disprove the fact itself doesn’t work. The only honest way to deal with this is to do it the way the pope did in his book. Admit the fact and add the qualifier so we can better understand the circumstances around it. When it is done this way, any fair-minded person can understand he was not a willing member and should not be treated as one.

The inconsistencies you want us not to point out came from Fr. Lombardi, who out of the blue contradicted the pope’s own credible account of his youth and wanted us to believe that critics were confusing the Hitler Youth and the auxiliary anti-aircraft corps (which the HY had a hand in managing). That is simply not correct.

Your attempt to paint the young Joseph Ratzinger as “a 14 year old boy had the courage to stand up against a totalitarian regime and say ‘NO’ to its demands?” also doesn’t fit the facts. I do not for a minute think that he was a Nazi or a sympathiser; I believe he was like a good number of other devout Christians in Germany at the time who opposed Nazism as a pagan ideology. That is to his credit. But that does not make him someone who stood up to a totalitarian regime. Anyone who seriously did that in Nazi Germany got caught and at least jailed if not executed. Among them were many priests who ended up dying in Dachau. Skipping some HY meetings during a war, when most officials had more pressing problems to deal with, was not a daring act of resistance. It may have carried some risk, but nothing like the White Rose student resistance ring at Munich University at the same time. Knowing he skipped some meetings shows he wasn’t a supporter and I accept that as such. But I think creating myths about someone does that person no favours, because the truth will come out later and only lead to a certain discrediting of what that person actually did do.

The real question here is one that concerns all Germans of his age who kept their heads low during the Nazi period. Open resistance was suicidical and everyone knew that. Some people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Claus von Stauffenberg or Blessed Fr. Bernhard Lichtenberg took that risk, paid with their lives for it and are rightly honoured now as heros. Most people didn’t act heroically but pragmatically. As members of subsequent generations who have lived in peace, we cannot understand the pressures on people at that time and must not jump to conclusions about them. But we must also not forget that periods of deep moral ambiguity occur in history and not try to simplify them by creating hero myths.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive


You write: “Did you actually watch his public masses and diplomatic addresses?” Yes, in fact, and probably far more than you did. I’m covering this trip so it’s my job to watch these things.

You write: “I am impressed with this man’s physical and mental strength.” So am I. Never said anything to the contrary on that point.

You wrote: “The Pope also succeeded with getting his message out.” How you do measure success in getting a message out? By the intended audience appreciating it? By the pope physically reading it to a crowd? By having it posted on a Vatican website? Until you say what constitutes a success, this assertion is an empty one.

You wrote: “its just that you dont like his message.” Oh, so I’m making up all this Israeli criticism of his speech? I’m inventing attacks on him by the speaker of the Knesset? You know what they say about shooting the messenger. Focus on the issue and you can’t say this.

You wrote: “You want the criticize the head of the Catholic Church?” No, I want to report what’s happening on this papal trip. If he does well, I report that. If he is criticised, I report that.

You wrote: “Please list any head of state But who has done more for advancing the cause of peace in the world today.” That may be the case but I can’t say. It’s also not the issue here.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Mr. Tom Heneghan: Thank you for your answer. I think there is a fundamental distinction between having ones name put on a membership list of an organization by a third party without the person’s explicit or implicit consent (the Pope was enrolled into HY membership), and ones participation in that organization (the Pope was not in the HY). The distinction is not a difference in degree (it is not a mitigating factor), but in kind (we are talking about to completely different things). For example, I frequently receive approved Visa card memberships in the mail (‘my name was enrolled’), but I do not make use of this (in this case, it is only an offer and not a demand), hence I am ‘not into’ (using) Visa. As I said, the distinction is clear and fundamental. I fail to see, where the doublespeak is in this. In fact, not making this distinction, what Lombardi did, is what conceals the truth about the situation. I believe that most media presentation of this issue (including this one) is guilty of this mistake.

