In the first general audience of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI explained that he chose his name “in order to create a spiritual bond with Benedict XV, who steered the Church through the period of turmoil caused by the First World War. He was a courageous and authentic prophet of peace and strove with brave courage first of all to avert the tragedy of the war and then to limit its harmful consequences.”
“Treading in his footsteps,” the new Pontiff continued, “I would like to place my ministry at the service of reconciliation and harmony between persons and peoples, since I am profoundly convinced that the great good of peace is first and foremost a gift of God, a precious but unfortunately fragile gift to pray for, safeguard and build up, day after day, with the help of all.”
Four years later, Pope Benedict had the opportunity to put his desire into practice in a region torn by conflict since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Pope Benedict announced in March that “from May 8 to 15 I shall be making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, visiting the places sanctified by his earthly passage, in order to ask the Lord for the precious gift of unity and peace for the Middle East and for all humanity.”
The stakes were high. On the eve of the visit, Archbishop Fouad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “One word for the Muslims and I’m in trouble; one word for the Jews and I’m in trouble. At the end of the visit the Pope goes back to Rome, and I stay here with the consequences.”
Two weeks later, after the Pope had gone back to Rome, a satisfied Archbishop Twal pronounced the trip more than 90 percent successful. It was not 100 percent successful, he said, because “perfection belongs only to God.”
World Jewish Congress President Ronald Laurer concurred. “Despite being a complicated trip,” he said in a May 22 statement, “its outcome has been positive and was a milestone for strengthening mutual understanding between Christians and Jews.”
King Abdullah II of Jordan, one of the Muslim world’s leading proponents of interreligious dialogue, warmly welcomed Pope Benedict to the nation of six million on May 8. Educated at Oxford and Georgetown, the 47-yearold king brokered the 2004 Amman Message and 2005 Amman Interfaith Message. The former denounced “the illegitimate opinions of radical fundamentalists and terrorists from the point of view of true Islam,” while the latter sought “to establish full acceptance and goodwill” among Islam, Christianity, and Judaism through an emphasis on their common monotheism.
“We welcome your commitment to dispel the misconceptions and divisions that have harmed relations between Christians and Muslims,” King Abdullah told the Pontiff. “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.”
Noting Jordan’s respect for religious freedom—a freedom that allows Christians to worship and build churches, without permitting evangelization or Muslim conversion—Pope Benedict responded:
My visit to Jordan gives me a welcome opportunity to speak of my deep respect for the Muslim community, and to pay tribute to the leadership shown by His Majesty the King in promoting a better understanding of the virtues proclaimed by Islam. Now that some years have passed since the publication of the Amman Message and the Amman Interfaith Message, we can say that these worthy initiatives have achieved much good in furthering an alliance of civilizations between the West and the Muslim world, confounding the predictions of those who consider violence and conflict inevitable.
The Pope then traveled to the Regina Pacis Center, built in 2004 to offer assistance to the handicapped. Welcoming the Pontiff, Archbishop Twal said, “Our young people, as young people everywhere, are in special need of a Good Shepherd to lead them on right paths, to call them back, through repentance and forgiveness, to the fresh meadows of true life. You are our good shepherd, Holy Father.”
“Like countless pilgrims before me it is now my turn to satisfy that profound wish to touch, to draw solace from, and to venerate the places where Jesus lived, the places which were made holy by his presence,” Pope Benedict replied. “I come simply with one intention, a hope: to pray for the precious gift of unity and peace, most specifically for the Middle East.”
The following morning, after a private Mass, Pope Benedict traveled to Mount Nebo, from which Moses saw the Promised Land. “Like Moses, we too have been called by name, invited to undertake a daily exodus from sin and slavery towards life and freedom, and given an unshakeable promise to guide our journey,” the Pontiff said. “From this holy mountain Moses directs our gaze on high, to the fulfillment of all God’s promises in Christ.”
The Pontiff then went to the nearby city of Madaba, where he blessed thecornerstone of the nation’s first Catholic university. In the presence of King Abdullah, the Pontiff revisited some of the themes of his controversial 2006 Regensburg address on faith, reason, and Islam. “Religion, of course, like science and technology, philosophy, and all expressions of our search for truth, can be corrupted,” he said. “Religion is disfigured when pressed into the service of ignorance or prejudice, contempt, violence, and abuse. In this case we see not only a perversion of religion but also a corruption of human freedom, a narrowing and blindness of the mind.”
