Talk about a picture being worth 1,000 words. There’s more than that behind this picture of Pope Benedict holding hands and singing a song for peace with leaders of other religions in Nazareth’s Basilica of the Annunciation on Thursday. This might seem like an innocent gesture to most people who see it. To some Vatican correspondents following the pope on his Holy Land tour, it was an unprecedented step that spoke volumes about the evolution of his theological thinking.This sing-along started at an interfaith meeting when a rabbi began singing a song with the lyrics “Shalom, Salaam, Lord grant us peace.” At some point, the 11 clerics on the stage stood up and held hands to sing the simple tune together. Never very spontaneous, Benedict looked a little hesitant but then joined in. It was something of a “kumbaya session” — a “religious version of We Are The World,” one colleague quipped — but it was good-natured and well meant. The pope has been preaching interfaith cooperation at every stop on his tour and it seemed appropriate that it culminate in a show of unity among the religions in Galilee.But wait a minute. This is the same Joseph Ratzinger who, when he was a cardinal heading the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, frowned on Pope John Paul’s pray-in with other religions at Assisi in 1986. He even declined to attend what became one of the landmark events of his predecessor’s papacy. Catholics cannot pray together with other religions, he argued, because only Catholicism was the true faith and all others were flawed to greater or lesser extents. Praying together carried the risk of syncretism, or mixing religions.Over the years, Cardinal Ratzinger made several critical comments about other religions, especially Buddhism and Islam (although he is changing there as well). He drew a sharp line between Catholics and other Christians in the 2000 document Dominus Iesus that called Protestant denominations deficient and not proper churches. They felt slighted and several said so openly. The only faiths Ratzinger seemed interested in were Orthodox Christianity and Judaism (ironically, given the cool welcome he got in Israel — but that’s another story).Things change when a cardinal becomes a pope. Suddenly, he was no longer just the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, he was the head of the world’s largest church and its smallest country. He was a spiritual leader, a temporal head of state, a major diplomatic figure and one of the most prominent — if not the most prominent — spokesman for religion on the planet. That’s a lot to juggle at the same time.
On the last day of his Holy Land pilgrimage, Pope Benedict visited the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic partriarchates, prayed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and delivered a farewell address that touched on the main political points of his trip.
Here are some excerpts from his speeches:
ECUMENISM: “I pray that our gathering today will give new impetus to the work of theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, adding to the recent fruits of study documents and other joint initiatives. Of particular joy for our Churches has been the participation of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His Holiness Bartholomew I, at the recent Synod of Bishops in Rome dedicated to the theme: The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. The warm welcome he received and his moving intervention were sincere expressions of the deep spiritual joy that arises from the extent to which communion is already present between our Churches. Such ecumenical experience bears clear witness to the link between the unity of the Church and her mission.” (Photo: Pope Benedict presents a book at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, 15 May 2009/Pool).
AT THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY SEPULCHRE:
“Branded an implacable foe of Islam after his landmark Regensburg speech in 2006, Pope Benedict has shown during his current Holy Land tour that he is slowly learning how to dialogue with Muslims.
“While media attention has focussed on Jewish criticism of his speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Benedict’s speeches to Muslims have used classic Islamic terms and new arguments that resonate with Muslims and ease the quest for common ground.
“This new tone may not erase the memory of the Regensburg speech many Muslims took as an insult, because it implied Islam was violent and irrational. But Islamic, Jewish and Catholic clerics told Reuters it marked a shift in his thinking that could help the world’s two largest faiths get along better…”
After several days when the location of a speech sometimes clashed with the message he wanted to send, Pope Benedict must have been relieved to visit Nazareth today. The town where Jesus grew up lies in Israel proper, in the north of the country, and not in the political minefield of the West Bank that Benedict visited yesterday to see Bethlehem. In the town of the Holy Family, he was able to defend traditional Catholic family values without having to consider issues such as Palestinian statehood or apologies for the Holocaust. As he put it:
“All of us need… to return to Nazareth, to contemplate ever anew the silence and love of the Holy Family, the model of all Christian family life. Here, in the example of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, we come to appreciate even more fully the sacredness of the family, which in God’s plan is based on the lifelong fidelity of a man and a woman consecrated by the marriage covenant and accepting of God’s gift of new life. How much the men and women of our time need to reappropriate this fundamental truth, which stands at the foundation of society, and how important is the witness of married couples for the formation of sound consciences and the building of a civilization of love!”
Of course, this is just as political as the other questions he’s dealt with on this visit, as the growing acceptance of gay marriage at the state level in the United States shows, but it’s on a different level. The issue isn’t the same in Israel, because the the Chief Rabbinate oversees marriages here and rules out gay marriage. The same goes for civil unions. But colleagues in our Jerusalem bureau tell me that times are changing here as well. Israeli social services now often recognise a long-standing gay relationship as similar to common law marriage and extend benefits to same-sex partners.
Wednesday was Palestinian day in Pope Benedict’s schedule. He spent the whole day in Bethlehem and met Catholics, refugees and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He spoke out clearly in favour of a Palestinian homeland, deplored the Israeli wall that snakes around the town and spoke with sympathy of the difficulties the Palestinians face. Taken together, they were a strong expression of Vatican support for the Palestinians.