You write: “Skipping some HY meetings during a war, when most officials had more pressing problems to deal with, was not a daring act of resistance. It may have carried some risk, but nothing like the White Rose student resistance ring at Munich University at the same time.” Clearly, Ratzinger was not Bonhoeffer, and not like the members of the White Rose, first of all, because he was 14, while those others were adults. I had no intention to create a myth about the young Ratzinger, simply to call attention to what he actually did, and that must ne acknowledged. To go against the mainstream in any regime carries risks, especially for a 14 year old, and especially in totalitarian regime. I don’t believe that the young Ratzinger was in an immediate danger of loosing his life over not attending HY meetings and participating in HY activities. But, I believe that it took an above-average strength of character for a FOURTEEN YEAR OLD boy to discern what is right and what is wrong in the given situation, make a decision and follow up on it, consistently. He not only went against peer pressure (what most young people of his age today would have difficulties to imitate), but he in fact did go against the demands of a totalitarian regime, whose might he experienced through the killing of his cousin by that regime. It is hard to understand this fully (but not impossible) if one did not have the experience of living in such a regime. Taking all this (his age, family experience, emotional and psychological vulnerability, the nature of the Nazi regime) into consideration, I think his actions were remarkable. Most media pieces, including this one, fail to do justice to it.

Posted by Newsjunkie | Report as abusive

And a reputable worldwide news organization questioning “Who writes the Pope’s speeches” is somehow objective news?

What a joke. As if the Pope is beholden to the pagans of the worldwide media…

You guys have an overinflated sense of your importance.

Posted by Brian Charles | Report as abusive

Newsjunkie, you seem to assume that the young Joseph Ratzinger was as diligent in not participating in Hitler Youth activities (even the simplest weekly meeting of his group) as you are in not using the Visa cards you get in the mail. But it seems he went to a few meetings at least, doing the minimum he needed to not get into trouble. When he was able to skip them, he apparently did. This is a perfectly understandable position to take and there were probably more Germans who did it than is generally assumed. But it is not the heroic resistance you want to make it out to be. Joseph Ratzinger has enough real virtues and strengths to not need myth-making that distorts his biography.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

I hate the way this article questions the targeted audience of the speeches that the Pope gave. I feel some religious discrimination in the author’s tone during the article’s opening paragraph. Suddenly the situation in Palestine is transformed by the author to one where there are two opposing parties based on faith. There are Palestinian Christians and many more than get mentioned by the media. I feel sorry to say that but every time Jewish people are mentioned along with Muslim people, Christians are omitted to exaggerate a sense of enmity and create an emotional distance towards Muslims in people reading/hearing about the covered news. The Pope wasn’t trying to communicate only with the faiths of the region. No, he went a step further. He was trying to communicate with the people. This means he not only spoke to the Jews and the Christians and the Muslims but also to the Palestinian and Israeli people.

The situation in Palestine is worsening according to any form of measurement one might use. The Pope is a man of faith and is expressing his concern towards the people that are suffering under the influence of other people from a humanitarian perspective. The other people here are not the Jews in general. The other people here are the Israelis in particular. The late Pope John Paul II explicitly apologized to the Jews. His apology was a formal apology from the Catholic church. Since the apology has taken place, Pope Benedict is performing other church duties. He is trying to ease the suffering of the living by showing compassion. This is why his speeches addressing Palestinians are supportive. On the other hand, the speeches are not political because they don’t lay down political objectives. The only thing near political mentioned by the pontiff is the Israeli-built wall. His points are valid even when strictly speaking about the humanitarian aspect of the wall’s existence. Even then he doesn’t criticize Israel. Then when according to the article he says “How earnestly we pray for an end to the hostilities that have caused this wall to be built!” he chooses not to mention which side the hostilities came from in order to neutralize any political inference by his statement. A note worth mentioning on the Israeli directed speeches is that they were not attacking neither Israelis nor Jews.