King Abdullah’s cousin, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, then welcomed Pope Benedict to a new mosque—the third such visit by a pope. Referring to the “hurt” caused in the Muslim world by the Regensburg address— in which the Pontiff had quoted a Byzantine emperor who said, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”—the prince said that Muslims “especially appreciated the clarification by the Vatican that what was said in the Regensburg lecture did not reflect Your Holiness’s own opinion, but rather was simply a citation in an academic lecture.” Making clear his belief in the truth of Islam—he insisted that Mohammed’s reputation was a victim of over a millennium of ill-informed Western scholarship—the prince then offered a remarkable tribute to Pope Benedict, calling him a pontiff
whose reign has been marked by the moral courage to do and speak his conscience, no matter what the vogue of the day; who is personally also a master Christian theologian responsible for historical encyclical letters on the beautiful cardinal virtues of charity and hope; who has refacilitated the traditional Latin Mass for those who choose it, and who has simultaneously made intrafaith and interfaith dialogue a top priority of his reign in order to spread goodwill and understanding throughout all peoples of the world.
Addressing diplomats, Muslim leaders, and heads of universities in front of the mosque, Pope Benedict called upon Christians and Muslims to confront a suffocating secularism and to cultivate a life of reason informed by faith. “Where the opponents of religion seek not simply to silence its voice but to replace it with their own, the need for believers to be true to their principles and beliefs is felt all the more keenly,” he said. “Human reason is itself God’s gift and it soars to its highest plane when suffused with the light of God’s truth.” The Pontiff also challenged his audience to offer full respect for religious freedom: “We must note that the right of religious freedom extends beyond the question of worship and includes the right—especially of minorities—to fair access to the employment market and other spheres of civic life.”
Lauding “the ancient living treasure of the traditions of the Eastern Churches,” Pope Benedict celebrated Vespers that evening at Amman’s Melkite Greek Catholic cathedral. The following morning, he celebrated Mass before a capacity crowd of 25,000 in Jordan’s largest stadium. Making clear that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we are to be saved” than the name of Jesus, the Pope challenged Jordan’s Catholics to “a particular kind of courage: the courage of conviction, born of personal faith, not mere social convention or family tradition.” The Pope later traveled to the site of Christ’s baptism and blessed foundation stones for new Roman Catholic and Melkite Greek Catholic churches.
As he departed from Jordan after a private Mass the following morning, Pope Benedict said that “His Majesty the King has been notably active in fostering interreligious dialogue, and I want to put on record how much his commitment in this regard is appreciated. I also gratefully acknowledge the particular consideration that he shows towards the Christian community in Jordan. This spirit of openness not only helps the members of diff erent ethnic communities in this country to live together in peace and concord, but it has contributed to Jordan’s farsighted political initiatives to build peace throughout the Middle East.”
Arriving in Tel Aviv a half hour later, Pope Benedict received a warm welcome from President Shimon Peres, winner of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. Greeting the Pontiff in Latin—“Hail, Benedict, fi rst of the faithful, you who today visit the Holy Land”—Peres called the papal pilgrimage “an important spiritual mission of the highest order…. Your visit here brings a blessed understanding between religions and spreads peace near and far. Historic Israel and the renewed Israel together welcome your arrival as paving the great road to peace from city to city.”
In his reply, Pope Benedict praised the State of Israel for its “commitment to give religion its rightful place in the life of society.” He then unambiguously condemned anti-Semitism:
Tragically, the Jewish people have experienced the terrible consequences of ideologies that deny the fundamental dignity of every human person. It is right and fitting that, during my stay in Israel, I will have the opportunity to honor the memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Shoah, and to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude. Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world. This is totally unacceptable. Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is found, and to promote respect and esteem for the members of every people, tribe, language, and nation across the globe.
“The hopes of countless men, women, and children for a more secure and stable future depend on the outcome of negotiations for peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” the Pope continued. “In union with people of good will everywhere, I plead with all those responsible to explore every possible avenue in the search for a just resolution of the outstanding difficulties, so that both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders.”
