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.
Pope Benedict spent Thursday in Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up in what is now the northern part of Israel. With no pressing political issues there, his sermon and speeches had a more religious focus than some recent ones.
MARRIAGE: “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!” (Photo: Nun waves picture of Benedict at Nazareth Mass, 14 May 2009/Baz Ratner)
FAMILY: “In God’s plan for the family, the love of husband and wife bears fruit in new life, and finds daily expression in the loving efforts of parents to ensure an integral human and spiritual formation for their chIldren. In the family each person, whether the smallest child or the oldest relative, is valued for himself or herself, and not seen simply as a means to some other end. Here we begin to glimpse something of the essential role of the family as the first buildingblock of a well-ordered and welcoming society. We also come to appreciate, within the wider community, the duty of the State to support families in their mission of education, to protect the institution of the family and its inherent rights, and to ensure that all families can live and flourish in conditions of dignity.”
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.
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.
At Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, part of the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary complex including Islam’s third-holiest mosque Al-Aqsa, Pope Benedict urged Palestinian Muslim leaders to pursue interfaith cooperation by using an argument that other Muslims have been using to engage Christians — including himself — in dialogue. The need for interfaith dialogue is emerging as one of the two most consistent themes of Benedict’s speeches during his current Middle East tour (the other being the link between faith and reason). Appeals like this risk being empty phrases, but he has given some new twists that make them stand out. (Photo: Pope at Dome of the Rock, 12 May 2009/Israeli govt. handout)
In his speech to Muslim leaders this morning, the pope said reason shows us the shared nature and common destiny of all people. He then said: “Undivided love for the One God and charity towards ones neighbour thus become the fulcrum around which all else turns.” Readers of this blog may recognise that message in a slightly different form — it echoes the “Common Word” appeal by Muslim scholars to a Christian-Muslim dialogue based on the two shared principles of love of God and love of neighbour. Since we’ve reported extensively about that initiative, readers may also remember that the Vatican was initially quite cautious about it. Up until the Catholic-Muslim forum in Rome last November, the line from the Vatican was that Christians and Muslims couldn’t really discuss theology because their views of God were so different. Vatican officials sounded different after three days of talks and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who is in charge of interfaith relations, said the Common Word group could even become a “privileged channel” for discussions in future. And now Benedict uses their argument to other Muslims.
Another new element — Benedict has begun using core Islamic terms to build bridges to his Muslim audience. Speaking at the King Hussein Mosque in Amman, he referred to God as “merciful and compassionate.” Today, he spoke of a shared belief “that the One God is the infinite source of justice and mercy.” He even expressed the hope that Muslim-Christian dialogue explores “how the Oneness of God is inextricably tied to the unity of the human family.” The Trinity is one of the biggest stumbling blocks between Christianity and Islam. Muslims see it as belief in three separate Gods, unlike the three persons in one God as Christians understand it. Centuries of Muslim anti-Christian rhetoric is built on the idea that Christianity is not really monotheistic like Islam (and Judaism, by the way). If the detailed theological discussions the Common Word group has launched lead to a better understanding of this issue, even if no agreement is possible, that would still be major progress.
Pope Benedict has the reputation of being something of a “foot-in-mouth” pontiff when it comes to talking about Muslims. He didn’t have that problem today. His long- awaited speech at the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque in Amman won praise for hitting all the right notes about Christian-Muslim cooperation. But there was some sole-searching talk at the press centre here of a potential “shoe-on-foot” problem when it turned out he didn’t take off his red loafers during the visit to the prayer hall. Was this an affront to Islam?
Compare our photos of him visiting the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque in Amman today (left) in full footgear and walking shoeless in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul on 30 November 2006 (below).
Jordanian officials said the tan carpets rolled out for him to walk on protected the mosque’s normal carpeting, on which Muslims pray, from any shoe dirt. He therefore did not have to follow the traditional practice of leaving his shoes at the door, they explained. One said that Benedict’s hosts, who also opted to trod while shod, made the exception in deference to the 82-year-old pope’s age. Jordanians are proud of their traditional Arab hospitality and that might explain their readiness to accommodate their guest.
When a pope enters a minefield, the most natural reaction for him is to pray. Pope Benedict stressed prayer when he began his tip-toe over the explosive terrain of the Middle East starting his May 8-15 tour of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories today. From the start, in his remarks during the flight to Amman, he stressed that people should pray for peace. We are not a political power but a spiritual force and this spiritual force is a reality which can contribute to progress in the peace process,” he said on the plane. “As believers we are convinced that that prayer is a real force, it opens the world to God. We are convinced that God listens and can affect history.” This is theologically sound, of course. It’s also politically clever. It’s the lowest common denominator in the Holy Land, maybe the only option all sides might agree on. (Photo: Workers hang banner welcoming Benedict in Amman, 7 May 2009/Muhammad Hamed)
Another theme evident in comments by the pope and King Abdullah is their joint effort to boost Benedict’s image in the Muslim world. His 2006 Regensburg speech hinting that Islam was violent and irrational has not been forgotten in this region. But Jordan, a Muslim country that strongly supports interfaith dialogue initiatives such as the Common Word declaration, wants to redirect attention towards cooperation between the world’s two largest faiths. King Abdullah took the first step in that direction. Speaking at the airport after the pope’s arrival today, he said:
“We welcome your commitment to dispel the misconceptions and divisions that have harmed relations between Christians and Muslims. You have warmly received the visits of Muslim scholars and others. In turn, your historic visit this week to the King Hussein Mosque … your meeting with Muslim religious scholars … is welcomed by all Jordanians. It is my hope that together, we can expand the dialogue we have opened – a dialogue that accepts our unique religious identities; a dialogue that is unafraid of the light of truth; a dialogue that, rightly, celebrates our deep, common values and ties.”
from Photographers' Blog:
With all the fuss kicked up about the premiere in Rome of director Ron Howard's film Angels & Demons, I thought it would be fun to hop on a bus tour based on the novel by Dan Brown. I must stress that I am not a fan of Brown's writing, but it's surely a different way to see many of the Eternal City's sights.
In the following audio slideshow the tour guide, who can't be named due to his company's policy, discusses the book and how it relates to the landmarks of Rome
After exposing a Church cover-up in “The Da Vinci Code,” symbologist Robert Langdon returns to the big screen as an unlikely Vatican ally in the latest movie adaptation of a novel by author Dan Brown.
“Angels & Demons,” again starring Tom Hanks as Langdon and directed by Ron Howard, premieres in Rome on Monday at a theatre a mile (0.6 kilometer) away from Vatican City. It’s due to open in the United States on May 15. (Photo: Tom Hanks, Ayelet Zurer and Ron Howard (L-R) at a photocall at CERN near Geneva, 12 Feb 2009/Valentin Flauraud)
In the film, Langdon is recruited by the Vatican after the pope dies and four cardinals tipped to succeed him are kidnapped. Langdon races through the “Eternal City” deciphering clues linked to a centuries-old secret society, the Illuminati.