As for the Pope living during the Nazi regime, one thing in particular struck me from the comments to this article. First Newsjunkie mentions that the Pope was 14 then and then the author replies and still requires that the Pope be held accountable for his enrollment in the Hitler Youth. I don’t know much about this story but only from what I read on this page I found out the Pope was only FOURTEEN. Teenagers are legally considered underage for a reason. That age group has guardians making decisions for them. As for the Hitler Youth decision, it applies to all Germans of the Pope’s age yet they don’t get criticized by the author. Only the Pope’s compassion to Palestinians is criticized.

Oh and when you find the person writing the Pope’s speeches, would you please thank him for me.

Posted by Walid El-Damouny | Report as abusive

Brian Charles, you don’t seem to recognise the distinction between news reports and blogs. News reports are in the news section of this website and follow the rules of objective news you mention. Blogs are different. They’re meant to be an interactive discussion of the news. Of course we mention news events in them, but the purpose is to discuss or expand on them.

Secondly, what is the problem with asking who writes these speeches? Is that somehow sacrilegious? The pope delivered these speeches in public, not only knowing but wanting them to be covered by the media (by the way, in his farewell remarks at the airport he thanked the media for covering the trip). If you think that asking this question is somehow insulting because it implies the pope doesn’t write his speeches himself, you should know it’s usually the Secretariat of State that prepares these texts anyway. He might draft the most important ones himself, but we don’t know which ones those are. My question is who is involved in the process and why there is such a divergence according to the audiences addressed.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

The premise that Pope Benedict reserved his most palliative words for the Palestinians at the expense of the “Jews” suggests the author’s gnawing concern about the pope’s cultural biases exceeds his cognizance of his own. The author’s assumption that Palestinians would scarcely want more than to hear a world leader make reference to a sovereign homeland trivializes the daily suffering and urgent need of millions of people. I assure you many Palestinians were unhappy that more was not said about the right to control their borders, the right to lives free of coercion and intimidation, the right to return to native lands, and worship when and as they choose in historical holy places. But most were satisfied with much less because that is what they have become accustomed to in recent decades. Given the Palestinians’ limited access to media channels (I’m speaking from a US perspective), any sympathetic positioning of their message is typically received well.

The Israelis, on the other hand, have an enormously powerful lobbying and communications capability (again from the US pov). Their expectations with regard to the positioning of Israel’s message can be extensive and exacting. That is why Pope Benedict could visit Israel, condemn anti-Semitism, abhor the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, mention the biblical rights of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, cite historic Judeo-Christian bonds, and pray at the Western Wall without placating his critics. The script from which they would have preferred him read would also have mentioned his personal history, with its implied burden of ongoing German guilt, and would have reinforced Israel’s interpretation of 20th century events, its raison d’etre, and the political/strategic choices it makes today. This is a tall order and requires an almost fetishistic observance of detail of the kind Prime Minister Olmert ran afoul when he was thought to imply that Israel had nuclear weapons, and was forced to issue an elaborate and plainly disingenuous retraction in accordance with Israel’s official silence on that exceedingly well known point.

The pope is right not to be dragged into this kind of artful and contrived political dance. His faith requires that he respond to a much simpler mandate, i.e., give comfort to the poor and to those who are suffering. Neither his compassion for the impoverished, weak and demoralized Palestinian people, nor his caution with regard to the very precise messaging expected by his Israeli hosts is especially surprising. One need only realize that the unwavering focus on Israel’s terrible history is partially responsible for Israel’s selection of Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister, a man who spent the first 20 years of his life in Russia but now favors the further disenfranchisement of the indigenous people of Israel and is indifferent to the additional suffering that would cause Israel’s Arab community. Israel, like all countries must be careful that its national creation story isn’t cynically manipulated by some parts of society in an effort to deprive other parts of basic human rights. To the extent that Pope Benedict does not reflexively bend to the usual contortional demands of politics, and is vigilant and discerning with regard to real suffering in the world, he is to be commended, not vilified.

Posted by JD | Report as abusive

Very appropriate words DJ. I commend your open mindedness and perceptive understanding of the Papal speeches.

Posted by Walid El-Damouny | Report as abusive