Traveling to the presidential palace in Jerusalem, Pope Benedict addressed political and religious leaders. Observing that “the particular contribution of religions to the quest for peace lies primarily in the wholehearted, united search for God,” the Pontiffurged religious leaders to “be mindful that any
division or tension, any tendency to introversion or suspicion among believers or between our communities, can easily lead to a contradiction which obscures the Almighty’s oneness, betrays our unity, and contradicts the One who reveals himself as ‘abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.’” He told political leaders that “lasting security is a matt er of trust, nurtured in justice and integrity, and sealed through the conversion of hearts which stirs us to look the other in the eye, and to recognize the ‘Thou,’ as my equal, my brother, my sister.”
The Pontiff’s day, which had begun so well in Amman, ended in two controversies. Late in the afternoon, Pope Benedict visited the Yad Vashem Memorial to the Holocaust. After recalling that the words “Yad” and “Vashem” mean “memorial” and “name,” the Pope said:
I have come to stand in silence before this monument, erected to honor the memory of the millions of Jews killed in the horrifi c tragedy of the Shoah. They lost their lives, but they will never lose their names: these are indelibly etched in the hearts of their loved ones, their surviving fellow prisoners, and all those determined never to allow such an atrocity to disgrace mankind again. Most of all, their names are forever fi xed in the memory of Almighty God…
The Catholic Church, committ ed to the teachings of Jesus and intent on imitating his love for all people, feels deep compassion for the victims remembered here…. As bishop of Rome and successor of the Apostle Peter, I reaffi rm—like my predecessors— that the Church is committ ed to praying and working tirelessly to ensure that hatred will never reign in the hearts of men again…. As we stand here in silence, their cry still echoes in our hearts. It is a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence. It is a perpetual reproach against the spilling of innocent blood. It is the cry of Abel rising from the earth to the Almighty.
These moving words came under fire in the Israeli and wider Western media because the Pontiff did not utter an apology, because he did not refer to his youth in Nazi Germany, because he used the word “killed” instead of “murdered,” and because he referred to “millions of” rather than “six million” Jews—even though he had referred to “the six million Jewish victims of the Shoah” earlier in the day. Some rabbis defended the Pontiff ; “I really think it is purposeless to parse every word of the Pope, and to read into [his remarks] nuances that were not intended,” said Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, executive director of the National Council of Synagogues.
Pope Benedict ended the evening by participating in an interreligious meeting at a pontifi cal institute in Jerusalem. The Pontiff delivered an address on how religious believers can work together to promote wise ethical refl ection in the midst of a secularized and superficial information culture. A participant who was not scheduled to speak—Sheikh Tayssir Attamimi, head of Jerusalem’s Islamic court—then walked up to the podium and spent five minutes strongly criticizing Israel. The following day, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi condemned the impromptu speech as “a direct negation of what a dialogue should be.”
Pope Benedict devoted much of the fifth day of his pilgrimage to meetings with Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religious leaders. After praying for peace at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the Pontiff—citing “respect for the sacredness of human life, the centrality of the family, a sound education for the young, and the freedom of religion and conscience for a healthy society”—spoke to Israel’s two chief rabbis of “our shared concern in the face of moral relativism and the offences it spawns against the dignity of the human person.”
Pope Benedict then met with the Holy Land’s bishops in the Upper Room, where Jesus off ered the first Mass. Discussing the centrality of the Holy Eucharist in the Christian life, the Pontiff told the bishops that they could “count on my support and encouragement as you do all that is in your power to assist our Christian brothers and sisters to remain and prosper here in the land of their ancestors and to be messengers and promoters of peace.”
Preaching below the Mount of Olives later in the day, the Pontiff recalled the events of salvation history and upheld the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem as a consolation for those who suff er amid the divisions of the earthly Jerusalem. “While understandable reasons lead many, especially the young, to emigrate, this decision brings in its wake a great cultural and spiritual impoverishment to the city.”
Pope Benedict spent May 13 in Bethlehem, which is located in the semi-autonomous Palestinian Territories. The Pontiff off ered Mass in Manger Square, prayed privately at the Grott o of the Nativity, and visited a baby hospital and a refugee camp. Addressing President Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Benedict urged the young not to engage in terrorism and reiterated the Holy See’s position in favor of a sovereign Palestinian state. “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,” he said.
