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.
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.
Coming 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.