Father Thomas D. Williams, LC
The Pope’s Unique Role in the Holy Land
Benedict XVI left Jerusalem for Bethlehem early this morning amidst further carping from the locals; I couldn’t help but raise my heart to God in gratitude for this gentle, German Pope. I realized just how unique his mission is in this faction-torn land of continual squabbles over everything from land to doctrinal minutiae.
The fact is that the Holy Father didn’t come to the Holy Land to play party politics, not even for his own “party.” He didn’t come merely as a representative of the Catholic Church, but truly on behalf of everyone involved, on behalf of humanity itself.
Benedict speaks on behalf of the Jews, praising their religious heritage and defending their right to security and self-rule. He speaks on behalf of Palestinians and their right to sovereignty and freedom. He speaks on behalf of Muslims, calling them to the best of their religious tradition with its deep religious convictions and heartfelt worship of the one God. He speaks for Christians in their difficult status as a tiny, suffering minority of the population. In a word, he speaks to all and for all.
And this is the singularity of the Pope’s voice and message. Paradoxically, amidst all the manipulation of Benedict XVI’s message and all the complaints that he doesn’t side closely enough with any one group, we see the greatness and uniqueness of his presence here. No other leader in the world can speak with the same moral authority or true impartiality. His very refusal to play partisan politics is why his message is so often rejected, and why it is so desperately important.
Meanwhile, one of those raising the biggest stink over the Pope’s supposed lack of remorse for the Shoah is Rabbi Ysrael Meir Lau, chairman of the Yad Vashem memorial. He criticized the Pope’s speech as being “devoid of any compassion, any regret, any pain over the horrible tragedy of the six million victims.” If you happened to see the broadcast, Lau was the fellow off to the Pope’s right looking as if he had recently eaten something particularly disagreeable to his stomach.
It turns out that Rabbi Lau is no stranger to criticism of the papacy. He has also been a tireless disparager of Pope Pius XII, even when this means distorting the truth. During the 1998 Berlin commemorations of the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht — the Nov. 9, 1938, event that sparked the era of Jewish persecutions in Germany — Lau, then chief rabbi of Israel, was invited to speak. During his impassioned address he asked the damning question, “Pius XII, where were you? Why were you silent during the Kristallnacht?” The next day two Italian newspapers ran that title, with the subheading, “The Shameful Silence of Pius XII.” The only problem with this was that Pius XII was not elected until March 1939, four months after Kristallnacht. Yet I haven’t seen Rabbi Lau rushing to express remorse for his defamation of Pope Pius.
On my flight over to Israel I had the chance to re-read Benedict XVI’s candid autobiography “Milestones.” I was struck once again by how his own childhood was viciously interrupted by Hitler’s rise to power, and how so many good German people have been unfairly tarred with a Nazi brush. If Benedict’s critics are to be believed, anyone living in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s is necessarily guilty by association.
Fortunately, some important Jewish voices are beginning to be heard in Jerusalem inviting critics to lay off the Pope. For instance, Noah Frug, the head of the Consortium of Holocaust Survivors’ Organizations in Israel, said the criticism directed at the Pontiff was exaggerated. “He came here to bring the Church and Judaism closer together, and we should consider his visit positive and important,” Frug added.
Today attention has shifted to Bethlehem, the City of David and birthplace of Jesus Christ, but also a part of the Palestinian Territories. On arriving to Bethlehem, Benedict XVI lost no time in expressing his heartfelt solidarity with the suffering Palestinians, and in affirming the Holy See’s position regarding their right to sovereignty. “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.
In theory this should provoke no disagreement, since the official position of the State of Israel coincides with that of the Holy See. Israel, too, affirms the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign homeland, once such an arrangement can be feasibly worked out without detriment to Israel’s security. Of course, there’s the rub.
Here in the Holy Land I have spoken with a number of people of diverse backgrounds and experiences, and the one thing they all seem to have in common is suffering. Each one wanted to tell me of the hardships and injustices endured, either personally or historically. Each had a tale of woe to tell. No one seems to recall ever having committed injustice, but all remember having suffered it. And I cannot help but wonder, in a land of so much pain and grief, a land whose peoples pride themselves on “remembering,” whether on occasion forgetfulness mightn’t be a more needed virtue.
Today in Bethlehem, Benedict XVI urged his Christian hearers to “Be a bridge of dialogue and constructive cooperation in the building of a culture of peace to replace the present stalemate of fear, aggression and frustration.” This is what he himself is striving to be — by his presence, by his words and by his patient resolve to persistently preach the Good News “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2).