“Here, in Bethlehem, amid every kind of contradiction,” the Pontiff preached in Manger Square, “the stones continue to cry out this ‘good news,’ the message of redemption which this city, above all others, is called to proclaim to the world.” After praying for the triumph of Our Lady of Fatima’s Immaculate Heart over hatred, division, and violence, Pope Benedict visited a Palestinian refugee camp and addressed the issue of the Israeli security wall, which has created immense diffi culties for the local Christian community. “Towering over us, as we gather here this afternoon, is a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached—the wall,” said the Pontiff .
Upon leaving the Palestinian Territories, Pope Benedict, observing that the wall is “separating neighbors and dividing families,” said that “although walls can easily be built we all know that they do not last for ever. They can be taken down. First, though, it is necessary to remove the walls that we build around our hearts, the barriers that we set up against our neighbors.… Be assured that I will continue to take every opportunity to urge those involved in peace negotiations to work towards a just solution that respects the legitimate aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
The following day, Pope Benedict traveled to the northern Israeli city of Nazareth. During Mass on the Mount of Precipice—from which Nazareth’s residents once thought to throw Jesus— Pope Benedict called fathers, mothers, and children to imitate the Holy Family. At an interreligious meeting that followed, Pope Benedict said that ultimately a sense of divine purpose, rather than a secularist nihilism, leads to peacemaking:
The conviction that the world is a gift of God, and that God has entered the twists and turns of human history, is the perspective from which Christians view creation as having a reason and a purpose. Far from being the result of blind fate, the world has been willed by God and bespeaks his glorious splendor. At the heart of all religious traditions is the conviction that peace itself is a gift from God, yet it cannot be achieved without human endeavor. Lasting peace flows from the recognition that the world is ultimately not our own, but rather the horizon within which we are invited to participate in God’s love and cooperate in guiding the world and history under his inspiration. We cannot do whatever we please with the world; rather, we are called to conform our choices to the subtle yet nonetheless perceptible laws inscribed by the Creator upon the universe and pattern our actions after the divine goodness that pervades the created realm.
Celebrating Vespers at the Basilica of the Annunciation that evening, Pope Benedict drew upon medieval writers as he reflected upon the mystery of the Incarnation. He then urged the area’s Christians—Israel’s Christian population has dwindled from 7 percent in 1948 to 2 percent today—to remain, comparing their situation to “that of the young Virgin Mary, who led a hidden life in Nazareth, with little by way of worldly wealth or influence.… Have the confidence to be faithful to Christ and to remain here in the land that he sanctified with his own presence! Like Mary, you have a part to play in God’s plan for salvation, by bringing Christ forth into the world, by bearing witness to him and spreading his message of peace and unity.”
As his pilgrimage concluded on May 15, Pope Benedict offered a private Mass in Jerusalem before visiting the Holy Sepulcher and meeting with Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Church leaders. “I pray that the Church in the Holy Land will always draw new strength from its contemplation of the empty tomb of the Savior,” the Pontiff said at the site of the Resurrection. “In that tomb it is called to bury all its anxieties and fears, in order to rise again each day and continue its journey through the streets of Jerusalem, Galilee, and beyond, proclaiming the triumph of Christ’s forgiveness and the promise of new life.”
As he departed for Rome, Pope Benedict again condemned anti-Semitism, recalling the Holocaust, which “must never be forgotten or denied.” He then made a last heartfelt appeal for peace.
No friend of the Israelis and the Palestinians can fail to be saddened by the continuing tension between your two peoples. No friend can fail to weep at the suffering and loss of life that both peoples have endured over the last six decades. Allow me to make this appeal to all the people of these lands: No more bloodshed! No more fighting! No more terrorism! No more war! Instead let us break the vicious circle of violence. Let there be lasting peace based on justice, let there be genuine reconciliation and healing. Let it be universally recognized that the State of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agreed borders. Let it be likewise acknowledged that the Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign independent homeland, to live with dignity and to travel freely. Let the two-state solution become a reality, not remain a dream.
One of the saddest sights for me during my visit to these lands was the wall. As I passed alongside it, I prayed for a future in which the peoples of the Holy Land can live together in peace and harmony without the need for such instruments of security and separation, but rather respecting and trusting one another, and renouncing all forms of violence and aggression.
In his farewell remarks, President Peres condemned terrorism and thanked the Pontiff for condemning anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. “Your Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, words can not really express what we feel. All we can say is a simple thank you. You came in peace, you go in peace, and to you we say Shalom.”
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