Here are excerpts from his speeches:
PALESTINIAN HOMELAND: “Mr President, the Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with its neighbors, within internationally recognized borders. Even if at present that goal seems far from being realized, I urge you and all your people to keep alive the flame of hope, hope that a way can be found of meeting the legitimate aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians for peace and stability. In the words of the late Pope John Paul II, there can be “no peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness” (Message for the 2002 World Day of Peace). I plead with all the parties to this long-standing conflict to put aside whatever grievances and divisions still stand in the way of reconciliation, and to reach out with generosity and compassion to all alike, without discrimination. Just and peaceful coexistence among the peoples of the Middle East can only be achieved through a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect, in which the rights and dignity of all are acknowledged and upheld.” (Photo: Palestinian security guard watches pope Mass in Bethlehem, 13 May 2009/Yannis Behrakis)
APPEAL TO YOUTH: “I make this appeal to the many young people throughout the Palestinian Territories today: do not allow the loss of life and the destruction that you have witnessed to arouse bitterness or resentment in your hearts. Have the courage to resist any temptation you may feel to resort to acts of violence or terrorism.”
Who 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!”
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.
from AxisMundi Jerusalem:
Pope Benedict has crossed through the imposing concrete wall that separates the West Bank town of Bethlehem from Israel to visit the town of Jesus' birth. The wall is part of the nearly 800 km security barrier that Israel is building in and around the West Bank in a series of walls, fences, berms and ditches. He was accompanied to the checkpoint on the Israeli side by Israeli security before driving through the barrier to meet up with his Palestinian security escort.
Crossing back and forth through the checkpoints that dot what Israelis call the "separation barrier" -- and which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the pope was "the apartheid wall" -- is a routine part of life for many people here. Yet it can shock newcomers to see this physical manifestation of the conflict in a region that is just a pocket-handkerchief on the map of the world. It is a measure put in place for security (as per the Israelis) or annexation and grabbing of land (as per the Palestinians). One wonders what the Pope was thinking as he crossed through.
Here's some video of the Pope in Bethlehem. Click here to see the script and shotlist, including translations of the comments, that accompanies the vid.
What kind of gift does a pope give when he visits the Holy Land? This morning, the Holy See Press Office distributed a few pictures of presents Pope Benedict has brought along. Take a look:
Mosaic of the Birth of Christ
This mosaic is a copy of part of the 13th-century mosaics in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome. It was produced by the Vatican Mosaic Studio in 2000. The pope was due to hand it over to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his visit to Bethlehem on Wednesday.
This is a copy of a page for the holy day of Yom Kippur. The original book from 1375 once belonged to Queen Christiana of Sweden, whose library was bought in 1690 — one year after her death — by Pope Alexander VIII. The pope presented this to Israel’s two chief rabbis on Tuesday
Four speeches today to four quite different audiences. Pope Benedict first addressed Muslim religious leaders (see our separate blog on that) and then Israel’s two grand rabbis. Both were about interfaith dialogue, but he was encouraging the Muslims to pursue it while he reassured the Jews the Catholic Church remained committed to it. He then addressed the Catholic bishops of the Holy Land and a Mass in the Valley of Josephat, just east of Jerusalem’s old city. At that Mass, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, delivered an interesting address comparing the Palestinians and Israelis to Jesus in his agony in the nearby Garden of Gethsemane and the international community to the three Apostles who slept during that crucial period in Christ’s passion (see our separate blog on that).
Here are excerpts from the day’s speeches:
TO MUSLIM RELIGIOUS LEADERS IN DOME OF THE ROCK:
INTERFAITH DIALOGUE: “Since the teachings of religious traditions ultimately concern the reality of God, the meaning of life, and the common destiny of mankind – that is to say, all that is most sacred and dear to us – there may be a temptation to engage in such dialogue with reluctance or ambivalence about its possibilities for success. Yet we can begin with the belief that the One God is the infinite source of justice and mercy, since in him the two exist in perfect unity. Those who confess his name are entrusted with the task of striving tirelessly for righteousness while imitating his forgiveness…” (Photo: Dome of the Rock and Vatican flag, 12 May 2009//Yannis Behrakis)
“it is paramount that those who adore the One God should show themselves to be both grounded in and directed towards the unity of the entire human family. In other words, fidelity to the One God, the Creator, the Most High, leads to the recognition that human beings are fundamentally interrelated, since all owe their very existence to a single source and are po”inted towards a common goal. Imprinted with the indelible image of the divine, they are called to play an active role in mending divisions and promoting human solidarity.
It’s not often you hear the Palestinians and Israelis compared to Jesus or the international community likened to Christ’s closest disciples. But the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, did just that in his address at Pope Benedict’s Mass in the Valley of Josephat today. This is the valley just east of the old city of Jerusalem, close to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed in agony before he was arrested by the Romans led by Judas. The Apostles Peter, James and John had accompanied him but they stayed a short distance away and fell asleep while Jesus prayed. Twal used this image to make a link between that Gospel episode and current day Middle East politics:
“Just a few yards from here, Jesus said to his most favored disciples “Remain here, and watch with me” (Mt. 26:39). But these same disciples closed their eyes, not losing sleep over Jesus’ agony, only a short distance away in the Garden of Gethsemane.” (Photo: Pope arrives for Mass with the eastern wall of Jerusalem’s old city is visible in the background, 12 May 2009/Yannis Behrakis)
“Holy Father, today, in many ways, the situation has not changed: around us, we have the agony of the Palestinian people, who dream of living in a free and independent Palestinian State, but have not found its realization; and the agony of the Israeli people, who dream of a normal life in peace and security and, despite all their military and mass media might, have not found its realization.