Secular Press Is Overlooking Jewels

Legionary of Christ Father Thomas D. Williams, (www.thomasdwilliams.com), an American theologian living in Rome, is providing commentary for CBS News on Benedict XVI’s historic visit to the Holy Land. He will be offering a chronicle of his trip for ZENIT as well. The following is Father Williams’ first posting. * * *

I arrived in Israel on Sunday night, in order to be here for Benedict’s arrival on Monday morning. Israel’s proverbially tight security has been even further beefed up for the Holy Father’s visit, yet despite the ubiquitous police and cameras, we were able to pass through the airport with only minimal delays. Fortunately I hadn’t been in Mexico in the last week, since signs instructed those who had to report to the airport clinic for swine-flu screening.

Jerusalem is only 30 miles from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, so the trip into the city didn’t take more than 45 minutes. My taciturn driver Hezi pointed out occasional landmarks along the way (including his own neighborhood) as we rumbled along the highway in his beaten-up white Subaru, but he became downright jovial when I told him that no, I didn’t mind if he smoked in the car.

When the Holy City of Jerusalem itself appeared on the horizon, rising out of the landscape like a Mediterranean-white version of the Emerald City of Oz, it took my breath away. This is only my second visit to the Holy Land, and there is something about walking where Jesus walked and looking upon the city that he loved so deeply that eludes description.

The city is decked out for the Pope’s visit, with yellow and white papal flags lining the main avenue around the Old City, interspersed with white flags of the State of Israel emblazoned with the blue Star of David. Papal emblems aren’t the only seasonal signs to be seen, of course, and several billboards announce the opening of Ron Howard’s screen version of “Angels and Demons.” Everywhere here the sacred and the profane stand side by side.

Much has happened already on this papal pilgrimage prior to the Pope’s arrival this morning in Israel. He has spent a fruitful three days in the Kingdom of Jordan, where he visited Mount Nebo, whence Moses gazed across the Jordan River to the Promised Land, as well as the Al-Hussein Bin Talal Mosque, where he offered a brilliantly crafted address concerning interreligious and intercultural dialogue.

This brings me to a recurring reflection I’ve been having these days. Many people only get wind of what Pope Benedict says or writes when some phrase or action of his causes an uproar and gets picked up by the secular media. This leads to a very one-sided and unfairly negative vision of what Benedict is up to as Pope. So most everyone knows that a 2006 comment of his in Regensburg, Germany, upset Muslims, and that he lifted the excommunication of four schismatic bishops, one of whom was a Holocaust denier, yet few have read his encyclicals on love and hope, or heard his addresses on St. Paul and the early Church Fathers.

Yesterday Benedict celebrated an outdoor Mass in Amman’s International Stadium where another such jewel escaped the attention of the media. In this predominantly Muslim country Benedict chose to offer an extended reflection on the dignity of women, referring to their “prophetic charism,” and commending them as “bearers of love, teachers of mercy and artisans of peace.”

“By its public witness of respect for women,” Benedict continued, “the Church in the Holy Land can make an important contribution to the advancement of a culture of true humanity and the building of the civilization of love.”

On arriving in Israel this morning Benedict wasted no time in allaying any residual doubts regarding his stance on the Jewish Holocaust. In his very first address, while still at the Tel Aviv airport, the Pope said the following:

“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.”

Benedict clearly doesn’t want a shadow of a doubt to remain regarding his repugnance for anti-Semitism, and he is seeking to quickly slay that dragon before it rears its ugly head. One hopes that his evident goodwill will receive reciprocal goodwill from all those who hear him.

Benedict’s poignant visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial later this afternoon offered further confirmation of his commitment to furthering Jewish-Christian relations, and to offering a united stand in favor of human rights. I spoke with a number of Jews on the street after the meeting and most were pleased with the way things had transpired, though one fellow told me that the Pope should have said that millions of Jews were “murdered” and not “killed.” I honestly have some trouble reaching this level of semantic hair-splittling, but obviously he thought it was important.

So far the Pope has not only avoided problems in his various Holy Land activities, a low-bar goal that some had set for him; he has proactively pursued a much higher road, challenging his hearers to peace, justice, dialogue and mutual respect. Tomorrow expect more of the same.